In our 'Lunchworks' event, voice-over artist Emma Clarke came along to talk about her work and the art of diversification. Videos and transcriptions of the event are now available to view here.
So I was going to talk to you today about how my work is evolved throughout my career, and how the challenges of technology have sort of thrust me into changing the way I work, and my methodology as well, and then the challenges offered by the recession.
I thought I’d just begin, because people always say, ‘You’re a voiceover, how did you get into that?’ and it’s a bizarre job and I never really knew that it even existed before I sort of started doing it. I started off doing loads of stuff for the BBC, quite high brow stuff, poetry and prose reading and drama, light entertainment stuff. And my dad saw an article in our local paper, Sale and Altrincham messenger, for all those from Sale, you know that rag, about a local business that produces commercials for radio and TV and stuff. He said, ‘Go along! See if there’s a commercial equivalent to what you did at the BBC’. So I went along, did a voice test, I was shocking. Absolutely terrible. Because when you’re recording commercials, the way you have to speak – nobody human actually talks like that. So they kind of said go away and practice, and I did eagerly for two years, listening to commercial radio, transcribing the commercials, and then practising. And then I went back and did another voice test and fortunately this time, thank God, it went okay, and then I started getting work in.
The other thing I just want to say, just to get it out of the way really, is the ‘Mind the Gap’ thing. People always say, ‘How’d you get that job?’ Well, London Underground is split into three different companies, and one of the companies that handles a big chunk of their lines wanted a new voice. So they asked a production company in London to help sort a voice. So they got three blokes and three women to test, so I recorded some test announcements and they took it dead seriously – they sent it out to focus groups. The process took eighteen months, and they code-named each prospective voice, and the code-name they gave my voice was Marilyn. So then they leaked a story to The Evening Standard saying that consumers, commuters, had chosen the voice of Marilyn Monroe for the underground, and then they got me. So that’s how I got it.
You may be aware that there was some controversy around the whole ‘Mind the Gap’ issue based on me being hideously decontextualised and misquoted by The Mail on Sunday. They alleged that I said I hate London Underground and never use it, and avoid it at all costs. I sort of did say those words, but not in that order. What I said was, I don’t use the London Underground because I live in Manchester. Bit of a commute! But when I do go to London, for me the thought of being trapped in a tube carriage listening to my voice and full of people saying, ‘Oh I wish she’d shut up!’ For me, would just be a living hell, and that would be awful. But they didn’t print that, oh no, oh no. So that story went global. I was on the ten o’clock news, everything. There was a point when the story broke and it just went mental. I’d taken my daughter to school that morning, and then by three o’clock that afternoon I’d done two packages. Recorded them with the TV, I couldn’t believe it. And it went all over the world. The phone was going mental, I had Jonty Bloom on hold. It was the most surreal experience, and I woke up about three o’clock, two days after the story broke, ’cause it was still going mental because it was sort of rippling like a butterfly effect around the globe, and I thought I’m having a psychotic narcissistic moment, it cannot surely be happening. So that’s basically the background to that in case anybody was wondering.
So I wanted to start off, really, by saying how I work. In the days when I first started voicing, it was very different to how it is now. You had to actually travel to a radio station and you were given scripts by the producer and you’d wade through a whole pack of scripts, and then you’d go. So it might mean that you’d start off the day in Liverpool at Radio City, drive there, do your thing, and then you might have to be in Viking in Hull on the other side of the country by two o’clock, and then you have to be at Hallam FM in Sheffield. So there was a lot of miles clocked up. It was great because I got to actually see other human beings, which was great because now it’s totally changed.
Over the course of the past, gosh, fifteen years? I think about how long I’ve been doing it, I think ‘Oh god’. ISDN bloomed really, across the industry, and that’s a very sophisticated digital technology, it’s the broadcast equivalent of a telephone line, basically. Now what that meant was that I wasn’t in my car all the time going to the Pennines, or down South, and I could actually just stay in a studio and talk in real time, more or less given a half a second delay, to producers all over the country, record my stuff, and go on to the next one. So what that meant was that suddenly instead of spending four hours a day in my car at least, I had an extra four hours availability to be working, which was fantastic. It opened up a lot more opportunities, and of course because it’s a remote digital recording medium, it meant that I could start working with people all over the world, which is what started to happen. And I remember the first session I did with somebody in Italy, it was like, ‘They’re in Italy! I can hear them!’ It was really bizarre.
