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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Hutton

Don't hire a lyre

In a tree full of lyrebirds, where is the skylark?

I’ll come to that in a minute.

I have been re-evaluating of my business in recent months. I make my living as a voice artist, actor and occasional video director. Having trained at a well known and prestigious drama school in the 80s, I was given a good start. Lucky enough to get an agent straight away and to have my career underway by my early twenties. After ten years of acting I was taken on by a voice agent. At that time voice artists were a select bunch and the work was plentiful and very well paid. The agents were the gatekeepers to the industry and the talent pool was small. The law of supply and demand worked well for those lucky ( and mostly talented) enough to be on the right side of the fence. I spent the late nineties and early noughties as a regular character in a British soap. That uplift in my profile boosted my voice work and left me feeling pretty confident. Even if I was just getting booked so that a client could get some some soap gossip. When my soap stint ended I took the plunge and invested in my own good quality home studio. With a very young family it felt like the ideal move. A way to work from home, be a present dad, and to be my own boss too. And for the next 10 years my studio at home set up worked very well. A digital revolution was taking place, which, at first, I thought was amazing. Having a fondness for old school left wing rhetoric, I felt that we might be seeing the end of the traditional bourgeoisie and that a new class of worker would emerge. Workers who also “owned the means of production” ( computer and audio equipment in my case), A professional studio was a suddenly affordable, and it felt very exciting. My shiny Macs and digital audio interfaces were my own satanic mills. I also learned new skills, becoming good at digital audio editing and processing. Not only could I voice jobs, I could also record them and deliver to clients with very little work for them to do in their own edit. In 2005 I took my family and studio to a very beautiful village in Tuscany and pumped out radio ads and corporate narrations from there. Working in short bursts, I could set my own rates for most work and simply hand the big ticket TV and radio advertising jobs to my agent. They could be the bad guy. Having someone working on your behalf is a great great thing. The term “gig economy” was yet to be invented and I was yet to twig that the new satanic mills would in fact be the search engines and online platforms and that my small one man with a microphone business would be destined to stay small and face increasing competition. My competition in the marketplace would increase ten fold and in ten years and my ability to negotiate my own rates would reduce exponentially. I really didn’t see that coming.

Reality hit sometime around 2017. My income was going down. I was working harder for far less. And I have had to figure out what to do about it. Was I going to be like a Lakota Ghost Dancer and hope that some divine intervention would take place ? Could I stop a financial bullet through the power of prayer ?

Of course not. So I’ve had to have a think. And here is my work-in -progress chain of thoughts:

.My social media skills need improving.

Check: I’m posting this aren’t I !?

I’m on LinkedIn. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. I’ve joined and actively participate in forums.

My client base needs widening.

Check: I have three agents and my own fairly long client list. There is always room for another client of course, and so have to get better at marketing.

I should be using my experience to give something back to the VO community.

Check: I was recently elected to the audio committee within my union. I keep abreast of trends, the state of the industry, copyright law, am doing my bit to keep my fellow VOs informed of developments and to seek fair terms and conditions for all.

So far so good, right ?

Well yes and no. What prompted this post was the realisation that while, yes, it’s important to get the social media side of my business right ,it doesn’t change the fact that I have only one USP. One thing that I can sell - and that is my voice and my ability as a voice artist. That’s what defines and confines me. It’s all I’ve got. No amount of web marketing and sharp elbowing is going to be worth a jot, if I don’t actually provide a service worth buying.

So a reality check then:

There are young hip things who are going to do websites and social media better than me. I’ll try. But I don’t think I’ll be able to shout louder or better than they do.

There are young hip folk who are cheaper than me. Some of them are very good. Luckily I don’t compete vocally with 25 year olds now. My competition is gnarlier. We have mortgages and kids to pay for, so have to charge at a rate that keeps the bills paid. And the guys who I compete with, having survived for so long, are really, really good. The creme de la creme of our business.

