Zambia's lovely Chilu Lemba tells his story and gives advice on how to get started in voice-overs in South Africa - with networking, quality demos and a good agent
TVO: Welcome to Talking Voice-Overs ! We're going to be talking to Chilu Lemba today - voice-over, TV presenter, musician extraordinaire, and other things.
CL: At the end of the day I think the most important role is just, you know, father of two !
TVO: Speaking of children, when you were a kid did you imagine that this is who you would be ?
CL: Not at all I think when you're young, especially if you're a guy, there's that phase where before your voice breaks when you’ve got a high-pitched squeaky voice - nothing gives you a clue that you could be doing this kind of thing, so no I had no idea that I'd be into voiceover… I didn't even know what voiceover was up until I was maybe 17 or 18. Before that you know, if I think about it now, we used to watch stuff like - remember the A-Team used to start with a voiceover at the beginning, or Knight Rider ! and we'd see TV ads, but you'd never connect that it's a potential career, or you'd never even think about the fact that one earns money from those things, because at the moment you’re just caught up in the fun of it…So no I had no idea ! Yeah, I had no clue whatsoever.
TVO: So then how did it happen ?
CL: Wow well for me it happened after I discovered that it could be a thing… It started out for me when I was working at a radio station in Zambia called Radio Phoenix back in 1996 and our boss, the owner of the station, the late Mr Errol, he was a voiceover artist himself in fact ! When I was a kid there'd be ads on TV and his voice was so recognizable he'd do stuff for like Eagle Travel which was a travel agency which I think he had sharesin, you know… So when it was time at the radio station for the station to start producing commercials – it started off kind of like a community station - but when it was time for it to go commercial and do commercials and provide that service for clients Mr Hickey brought a few of us into the studio to gauge whether we could perform and so that's the first time that I recall doing a voiceover per se, and yeah the first money that I earned from doing this kind of thing was in 1996. Yeah it was big money at the time I realized that when I did a voice over for corporate clients ! So I think I was the voice for example for the Zambian privatization campaign, which was a big thing. Then, two voice-overs were the equivalent of my salary being a radio presenter so I thought, whoa this is where I need to be ! And yeah, I've been doing voiceovers since ! Big campaigns, small campaigns… But that was the genesis of the journey I suppose.
TVO: Did you branch from voice over into doing other things or was it the other way around ? Obviously your radio took you into voice overs, but then you branched out as well ?
CL: I did and back then when I started out in ‘96 you had to do a bunch of things in order for you to get a good living, so there were three things I think that I was doing back then. It was emceeing events; doing voiceovers; and then being a radio presenter. And when I started out the most lucrative at some point was being MC for events. The voiceover thing was kind of second, and then as the years progressed, particularly when I came to South Africa, I initially came to study advertising at the AAA School of Advertising, but then from about the year 2000 onwards, voice over has kind of been the thing that makes the most money out of the various things that I do. Music, being an author, emceeing or whatever it is, being a TV presenter… Voiceover just trumps all those things. So yeah, when it started out it was just those three things, but as the years have progressed at different points in life, you know, at some point I'll do TV presenting or a lot of music or whatever, but consistently voiceover if there was a graph it would be like, you know, and then flat line at the top, and then the other stuff would be kind of, you know, at the bottom.
TVO: And you also did a conference for the radio industry in Zambia ?