But with that came technological challenges ’cause I had to learn how to use my box, because I’d been reliant on producers, if that’s a word, producers doing all the techie stuff for me. And so now, because I have my own little studio, I’ve had to kind of become a technical boffin and to really learn how to mend my own PC as well. I’ve since changed to a Mac, but that’s another story. But then ISDN kind of took over, and that became the way we do business. Simon here is one of my customers, and we work together in that way all the time. We go back a long way. But the other technological change that has happened that has again opened up the market is mp3 and wav technology, and that’s really down to broadband. Now I can get a script emailed across from a client in India and I can record it. They don’t have to have ISDN, I can just record it straight onto my computer, save it as an mp3 or a wav, and I send it off to them. And so the lead time in turnover of work has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk because I can be emailed a script, record it, and it’s back there within fifteen minutes if I’m available. Now that brings its own challenges because what that means is that clients’ perception is that the lead time has gone pop like that, so the pressure to turn things over really fast has increased as well, which brings its own creative challenges to the script writing process, really.
So that is how it’s evolved from being on the road to doing ISDN, to doing mp3’s as well. Now of course, I can do all of them, I can see them face to face, do ISDN sessions and record stuff on my computer, so there’s a whole range of different ways to do business now. When I’m doing mp3 stuff, obviously for the most part, the client isn’t there, so for me to deliver a quality product to the customer, I have to make sure that I’m giving them enough options, so that I’m almost over delivering really and giving them too much choice sometimes. But that’s how it is, when you’re working remotely away from people, you need to know what they’re after, what kind of approach. So there’s a lot of issues around pronunciations of place names as well, which can be tricky, that’s the big problem. But with Skype, I can hook up with a customer overseas, my Dutch has improved no end! So I can find out how to say words that I otherwise wouldn’t have a clue how to say them.
Now, the recession has brought challenges to my industry. Radio, you may know, has gone through various changes and still continues to change and evolve. But for me as a voiceover, the biggest change really is in the scripts because clients are packing more and more stuff into scripts and that isn’t necessarily a good thing because what I’m finding is that scripts are overwritten, I’m having to squeeze it into thirty seconds because most ads are generally thirty seconds. They do them in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, even a minute, or sometimes longer, very rarely though. But there’s more and more stuff getting packed in, and the creative led-sell doesn’t really have a presence anymore in radio because clients are holding the chips, you know, and it’s all about keeping them happy. So I record scripts that me, the producer, the copywriter knows is not right for this client, but that’s what they want, and because they’re paying the bill, that’s what they get, and it’s really a shame because I’ve seen how we’ve regressed in the industry. The style of stuff that I’m voicing now is the kind of tenor of commercial that I was recording thirteen, fifteen, even longer, years ago, and it’s really gone back. I mean, when you listen to the style of radio commercials as well, and television commercials, the style of delivery has changed over the years, and that’s another key area where I’ve had to adapt. Because one of the best things you can do as a voice is listen. To yourself, to other commercials, to the direction that the producer’s given you, and if you’ve got a good producer then you can rely on him to steer you in the right way.
When I first started, the style of voice was all like this, and now that sounds proper cheesy, now, it sounds old fashioned. Now the style is to almost, certainly before the recession, was to undersell and to almost sound bored. I mean, as many times a producer has said to me, ‘Can you read it like you’re bored?’ which is bizarre, but if they want it on a minor note and perfectly tuned to radio stations, a lot of station imaging stuff, that’s the voice that tells you which station you’re listening to. It’s all on a minor note like that, and they never smile. It’s really changed over the years and the style of station branding has changed over the years. When I first started doing station branding years ago, one of the first stations I did was for Virgin and their style was monolithic, it was big, it was epic, and the producer just kept saying, ‘Can you voice it like a bloke?’ and that was the style, it was a big ballsy read and now it’s kind of very soft and undulating, it’s less, there’s more conversation. It’s more like a television read is being acceptable on radio. But the challenge to that is this issue I was saying about the recession, having more and more words being packed into a commercial which is not the best thing for anybody really. For the listener, for the producer or for the advertisers. So it’s tricky as a voice because I have to kind of please all those people, but you have to sort of bear in mind what the customer wants at the end of the day.
