Lightbulb against a dark wall with various white chalk sketches and doodles on it.

Pour yourself a cup of ambition

Every year on A-level results day Jeremy Clarkson tweets something like “Don’t worry if your a-level results are a bit disappointing. I got a C and 2 Us and look at me now.” To which the world replies, “What? A grumpy unpopular curmudgeon who once got sacked for punching a man who tried to offer you a sandwich?” This blog isn’t about that.

What this blog is about is the strings of events that has lead us all to a position where a cash-strapped society hurtles towards recession, mortgages rise even faster than sea levels and many people with ‘proper jobs’ are going on strike to try to get a few more crumbs from the billionaire’s tables, whilst we hold down ‘careers’ that offer no job security, we’re offered ever-diminishing rates of pay and a robot-wielded Sword of Damocles hangs over our entire industry. If we had any sense about us at all we’d all be re-training in cyber, but instead of that, we persist in our endeavours like Sisyphus’s commitment to his rock.

But far from being bleak tales of caution to be talked about by school career officers and parents  (“Look what happens if you don’t study!”), we take our position with pride, knowing that we’ve got to where we are the long way, and there’s nowhere we’d rather be. There are those members of our community who knew exactly what they wanted to be and started voicing/producing at a young and tender age. But for many of us, our route to voiceover land has been slow and circuitous.

For my own part, I didn’t get a job in the industry until I was 28. I left school without a clue about what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to university because I didn’t see the point in studying something for 3 years to then abandon it entirely as I got a job in a totally different field. I spent a decade working a minimum wage catering jobs because I didn’t see the point in forging a career in a field I didn’t care about. So when I had the opportunity to study sound engineering I had nothing to lose. Making ends meet on such a low income was a struggle, but that’s how I chose to do things.

With hindsight, I can maybe see clues that I’d make a career in sound.

I remember being fascinated by the Blue Peter episode where Simon Groom goes to Mike Oldfield’s studio to help record a new Blue Peter theme tune. And I remember announcing with all the confidence that a 9-year-old-know-nothing possesses to my parents that an old warehouse building on the A59 near Flaxby (now demolished) “Would make a great recording studio”. Music was always a passion, and I discovered that I enjoyed the reproduction of it – both live and in the studio – as much as playing.

Making a career out of sound is a dream come true, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

And I’ve had similar conversations with many other VOs, as well as many other people working in creative industries – (“I used to be a mortgage advisor, but the smell of the grease paint kept drawing me…”). We’re where we are because nothing else satisfies. We’re where we are because we are creative people and we need to create. It’s true that most people don’t understand what we do or why we do it. I think it was Robert Palmer who said that his parents didn’t stop asking him when he was going to get a proper job until the day they came to visit him and saw his swimming pool. Most of us will never see that level of financial success, but we have hard-earned our place in the sun and we should feel proud of what we’ve achieved.

When I first went self-employed I’d enjoyed 20 years of PAYE wage earning beforehand. There was something quite hunter-gather-y about my new venture. I knew that every penny I earned I had earned. If financial success is what we were after we’d all have taken a very different path. But success can be defined in many different ways, and although financial stability is a solid goal it’s not at the forefront of most ‘vocation’ type workers. I remember meeting an old school friend of mine in a nightclub just before I went to college to train to be a sound engineer. This was 8 years after leaving school. I was on minimum wage and he was in a fairly well paid job. We both hated our jobs, but he was trapped by his salary – he couldn’t afford to retrain. I could, and I did. I’ve not seen him since, but I do wonder 28 years later if he got out of that profession, if he’s happy and what metrics he uses to measure ‘success’.

I think during lockdown people got an insight (albeit quickly forgotten) into how much society relies on creatives like us. Theatres and music venues all closed, but the TV industry changed the way it works to continue to create. And people stuck at home became even more reliant on the work of creatives to keep them entertained.

Since those heady days, we’ve seen the UK government attempting to sell off Channel 4, threatening the BBC and cutting the English National Opera’s funding by 100%. But we know that is it in our artistic endeavour that humanity needs to prove our humanity. That it is our arts that will keep people smiling through the promised recession. That however difficult the coming year(s) may be, we’ll carry on doing what we do in whatever capacity we can. Because this is where we need to be. This is who we are.

Where am I going with all this? Bloody good question.

Nowhere really. This is just a sort of encouragement that if things look bleak (which I think they will in the next few months) there are plenty of other people who are clinging on the same as you are, who understand what you’re going through, who know what compels you to keep at it rather than stacking shelves in Asda (nothing against shelf stackers – another key set of workers from those heady pandemic days. But the lure of a steady wage… ), and who share that secret knowledge with you – that we all belong to an industry with the best community in the world.

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