CL: Yes, so the Lusaka Radio Summit - it’s now called the Zanako Lusaka Radio Summit because it's a sponsored event - so it's an annual conference we started in 2009. That's when the idea hatched in my mind, and it became an annual conference. So last year we had to do a virtual one because of the pandemic but prior to that, I mean it was one of those where you're kind of fulfilled, because you have people flying in from outside the country to be a part of this… Some speakers coming in from South Africa, Botswana, exhibitors coming in from Italy and Germany… And it was growing ! it was having a good growth even the network, in terms of the presenters who were attending and the radio stations that were partnering with and the main sponsor - it's become a pretty solid event. And just a pity with a pandemic where things are uncertain you know… We've done the first virtual one, we're having discussions, brainstorming sessions, to see whether that's the way to go because obviously we thought that by 2021 the pandemic might be in the rear view, but that is not the case… So we're still figuring out whether we do another virtual one. Virtual conferences weirdly enough are more work than the physical ones because you have to fill more - you know, some of the sessions make sure that the stream is up and running consistently at a good quality… There's so much to consider with virtual events ! Having a platform on which the event sits… Last year we used one called Hoover which is a US-based app, and you pay a bunch of money to get on there… So yeah, it was a learning curve. So 2021 we're still unsure as to whether it will be a virtual one. I've seen at some conferences, what they've done is they've just pushed their conferences to the end of the year I'm sure thinking that you know by that time the vaccine would have rolled out and people even in small numbers would be able to gather in places… But yeah at the moment it's all up in the air !
TVO: At least having it virtual, it's more eco-friendly, good for the climate at the moment !
CL: I see you !
TVO: That brings me to networking… You have got so many contacts - would you say that networking is an important thing to do in a voice-over career ?
CL: If I think about the kind of work that I do today, most of it is repeat clients - it's rare that I get somebody new knocking on the door, it's people that I've been working with in and out over the past 20 odd years. And I think it's important, because what happens is, once you do a good job, word of mouth spreads fast, and so a lot of the clients that I get up until now are people saying, okay this kind of job needs Chilu… At the end of the day you cultivate a number of people from that network and you work nicely with them. Sometimes you even know what their expectations are, so if I get work from director X, I kind of know what his style is, his work ethic, and his expectation, so I know how to work with that. Versus somebody else who comes in with a different kind of mindset, and you have to be able to figure out how to tackle that. So yeah, I think networking is important. At the moment I'd still say we're different in terms of the way we network to the way that the guys do it in the US. In the US, there's a bit of - I wouldn't say aggression, but you know - you go into forums and you interact with people who are in our industry but in the US, and they talk about stuff like sending your clients Christmas cards, and sending them a message asking whether they need a new job done, that kind of thing… I don't do that ! I kind of let stuff unfold organically, because sometimes it might come off a bit pushy… But that might also be our personality on this end of the world versus on that end of the world… I'm not too sure…
TVO: Yeah also our post office doesn't work quite as well…
CL: [Laughter] Good point !
TVO: Do you still have to audition then for any jobs or do they just land at your doorstep ?
CL: Mostly I do not audition. It's very rare that somebody will send a script and say please audition for this job, but it does happen. I'm not saying it doesn't happen at all. So I do audition for I'd say, maybe ten percent of the stuff that I do… There’s obviously international websites like Bodalgo and Voices.com, and if that's what you want to pursue, then you will be auditioning every day… And I think that's kind of how it happens overseas - people audition then get the job. But on my side, it's, people listen to the demo on the website or on Soundcloud or whatever, and then they know what the expectation is, and they send you the script. So nine times out of ten, I'm just getting stuff done, I'm not auditioning.
TVO: Yeah so in fact the platforms can be used as a way of finding clients to begin with and then once you've got a regular base of clients you can then stop auditioning.
CL: If you're just starting out I think so. The other thing that we probably need to touch on is agents, because in South Africa I think that's more or less the formula. You get your audition or demo tape, and get it to an agent, and the agent goes out to seek work for you, and then if somebody says “We're looking for a voice that sounds dark for a movie trailer, or We need a voice that sounds chirpy for a sports promo”, then they send options to whoever the client is, and then the client says, “Okay we'll pick voice B”, and then your agent gets in touch with you, and says “Okay, be in studio such and such to record”… That's kind of how the flow works in SA. There are very few people who work outside of that system who get booked directly and very few who are able to get booked directly and do it successfully. And more often than not, what I see is guys going on to these platforms to audition, and then get the jobs. Some pay-to-play sites, like we said, I think Voice123, Mandy.com, Fiverr, and all those. Yeah so I think that's kind of how it works there, but here, if one was getting into the industry, I think first thing to do, is try and get an agent to represent you because they know what the briefs are that are coming in, they know how to build relationships - they're good at chasing up money when you're owed etc., so I think if you're starting-out, first thing is try and get with an agent, send them demos, try and get on their books.
