Susie Coleman - voiceover artist

Susie - Gig economy photo story

I’m Susie Coleman and I work as a voiceover artist. I fell into voiceover work just over ten years ago. It came through a friend that was working for a local e-learning company in Brighton. I did a demo, and then was lucky enough to land the job, which was over 100 hours of recording e-learning content for a client. That was a big job that got me started; other work just naturally happened from that.

I was doing acting before this and lots of theatre tours. But once I had children, it became very difficult because tours could take me away for five months at a time. Although it was lovely, with kids, it wasn't very doable. I had voice lessons at drama school, but not specific ‘voiceover training’ — though I’d say that my years of musical training helped me hear the ‘music’ and intonation of a spoken phrase.

I do probably about 80% of my work from my studio and occasionally go to London or work from studios locally in Brighton if they need ISDN or Source Connect (these are tools to send high-quality audio over phone lines). If it's a company with their own studio, they'd rather you come in and work on it.

The amount of work I have on can vary, as can the rates I’m paid. I probably do anywhere between four and ten jobs a week. One job might be a two-minute voiceover for an animation on a website, another might be some IVRs (Interactive Voice Response) phone messages for a company; or it might be a massive e-learning project that could take hours to record.

Setting up

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I never officially had a voiceover agent. When I first started, I would go to studios and work for various local companies. A few years into it, a fellow actor who was doing voiceovers as well suggested I get set up at home. He mentioned these voice websites to me, and it all lifted off the ground from there. I'm not a very technical person, but my husband is and he taught me how to do very basic recording, editing, cutting out breaths and stuff.

My initial recording set-up was very modest, literally under the duvet. I progressed to having a portable sound booth in the corner of my daughter's room for a couple of years which worked well enough when nobody was around making any noise. About a year ago, I got a walk-in studio set up; I call it my recording Tardis.

When you join online voiceover platforms (called pay-to-play or P2P), you have to create a profile with things like your age range, any specific accents, and how you describe your voice.

Then you pay a yearly subscription fee, and with one of them, I also had to record a demo so that they can check the quality.

I signed up to Voice 123 first, then joined another called a couple of years later. They generate about 50% of my work, or they might give me one job which might lead to other work. For example, I'm still working for two clients now, and that was from one job on Voice 123.

A working day

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Sometimes I could have 12 or 15 auditions a day, but other days there could be none, though usually there're at least a few filtering through. I’ll have a quick glance at what the job is and if I'm free, the quicker I audition, the better. Sometimes I've auditioned quite late on though and still been lucky enough to land the job, if I just happened to fit the bill.

Once I’m in my studio, I'll record the audition and send it off. I don't really think any more of it after that, because I probably get one job out of every ten I audition for (at a guess).

I've been doing work for an HIV e-learning course, working directly for a company in America, and every so often they send me scripts which probably take me four to five hours to record over a couple of days. It can really vary — I can get a job and then have it done in 20 minutes. Or it can take me two days if it's a massive, long script.

There's maybe been one week in the last few months where I've had no work for the whole week. I really enjoyed it because I got to go to yoga a couple of times and went shopping. Sometimes it is stressful, though I am generally lucky enough to have regular work. So if I do have a quieter week I jump at the chance of going to yoga or out for lunch with a friend.

Admin and paperwork tend to build up for a few weeks, until I have a quiet day or I don't have any recording. When I record a job, I put an email in my draft box with something like 'invoice epic for job on 5 June' in the subject line. That reminds me when I have a spare couple of hours to go through those and make the invoices up. Sometimes companies want the invoice straight away. If they don’t, it could take me two or three weeks to get the invoices out if I’m busy.

I do my accounts every year, going through all my bank statements. I wouldn’t consider hiring someone for that, mainly because I am a control freak, and I feel it isn’t really necessary.

I’ve had an accountant for a few years, but when I first started acting, I would do the self-assessment and the whole tax return. I pay an accountant a few hundred a year now but that's tax-deductible, though I still have to do a certain amount of the work.

