To Demo or Not to Demo. That Is the Question.

Mar 02, 2021

I’m probably going to get some grief for this. So be it.

I mean no disrespect to my esteemed, wise, and talented colleagues, and I don’t mean to suggest they are entirely wrong. I’m just not a fan of all-or-nothing thinking, and the often touted advice “DON’T EVER USE DEMOS THAT AREN’T PROFESSIONALLY MADE and DON’T GET A DEMO UNTIL YOU ARE 100% READY BECAUSE YOU ONLY GET ONE SHOT TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION” is not a one-size-fits-all answer for those who are new to the profession or are taking an unconventional path. It’s a conundrum, and a bit of the chicken or the egg, isn’t it? You can’t enter the market without some kind of demo, and (according to conventional wisdom) you shouldn’t make a demo without just the right amount of experience. What ought a beginner do?  

When seeking representation for the first time, or any time really, I agree. We only get one shot to make a first impression. But there’s a whole lot of career that can happen before we seek representation (if we ever do) and we must have a means of presenting ourselves as we begin our careers and seek our first work – whether by way of pay-to-play sites, LinkedIn, or other platforms. Many of us cut our teeth this way and we need something that represents us if we are to secure auditions in order to get good enough to make our first professional demo.

The world of voiceover is very different now than when I began 35 or so years ago. The market wasn’t saturated with talent and was localized in cities with major advertising agencies and in the entertainment capitals of Hollywood, Chicago, and New York City.  There was no internet (if you can imagine,) no pay to play sites, and no one had home studios - except for the two or three truly elite among us. We went to casting houses or to our agent’s office to audition, and agency audition reels (recorded on reel to reel) were delivered by messenger across town, or across country by way of a then industry changing new mail service called Federal Express. The only career path, as I and many of my era took it, was through on-camera commercial acting or broadcast radio. Perhaps we’d take a class, then make a demo, and submit to agents. If you were good enough, you got signed and were on your way. That was pretty much it.

Voiceover in the 21st century is the Wild, Wild West. There are few (if any) rules and a gazillion new sheriffs in town. There are so many avenues by which to find work, some that don’t even include representation. There is no traditional path anymore.

Adding to the upended landscape of days gone by, advice for someone beginning a voiceover career today is different than advice for someone who’s been at it for 10 years, which is different than advice for someone who’s been at it for 25. There is no “right path” except the unique one before you.

One of my favorite quotes is from tennis great Arthur Ashe, and it goes like this:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

To illustrate, I have a coaching client who is a true beginner with a lot of potential. She is not ready to make a full-fledged, professional commercial demo. But she is ready to test the waters of V123 and the like, and start auditioning. If conventional wisdom says she should not make a demo yet, how then should she proceed? She’s got excellent gear and her studio sounds great. To my mind, she needs practice in the real world. I suggested she record one or two short pieces of copy, find some good royalty-free music, and put together one or two separate samples - one commercial and one longer form. This will give her the rudimentary tools with which to begin building her presence and begin receiving auditions.

From here she can begin to take advantage of the algorithms of pay-to-play sites (for a great course on this, check out Optimizing Your Experience on V123) and begin receiving auditions. With every audition, and over time, she will acclimate to the rhythm and turnaround speed of submitting in a timely fashion. Auditioning will provide the practice necessary to get herself up to snuff to compete in the marketplace. She should, at this point, have no expectation of booking quickly or booking at all, frankly. The goal is simply to get in the rhythm of auditioning because (as I said in a previous post) the audition really IS the job. When she is ready – to be determined by her coaches in combination with her own sensibilities and the state of her pocketbook – she will invest in a commercial demo and thereby invest more deeply into her career. And she will do so confidently and with clarity about her capabilities.

If you are at this beginning stage of your career, keep in mind no one is ever really fully prepared to begin. You just have to:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Go ahead and flail. Get some things wrong. Mess up. And learn from it all. Ultimately, you must take a risk. Leap, and the net will appear – as The Artist’s Way encourages. You will likely suck compared to people who’ve been at it awhile. That’s okay. You’re allowed to be a beginner. You’re allowed to make mistakes. And you’re allowed to be rough around the edges. You’re not staying there. As long as you continue to engage, you’re going to grow. You’re going to change. And you’re going to get better. As long as you know how to tread water (and maybe dog paddle) you can throw yourself into the deep end of the pool and make your way across the water to the edge, where you can catch your breath, evaluate your experience, and put it to use for the next time you dive in. It may feel unsettling or even downright terrifying, but only with risk taking and practice will you hone your skills. And to really learn the ropes, you must hone your skills in the marketplace.

As you get better and as you begin to book, you will also begin to consider your need for professional demos, and you will be far more prepared to spend the money necessary to obtain a quality, competitive product. One. Demo. At. A. Time. Resist the temptation to try and snap the infrastructure of your career into existence all at once with a cursory flip of your fingers. Remember, you are building your career, and you’re in it for the long haul.

If you’re beginning and are not ready to make a demo but are wanting to cut your teeth out in the real world, consider doing what I’ve mentioned here. Make one or two simple, individual samples of what you can do, and put up a profile on V123 or another P2P site that allows beginners. At this stage, professional coaching is your best friend, as is presence and participation in voiceover community groups on sites like Facebook. There is a lot to learn along the way, and you should avail yourself of the knowledge of others. Avail yourself carefully, however. There’s a lot of bad advice out there. Sift through it long enough and you’ll begin to notice patterns of rational thought, including who pedals what and who are the working, trustworthy professionals. Follow them.

I’m certain every professional in the business will agree that whether you are creating individual work samples or creating a full-blown professional demo, your recordings must be of professional, broadcast quality. There is no such thing as entry level equipment. Bad sound quality is never acceptable and, at every level, will get your auditions immediately tossed into the proverbial circular file.

If you need help figuring out quality gear options, I suggest you subscribe to The VOBS podcast with George Whittam and Dan Leonard. These are two great, friendly, and humorous guys with several lifetimes worth of knowledge and experience about home studios and recording gear at every price level.

Obviously, this is not the definitive guide to figuring out the whys and wherefores of making a first demo, but I hope it shakes you out of the paralysis we experience when staring down the myriad of career decisions in front of us. I’ve said it once. I’ve said it twice. And with love I’m going to say it a third and final time:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Then, keep moving forward. One of these days you’ll know it’s time for a shiny, new, professionally made demo. And you’ll be ready.

Until then,

Trust and Be Brave.


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