TVO: I hear that quite a lot… but then, will agents actually book newbies ? Don't you need experience to get with an agent ?
CL: They do ! I think it's the quality of your demo which determines a lot. I know a lot of people who've been absolutely new to the industry, but have approached an agent, and the agent has heard the potential, because at the end of the day, what the agent wants to do is to make money and if you've got a voice, even if you're a diamond in the rough, but they know that potentially they can make money with you (not off you but with you) then they will do whatever they can, whatever is in their power, to sign you on and push so that you get the jobs, and then they get the commission off it. So I think agents sometimes are treated like they're a very mysterious bunch of people but if you think about it and distil it to what it really is, they're business people who need to make money. And you know, people who have experience are not here forever - you know, some of us are getting grey ! When I started out doing voice-over, it was like, “We need a young hip sounding guy” then after many years, like “We need a fatherly sounding voice” ! I'm eliminated from those youngish voiceovers ! So there's a gap that's just been created recently, you know… And so I think voiceover agents will be looking out for new talent to fill in positions and to make money with.
TVO: What advice would you give to a new talent, if not go for an agent?
CL: So I'd say, try voicebank.co.za, get your voice on there, but I'd still say if you've got a good demo that you put on Voicebank, go to thepma.co.za, look at the list of agents there, and try and send your demo. Maybe phone them and explain who you are. One of the tricks that I remember somebody saying was - call the agent and say “Hi I'm so and so, and I think my voice sounds kind of like artist Y who you guys represent, but maybe a bit sharper ?” Or, “Would you mind you know, listening to my voice ? Maybe giving me feedback and perhaps signing me on ?” You know you have to be clever with the way you do things. A lot of people - and this is not just with voiceover - but a lot of people will just blind-send a CV or a demo without doing their homework about who they're sending it to… So you know, you'll have a radio presenter who will do a music demo and then blanket-send it to stations, among them even talk-stations, among them stations that might not fit in with them, so all I'm saying is do your homework before you send out your demo. And then once you're confident that you've done your homework, once you're confident that your demo sounds stellar, then send it through. My advice is don't send demos which you recorded as voice notes, because I don't believe in recording directly onto your phone. I think it doesn't capture the presence or the timbre of your voice. You need to, if you're serious, invest in getting to a studio and paying to get your demo done, so that you put your best foot forward.
TVO: Would you recommend getting coaching first before anything else ?
CL: That's a tough one because I never technically got coached, but what I think is when you start the journey, you’re already per se getting coached with each session. In South Africa I know very few coaches who would do their thing, you know - you reach out to them and then say “Can you coach me for X amount ?” That's very prevalent in the US you've got guys like J Michael Collins and a lot of people who will go on a journey with you. Pay them a bunch of money and they go on that journey with you. I think if you were doing your demo, you're likely to be doing your demo at a studio that has produced real ads, so for example if you do your demo at a studio that ordinarily produces commercials, that one session where you're doing your demo you're getting your first bit of coaching from the sound engineer, or whoever is in the studio with you, and then by all means, practice on your own. But once you're in an actual session the director will guide you as to how he wants to read, and so if you hit the ground running in that way, then you will get nuggets of wisdom spoken into your ear throughout your voiceover journey. So I wouldn't worry too much if I cannot find a coach. I think the thing is to get your foot in the door, and then there's also a lot of material online now, unlike when we started out. There's a bunch of stuff on YouTube, and recently -I'm not sure if you're on Clubhouse right now, it's in beta-phase - if you've got an iPhone and you get an invitation you go on, but there are a lot of voiceover groups on there where you can go on and listen to these people talk for hours on voiceover, and these people are spread all over the world in different rooms, so I'm getting a lot of feedback and information from there, regarding equipment mostly, not necessarily technique but I'm sure if you're on platforms like that or even Facebook groups you can ask questions and people with more experience can respond to you.