The other thing I wanted to say was about how the different styles of voice that I’m asked to do. I do stuff for all different types of products, for radio commercials, for TV commercials, animation, loads of corporate stuff, loads of e-learning, smart phone apps is another huge area of development and that’s an area that I’m getting into myself, I’ve devised a smartphone app which is actually due for release next week, which I’m dead excited about because it’s a whole new fresh creative ballgame for me. It’s incorporating voice, but it’s not just voice, it’s other stuff too, and I’m loving doing that. And again, a lot of these extra areas of diversification have been brought about by improved technology, and improved broadband speeds. So what I’ve had to do and what the whole industry has had to do is keep an eye on the opportunities presented by changing technology and it’s exciting, it really is exciting. We’re in a transitional period at the moment I think, I mean the radio industry is shifting about like you wouldn’t believe, but I do believe that you know, local radio commercials will always remain somewhere, somehow. But these extra revenue streams are becoming available and it’s exciting really to start thinking ahead to new ways of creating security from our business. That said though, there are challenges in this recession, real challenges, and my accountant came this week to do my quarter end and what we noticed when we were looking at the figures is that my net profit growth or more or less the same that it was last year, it’s pretty flat, whereas my turnover has increased. What that means is that I’m working harder for less money, because prices are being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.
So it’s really, I can’t say this enough, it’s really important for businesses to communicate with other people in their sector, and agree baseline minimum charges because otherwise we’re just going to find that we’re in business for no real, good reason and it’s really important that people collaborate. And this is where for me as a voice, equity is so important, because each year we agree a rate card for the scripts that we do for independent local radio and it’s so important that we do that, and it’s so important for other sectors to not necessarily unionise but certainly agree a consensus as to how you’re going to charge because otherwise, it’s all just going to get squeezed. You know, I’ve been asked to do jobs at prices that I was quoting fifteen years ago and it’s the same across the industry. It’s really important that everybody sticks together and doesn’t start competing aggressively on price, because otherwise that’s going to be the end of it really.
The other thing I just wanted to say quickly before we get some questions, is that this is my normal voice now, here. I was born and raised in Sale. But nobody really wants my normal voice, almost never, for radio commercials, unless it’s for chlamydia awareness ads, alcohol abuse informercials, or things about domestic violence. And it’s absolutely true because a northern voice is deemed by radio world, advertising world, as conveying some sort of gritty down to earth honesty, and a sense of social degradation and personal shame. So you’ll never hear me using this voice for my work, I’ve doggedly hung on to my own actual voice, you know, a lot of my colleagues have kind of sold out, let’s say, and become received pronunciation in their everyday lives, and for me that would be awful, because that’s not my identity. So yeah, you will have heard me, but not like this, and that’s really what I wanted to say.
Do you get involved in the development of scripts?
No, I have to be really clear on that, that that is not my job, and the temptation. That’s what I mean, it must be tempting when you see that they’re not quite right, and they’re all cramming everything in. I can’t get involved, that’s beyond my remit, I’m just a hired gob. Sometimes for foreign clients, they send me stuff that is written in questionable English, and really needs a good translator on it, and when I get the script through and it’s shocking, I’ll have the conversation with the customer and say, ‘Do you really want me to say that?’ This is honestly what I had to say once, ‘When it comes to chocolate, we like it brown’. Honestly, I had to say that. What can you say, don’t do it, no! So I really have to be strict and say, if you do, we have to agree a creative input fee, but really that’s beyond my care.
Can you tell us about your relationship with the producer?
The relationship with the producer is really important because your producer is largely your customer in the world that I inhabit, really. Of course, copywriters do cast scripts and of course ad agencies do cast scripts, but really in the independent local radio market, the producer is the person who decides who’s going to voice which commercials. And if you get a really good relationship with the producer, you know exactly what he’s going to want because he trusts you, she trusts you, whoever. They’ll know the style of music more often than not which is going behind you, which dictates the style of delivery that you’ve got to use. He’ll have, if he’s had time which isn’t always the case, he’ll have checked on the pronunciations and how they want the phone number read, and how you’re going to say this acronym, and all those things. And also he will, say it’s a really hideously overwritten script, and it’s reading at a pacy thirty six, and you’ve got to get it into thirty seconds. He will record you at probably thirty one, maybe thirty two if you can bear it, and then he’ll help you digitally by squeezing you and chopping the breaths out. But there are a lot of producers who aren’t confident in their skills ’cause they’re very new to the job, or they’re doing three other people’s jobs which is again another kind of thing that’s happening a lot in radio, it’s a real consequence of the recession. And if they haven’t got the confidence to do that, then frankly, I’m risking an embolism in the middle of a script to get it in time. So the relationship with the producer is really crucial, you have to trust each other and you have to know what they’re going to want.