Technology platforms

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I haven't noticed a dip in work since voice recording technology has become more accessible. I've been lucky enough over the years to do quite a lot of jobs for these sites, and my statistics go up, which means if somebody searches for my type of voice and age range, I come up quite high. And work tends to breed other work or people come back to you. Sometimes people find me through my website, or they just search for voiceovers. I'd love to have more time to do marketing like finding out how to put myself further up on Google search, but I haven't got around to doing it.

Some people say on forums that they won't touch with a barge pole. They used to take a 10% commission but now they’ve upped that to 20%. Also, the lines with licensing fees are a bit blurred. I haven’t recorded anything for TV or radio through, but if I do get offered work where licensing rules apply, this is definitely something I would take up with them before accepting the job.

If the voice recording ever gets used the following year, I’d need to make sure I’m the one getting paid and not I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face and say I'm not going to work for them, because those jobs have led to so many of my regular jobs now.

You also have to watch that they're not undercutting the market. Something came through last week for half an hour of recording (finished audio) which would’ve needed to be broken down into separate files. It could take three to four hours to do, and they were offering something like US$100. That's hours of work for about £50 once you factor in the PayPal fees.

When I get confirmed for a job, I’ll get a message from an agent at saying 'You've been chosen for this job — congratulations. This is the script'. I’ll usually speak with the agent on a chat tool, and they'll say 'Can you fit it into two minutes 30?' or, 'Can you read it really upbeat?' or, 'Can you be down?'. Sometimes clients want to Skype in and listen while I record, which happens a lot, though I prefer just recording on my own and sending it off.

Payment for jobs are held in escrow for however long until the client signs it off. Then will release it, and I'll get paid through PayPal. But even when they've released the funds it takes 28 days to get the money. It is quite a long process. Very occasionally this will cause cash flow problems, but I try to keep on top of invoices being too overdue.

Susie - Gig economy photo story

On Voice 123, it's a lot more independent. A client will contact you through the site and then it's just you working directly with the client. is a much bigger set-up, and they have a middle man. I don’t have a preference for either site, although it probably saves admin time working through Voice 123 for all involved, as it cuts out the middle man.

Here, once I've got the job, I tend to be in direct contact with the client, and I’d send them the files directly. I’ll wait for sign-off from the client, which might happen immediately or might not for three or four weeks because they're putting it to a video, or they don't get straight onto it. Once the client is happy, I’ll get confirmation of that and they'll give me a star rating out of five. They'll usually write a couple of comments about how I was to work with. The system works both ways, so I give feedback on clients, and also a star rating out of five.

I invoice Voice 123 clients directly. I remember only one occasion — it was a tiny job years ago for £50 — that I never got paid for. I did chase it up, but no one got back to me. Out of all the years of work I've done, though, this doesn’t happen very often. Both sites will chase up the money if need be, I think I have only had to ask to do this once.

Pension, holiday and healthcare

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My family and I are very lucky because I inherited some money years ago. We bought a flat in London which we still have and rent out. It generates an income — not enough to live off but it’s something. We see the flat as our pension, but other than that I have no pension plans in place.

As for healthcare, I’ve seen the benefits of something like Bupa but I don’t have anything like that - just reliant on the fantastic NHS.

I've only once lost my voice to the point where I had to put off some work because of laryngitis, and that was a nightmare. My daughter Lois has had it a bit this week; she's lost her voice and I’ve just got a TV advert locked in for next Tuesday. I need to be careful. I've got three kids, and each time I was pregnant, I did get a small amount of self-employed maternity pay for around six to nine months — it was around £120 per week. It was a small amount to keep me going, but to be honest, I didn't really stop working.

When I was in labour with Lois, I was supposed to be recording a TV advert the next day. They are a long-term repeat client that I work directly with; they knew I was due and we pencilled in the recording session knowing we may well have to change it if I went into labour ... they were incredibly understanding and flexible. Gary was driving me to the hospital at 3:00 in the morning, and I was emailing the film company on my phone saying I can't be at the studio at 11:00 because the baby's on its way. Amazingly, they waited for me, and I went in a week later. My mum came and held her in one part of the studio while I recorded, and she was a week old at that point, but I didn't want to lose the gig.