How do I out do them? Can I out do them?

Should I want to outdo them ?

I have realised that in terms of web marketing I CAN’T OUTDO MY COMPETITION - no matter how much I try. I can however make a case for my skills.

And that brings me back to the question in the title of this post:

In a tree full of lyrebirds, where is the skylark?

It’s a question that clients ask all the time.

Clients want authenticity. They want a unique voice selling their unique product or service. After all the expense of making a film, the months of pouring over a campaign and strategising , the huge cost of buying media space, the last thing that they want is for it all to be rendered dull and lifeless by a generic voice over. For the cherry on the top to have been synthesised in a lab and stuffed full of e numbers. When they book a voice to represent them to millions, it had better be right. And unique. They don’t want a lyrebird, they want a skylark.

The mushrooming of gig economy voice talent entering the market in recent years has been driven by two factors. The rise of Pay to Play talent websites. A voice over no longer needs an agent. And the ever decreasing cost of setting up a home studio with broadband connectivity. Anybody who wants try their hand at voice over, can - even if it’s on a part time basis. The choice for clients is now boggling. One leading P2P job site has over 65000 paying voice talents listed. If I find that overwhelming, how must clients feel when they post a job and get 200 auditions back within 4 hours ? I would contend that clients need less choice, for their own sanity, not more.

When I trained as an actor, we were all lyrebirds to start off with. We wanted to emulate the greats. The Oliviers, the Pacinos, the DeNiros, the Judi Denches, the Cary Grants. So we looked at what they did and tried to mimic them. Young musicians do it too. They have their heroes and want to play like them. But, the hard fact is that it takes years to develop your own voice and style and there are no short cuts to getting to that point. Hundreds of small mistakes, failures, not quite good enough mess ups ( depending on your standards) are what put you on the path to having an authentic voice. God knows I’m not proud of some of my past work. In my acting career, drama school was a great place to fall on my backside. Luckily no one had to pay for the privilege of seeing me do so. A lot is made of the 10,000 hour rule. It’s a good rule. There is no substitute for putting in the hours when you want to improve.

I was a lyrebird too at first with voice overs. I taught myself how to do it by literally jamming my ear up against the TV in ad breaks and mouthing along. Sure I got gigs, but a lot of the early ones were me doing an impression of other voice overs.

I am an actor first and foremost and like to think that I can turn my vocal skills to most disciplines. I approach each read as though I was acting. Even a corporate narration. For me, there has to be a little character there who is talking to the audience. Even for something as dry as a medical read, I might imagine that I’m a doctor delivering some ground breaking news at a conference to a rapt audience or a doctor sitting quietly at a bed side reassuring a patient that a new treatment will transform their lives and give them hope. For an upmarket car ad, I might imagine that I’m a really suave CEO, with a PhD in engineering, delivering his edict from a lair deep beneath his chateau in St Moritz. Sounds a little pretentious perhaps, but I have to do this way. I am not selling me, I’m not mimicking someone else, I’m delivering my client’s message and thinking of that in terms of character checks my own ego at the door and clears the way to try and think my way into the client’s head. A good brief helps too of course !

So, ultimately, what I’ve got to offer is my voice combined with my imagination - and that’s pretty much it. Social media helps me to introduce myself to clients. These two elements of my business are separate. My website is not my product.

All businesses need a pitch, a proposition.

And my proposition is simply that my experience counts. I have learned from my past mis - takes (gerrit ? ) and that’s good news for my new clients. Voice overs happen fast. Advertisers need good, versatile, personable, engaging and flexible from the talent they employ. And above all they need authentic.

So as a potential new client I’d suggest that you don’t book a lyre bird. Listen for a voice that has a quality which chimes with your values. In a cynical, over stimulated age, your customers will detect falsehood in a nano second and will tune out.

(You’ve been kind enough to read my little story. I’ll happily tell yours, in my own voice, as truthfully and with as much integrity as I can)

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