Are there any jobs that you would turn down?
Yes, very good question, yes I do turn down stuff. I turned down, you know these hideous automated unsolicited call things that you get, pick up the phone, ‘Hello, my name is Claire, are you in debt?’ I absolutely point blank refuse to do those. I refuse to do porn, I’ve been asked to. I’ve been asked to do lots of porn phone lines, and dubbing! Dubbing for porn films! Really bizarre. I had a phone call once, I had a phone call once from some bloke, phoned me up. You just know, you just know from the get go. ‘Do you do phone lines?’ So I said, ‘It depends what it’s for?’ He said, ‘It’s a medical advice line’, so I said, ‘Oh right! What kind of medical advice, diabetes perhaps, pregnancy, I don’t know.’ He said, there was a pause, he said, ‘Anal sex’. So I don’t do that. I also don’t do any psychic lines or anything like that, anything that’s, or competitions, you know, scam competitions, I don’t do anything like that. I do get asked to do it, but I’m quite stringent really. So you feel confident that you’ll get the work that you want and are able to turn down the things that you don’t want to do, that would give you financial reward but that you’re not interested in. I couldn’t live with myself, to be honest, if I did something like that. I just think it’s bad karma for me. And fortunately I’m busy enough that I can afford to turn down the kind of work that I would be less proud of.
Do you work with an agency or does your work come direct?
Both. I have a London agent that handles the bigger London agency, Soho based stuff, but for the majority of work it comes through word of mouth, producers do talk to each other a lot, I mean in the radio industry in particular is such a small industry, isn’t it? I mean everybody knows everybody else, everybody’s slept with everybody else, everybody’s worked with everybody else, it’s quite an incestuous business, people shift and move around from station to station. So really, your reputation is everything in the radio business, so a lot of it’s word of mouth. My website plays a huge part in marketing, and that’s certainly true of corporate clients, and again another kind of manifestation of the increase in technology is that the middle man’s been cut out, so direct customer will come to me and want me to record something specifically for them without the production company being involved. The software is so user friendly that they can make it themselves, so the skill set isn’t as huge as it once was, for some projects. Often people underquote based on my quote, it happens all the time, and there are so many people who think, ‘Oh, being a voiceover’s easy, you just sit in front of a mic and you just talk, I can do that.’ But there’s a whole skill set involved in voicing, and frankly they can’t. You pay a premium for people who are experienced, and that’s really how it should be. It’s how it should be, but that’s not how I’m finding it. It’s tough, but I really do feel that I can’t charge, like, mega bucks, but I have to charge really strictly, because otherwise everything’s just going to crumble. But fortunately the work that I’m getting in is of such a volume that I can kind of live with people that say, ‘Oh, I’ll get it done for £50 then.’ Fine.
But the people who were saying £50, I mean I suppose the thing is about from what I see that Emma’s done, having been to her house and sat in her studio, I mean she’s built a whole studio in her house. She’s kept up with the technology, haven’t you, and she’s got a whole work room associated with that so she can do it on the computer and send it round the world, but I suppose the other thing is, I mean the actual voice is in one sense a small part of it because as I understand it, people are coming in all the time, so you’re responding to people round the world on an hourly basis, so it’s very difficult to plan because people want things really quickly, so it’s not just that Emma can do the voice, it’s that she can deliver it in the format that people want, in the time they want, you know, so it’s a whole raft of things and that’s what you’re paying for, and that’s why somebody doing it for £50, you know, on their phone or whatever, is not going to be the same. That’s the first thing I was going to do, that! You pay for experience and that’s true, so somebody saying, yeah I can do that for £50, it wouldn’t be as good as that. I think there are an awful lot of creative industries where that has happened, where the idea of experience and knowing what you’re doing has been whipped away because of the fact that everybody can go, ooh I can do that. Yeah exactly. Being part of equity, it does help.