Susie - Gig economy photo story

I remember when Lois was very small, I was doing a big job for a client in America which had started months before she was born. They were often sending me scripts at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, asking if I could get the recording done that day. Of course, they're in a different time zone.

One night I worked right through to get a script finished and I had a brand new baby. It was my choice. Sometimes I think where there's a will, there's a way.

We’re going to Thailand for nearly three weeks in the summer, and I'm already worrying about some of my regular clients. I met a lady on a webinar once who said she would take a complete recording set-up with her whenever she goes anywhere. I wondered whether I should do the same, but my husband said I should have a holiday.

As I’ve always been self-employed, I find it very difficult to switch off from work to go on holiday. I never want to risk losing a great opportunity! I often switch my phone to silent and ignore it in the evening to try and switch off from work.

Fee negotiation and dispute resolution

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When I send off finished work, I’ll email the client and say ‘I hope it's okay but please do shout if not'. Most of the time they'll be happy with it, but sometimes they come back and ask for a different sentence or for me to say out all the words rather than use abbreviation. If they send me something back that's going to take me maybe 15 minutes to do at the most and it's just a slight change, I don’t charge for that because I want to keep them happy.

But if they come back and say 'We've got a whole new script', I’d say, 'Well, obviously this is like doing a whole new job, so we will need to charge you the same fee again'. That happened once with a job through, and that was where it helped to have the middle man to act as my agent. It was a big job, maybe around US$500, and the client wanted to change the whole script. If they'd asked me ten years ago, I probably would’ve just re-recorded the whole thing. But I said I'd charge again and negotiated the fee with them.

I charged less than I did for the first job, but it was still an adequate amount. Sometimes this happens on Voice 123, and I have to negotiate myself. To be honest, 99% of the time, the client is very reasonable about it. If I haven’t recorded something in the way the client has wanted, I am very happy to re-record it for free. But if there has been a massive script change, I will usually negotiate a re-record fee with the client, although the client will often offer this up without me having to ask.

P2P sites will normally set a budget for jobs. A lot of the jobs will be between US$100 and US$250, and they’re usually one or two minutes — maybe for a website, a phone recording or a corporate presentation.

Susie - Gig economy photo story

With TV adverts, I'd get a one-year buy-out and a studio fee every time I go in to do edits or new dates or new offers that they are running. For all the instructional videos that I do for Vax and Argos, ever since I started working for them, they said 20p per word which is good money, and it's always stayed at that. Sometimes I've used that as a guideline if I've been asked to do other instructional videos for other companies. It is very difficult because sometimes I think I should probably charge £150 for that job, and then they say they've only got £100 in the budget. But if I think I'd like to work for this company or potentially more work's going to come from it, I’ll consider it, as long as I don't feel like I’m being taken the mickey out of. If it's way too low or I'm too busy, I say no - but usually I find a way.

Quoting for jobs would be one of the bits that I don't like. But you learn as you go. Often I'll speak to friends for advice on fees and licensing.

Occasionally, jobs come up that I don't think the voice sites should have posted because it'll be half an hour of finished recording for US$100. But you might only see four or five auditions on those because I think most artists know they're trying it on. I'm on a forum called British Voiceovers on Facebook. It's a brilliant site because sometimes people will say, ‘I've got this job, and it's this many words, and it's going to be broadcast here' and they'll ask for advice on the going rate.

Skills and job security

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I’m signed up to an online voiceover education membership called Gravy for the Brain. I don't use them nearly as much as I was planning to, partly because I’ve been busy with work. They offer mentoring and lots of learning courses. I pay £29 a month, which sounds a lot but it's all tax-deductible. It means I can go for free on these webinars where I've picked up so much information. Often the webinars, if they're connected with America, are at half past three which is my worst time when all the kids are home. So there’ve been times when I'm trying to listen to a webinar while feeding the kids snacks and putting the telly on. Through those things you also hear about networking events.