What do you enjoy most about your job? What’s your biggest challenge?
I think the thing I enjoy most about my job is the banter with the producers, because if I didn’t have that, my life would be quite soulless, because I’d be just in my studio all the time just reading stuff. Yeah it is, because I work from home, you know, I mean I do share my studio with a male voice as well, which is great ’cause I’ve got company. But it’s really nice to kind of have somebody to chat to, and some of the sessions I do with the producers I work with on ISDN, it’s like a sort of support group! (INAUDIBLE) You should get some webcams going on. Oh god no. I think the biggest challenge is, there are various, at the moment it’s, gosh which one is the greatest challenge, there are many. I think the greatest challenge is maintaining a sense of self belief in a time of recession and that will enable you then to charge the money that you feel you deserve, and to fight harder for the money that you feel you deserve. Also the technological challenges, you know, it’s moving fast, so keeping ahead of that and knowing how to mend your PC when it breaks, which is why I’ve got a Mac, but keeping ahead of those kind of things. But also I think the biggest challenge for my line of work is the social isolation, actually, because I’m there in my little studio, in my converted lavatory, it is actually a converted lavatory, talking to people all over the world that I’ve never, I mean I’ve just met Simon for the first time today. Well no, it’s actually the second time, but the last time you saw me I had more curly hair. Was that you? So yeah, that is a challenge because I think it’s really important that people that work in isolation, people that work from home, they work by themselves and just rely on technology to deliver their product, don’t lose touch with people that they do business with, and even people in their community, otherwise you can just become, like I have become rather socially autistic.
Have you got any tips for anybody that sees massive change in their industry caused by technology?
Talk to your mates, talk to the people in your sector, build relationships, then you’re sharing the problems between you. I mean, that’s what the voiceover community does, we do talk to each other, and we do ask producers for help as well. So it’s communication, really, that is a big part of the key to dealing with those challenges.
Can you talk about new markets where you can see your industry going?
I think increasingly there are actually more opportunities, because of the available products that I can put my voice to. Podcasts, web audio, as I said e-learning stuff, loads of stuff for smartphone apps. All these things are emerging and it’s allowing people like me to diversify, so I’m not just doing radio ads and TV ads, there are other products that I can do as well. Telephony’s a huge area as well. I do a bit of French now and again, if they’re desperate.
In the new markets do your clients understand the process you go through?
Again that’s a big part of the communication with me and my customer that I always have to educate them in a kind of subtle way so they don’t feel like I’m leading them by the hand and spoon feeding them, because that would just be awful. So a lot of it is showing them how it works and how I can best deliver the voice product that they want. A lot of it is, and I’m sure if you work in creative industries you’ll empathise with this, a lot of it is the client doesn’t often know what they want, and the producer, more often than not if he’s new, she’s new, and it’s a new product, is terrified of doing it wrong and doesn’t really have a clear idea of how they want it to turn out. So a lot of it is having the experience and knowledge to give them as many permutations as they could possibly, too much really, over-deliver, and I think that’s the key as well to building relationships with producers, certainly with the new ones. A lot of them just want you to get on and get off the line and head on to the next one, but for the new guys, giving them more than they actually need gives them confidence, so that’s another big part of it.
Apart from ‘Mind the Gap’ is there anything else we can recognise you from?
Loads of stuff. God, where do I start? Yeah, I do Virgin stuff, I do, on TV I’m about to have some SES commercials come out for sofas, selling sofas. I do lots of station branding, so you’ll hear me on Real Radio, Smooth FM, and Classic FM I do a lot of stuff for. But you’ll hear me, I mean I do loads and loads of different local radio commercials so you’ll hear me on an ad for a Mitsubishi dealership in Wolverhampton, and you’ll hear me on a telephony thing for a hairdresser in Stoke, so I do lots and lots of different little projects.
Have you done any really annoying jobs?
You have? What was it? I did, you know ‘We buy any car dot com’? I’m sorry. It was a tricky job actually, because it was filmed, it was over-dubbing on this TV ad, and they’d filmed this Norwegian actress who was playing keepy-uppy with a football, and I had to over-dub her in English while she was doing, so I had to match her lips, lip-synching, but she was talking in Norwegian, so her accent, you could see it from her voice, and I had to match, this is really weird, so yeah.
What did it sound like?
I think everyone wants to hear you do this! It was basically, the newsreader was this Norwegian bird, and somebody bounced a football on the desk, did you see it? And then she suddenly leapt out from behind the news desk and started playing keepy uppy, with a load of other people who were playing keepy uppy, and then she said ‘We buy any car dot com’!
Do you look after your voice and is it insured?
My voice is insured to broadcast standard, my eyes are insured because if I can’t read my script I’m stuffed, and my hearing’s insured because if I can’t hear myself, equally I’m stuffed, so those three areas are. But in terms of looking after it, there isn’t often on a working day, a lot of time, because every fifteen minutes I have a session with a different client whether it’s ISDN or mp3, sometimes it’s half an hour, sometimes it’s an hour, but every fifteen minutes I’m talking to somebody else, so I could have just finished a whole load of scripts, I could have just recorded fourteen ads, and then I’m straight to the next one and have to be fresh as a daisy and sight reading perfect and knowing all the pronunciations and putting the punctuation in. You really have to be on top of it. So I do drink honey and lemon. If I’m really desperate, I drink Sanderson’s throat specific which tastes like goat’s piss, frankly, don’t ask me how I know that, but it really works.
Have you ever had a voice coach?
Listening to source material, and again the Internet helps with that because I can just Google something on YouTube and listen to an accent, and then it’s kind of locked. Sometimes clients want a very specific accent, like a North East Hull accent, and they’re really specific and sometimes you just have to say, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter that much as long as we’re in the right area we’re alright’, but yeah I do.
With your busy schedule, what tools do you use to keep organised?
I use my Mac with iCal on it, and I use my diary, my diary is everything and everything’s colour coded so I know if it’s a client session, if the male voice that I work with, Rich Sweetman, if it’s his session, if I’ve got a meeting with somebody then it’s a different colour. A lot of it is relying on the diary, and relying on email. I mean, it is a problem actually because I’m in the studio so much, it’s very difficult to find time to run my business. It’s really tricky because I’m so busy delivering the product that I have to work quite hard to kind of maintain an overview. In terms of the help that I have, I have an assistant that helps me with invoicing, I have a credit controller, I have somebody that deals with all the purchases that I do, and my accountant comes in every quarter to do the VAT, so I’ve set it up that way so that I’m focused solely on creating revenue for the business and doing what I’m best at, because I am not the best creator of spreadsheets.
Could you talk about your other talents?
I love broadcasting because anything can happen, and it’s talking to people, and it’s reacting to whatever’s happening as well, really really enjoy that part of my work. I’ve started doing some stand-up as well, which is a whole new ballgame, which I’m really loving. But I write as well, I write comedy and drama and I’ve started writing fiction too. So there’s a lot to manage, and a lot of it’s down to managing my time really, it’s tricky ’cause I’ve got two kids as well.
Did you say you had a theatre company?
I used to have, yeah, I used to have. I started it and I was seventeen when I started it. What was wrong with me? And I stopped doing that when I was twenty three, and it was a theatre company, it was great actually, it was a theatre company that specialised in business training for businesses and services, so we did lots of stuff with local authorities and hospitals and the police, and we did loads of stuff for private businesses, IBM, National Provincial, BUPA, we did loads of stuff in customer care courses or managing change or telephone techniques or management skills. And then for the public sector stuff we did some fantastic stuff with anti aggression and violence in housing offices and finance offices, planning enforcement officers was a great one as well because people always wanted to hit them. Librarians bizarrely need a lot of anti irrational violence training ’cause people just wander into the library when they’re smacked up. For the hospitals we did some really good work on complaints handling, and for the special care baby unit department at Bradford NHS Trust. We did a whole load of stuff for them on giving parents bad news, which was – I couldn’t do it now ’cause I’ve got kids, couldn’t do it now, but that was a really good project to work on. We worked with St. Ann’s Hospice as well, on caring for people who are dying in their families. So in effect we were dramatists, we would take the brief from the training manager, from the HR manager, and we’d just bring it to life, create a script around it, perform it, and then we’d interact with the delegates we’d improvised scripts from so we could test out our skills and maybe do some case studies, so that was what the theatre company did.