Once or twice a year the voiceover network and some of these big voiceover sites do a social get-together. I've never been to one but I'd like to do one in London just because you meet other people - it’s quite solitary work.

When it comes to developing other skills, I sing in a choir as a hobby and I keep planning to get back into playing the piano, but again this is usually a case of lack of time!

Sometimes I do get worried about job security, and sometimes my husband worries about it too. But I’ve always lived like this and never known any different. When I talk to friends who've had regular jobs and get holiday pay and sick pay and maternity leave, there are moments when I think, ‘that would be nice’, but I like the freedom of self-employment. I've always somehow managed to keep a roof over my head and feed ourselves and pay the bills. I feel very lucky and blessed with my work, though I'm aware it could all dry up next week.

Just yesterday I was thinking about the sustainability of my work. Will I suddenly hit an age where my voice isn't ‘sellable’ anymore? How much will it change in the next ten years? The industry has changed a lot from how it was, just speaking to voiceover artists that have been doing it longer than me. It all used to be through agents and with phenomenally high fees. And I think it still can change - companies will pay a lot to get famous voices behind their product, but now it's a lot more accessible to people. I have no idea how much it will change; I guess it will just get easier and easier and you'll be able to record while you're walking down to the shops.

There's probably a lot more work out there, which if I dedicated a few weeks to marketing myself or to finding out more about other sites, that I could put myself on. But it feels manageable at the moment. In some ways I feel fortunate that it’s just my voice. With acting, getting older can perhaps have a negative impact on your work, and I guess you have to shift your casting range and abilities as you age, but this isn’t so much the case when you are just using your voice! There are no aesthetics, just sound to contend with!

Work/life balance

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There is a really good balance in my life; I feel very satisfied and fortunate. I love my work. Sometimes I miss working within a theatre company where you're constantly working with people. Sometimes I get 'studio-itis', because I've been shut up in there for four hours, but I've got people that I can call and meet for a coffee for half an hour. Every so often, I can feel a bit overwhelmed, say if I have three or four jobs coming in on one day and I’ve said I'll help on a school trip. Anything else that I'm trying to do outside of my work, I slightly worry when it's something sociable, thinking ‘What if a big job comes in that day?’ But friends are very understanding — a lot of them work in this area. I'm so used to that kind of last minute work, but if three or four jobs fall on one day and they need it that day, I get that slight panic.

I try to record as jobs come in, rather than saving it until the following week. So it sometimes does impact on weekends or evenings.

That’s something I'm constantly working on, trying to keep that balance and saying, ‘No, I'm not going to work tonight; I'm not going to reply to emails’. But it's letting myself do that, then not feeling overwhelmed by waking up to 30 emails and scripts and recording. Some days I feel so wired I won't sleep at night because I'm worrying about how much I've got to get done. And that's when I try to go to yoga to reset.

Before I moved to the studio space from being in the house, I got very stressed because I'd be cooking the kids tea, running up to do a quick edit on something, trying to get it out of the way for the evening. But it was unfair on them. So I feel much better now, even though the studio is two seconds walk from the house; it's fantastic.

A day off means a yoga class or meeting a friend for lunch or pottering around the lanes. But often it will be doing invoices. I had a lovely day off with Gary recently. It was sunny, I had no recording work, and we cycled down to the seafront and had lunch out then cycled back. We were only out for three hours but that was really lovely. It's important — with three kids, it's a busy life at home so you have to remember to work on your marriage and your relationships, remembering to spend time together.

But it's easier said than done. I know a lot of friends take their mobiles to bed. I've really tried to switch off and not do that. It’s difficult because work does come in in the evening. It does feel a bit like my world is ruled by technology, but then technology enables me to earn money, so it's a blessing. But every so often it's nice to switch off from it.

Photography and research conducted by Curtis James, Fieldwork, on behalf of the CIPD