TVO: Is that only for iPhones, or what is it exactly ?
CL: The way to explain it is, it's almost like you log on to a platform with thousands of zoom sessions happening at the same time, but without video, and without text. When you go on you follow whoever it is and the subjects that you're interested in - so like, I'm interested in voice-over podcasting, (I'm supposed to be interested in fitness you know so if I was interested in that like really really interested I'd put those as my interests) Then it puts up recommendations, and every time there is a moderator that starts a room to deal with a certain topic, if you follow that moderator then it'll show you the notification will pop up and then you log in, and you'll see a bunch of photos or profile pictures of different people, and the moderator will be controlling the room - but then you're in there, and you listen to all these experts talking about stuff. Sometimes it might not be experts it might be just like a casual conversation. And then if you've got a question you press a button, which is like you raising your hand, and then they pull you up onto what they call the stage, and then you ask your question and the people answering are like Hollywood producers who are in on the platform, you know. So it's still in beta-phase but there's so much information ! A few friends of mine do radio-imaging as producers, so I do radio imaging for, at the moment, Primedia – like “This is Eye Witness News” - that's radio-imaging. So then the producers who do the actual production behind those kind of things, they also have their conversations in different rooms. I found myself in one the other day, and I asked a few questions from the voiceover side of imaging, but the rest of the conversation was so technical that I was completely lost… Then because I know Lindsay Johnson, who's based in Cape Town and Linda Manganye, who's based here in Joburg, I sent them a message and told them, “You guys should be on Clubhouse and check out that room!” So last time I saw the feed I saw that Lindsay was in one of those. He took the advice. So there are a bunch of very meaningful conversations that are happening on Clubhouse and if you are able to get on, even if it means you find an old little iPhone for now which will allow you to go on the platform… I think it'll be Android compatible at some point but I'm not sure when. So yeah I'd say get onto Clubhouse.
TVO: It sounds like it's a bit of a cross between an actual chat room and a radio show ?
CL: Kind of yeah ! And the thing is that anyone can raise their hand and ask a question, so that's what's intriguing about it - it's fascinating. You should check it out, I think you'd enjoy it.
TVO: Will do, yeah, will do ! So earlier you mentioned radio imaging… What is your favourite genre of voiceover to do ?
CL: Man there's so many ! So the genre that I do the most of, is corporate narration. Just before this chat I was editing stuff for an online awards company, which has citations, so “In Category 6 the nominees for blah blah” and then you know you mention like four minutes worth of names, or some with hardcore pronunciation ! So I get voice notes to let me know how to do the voice… So I do a lot of those corporate narration. Even though that's the thing that I do the most, it isn't really my favourite, because I think of my attention span and sometimes it's just long… You just see pages and pages and pages… That's not really me, but yeah corporate stuff… Audiobooks is probably the least favourite thing. I've done a couple but because of how long those reads are, they’re not really my favourite. But what is my favourite, probably sports promos ! Because they're short and sharp and their mood with each one, you know, so if you're doing like a biker racing thing, “The thrill of blah blah blah” It's almost like a trailer but I enjoy those. What else, animation I suppose, but no because the industry in SA isn't really there yet… I think there's one studio in Cape Town that does animation but it's not a real thing here. If you're holding out in your career and thinking, I'm going to do one at one point in my life, you're going to wait for a while… The opportunities for doing those are more in the US. The production houses would do stuff, for example for Disney and whatnot, but there's so many people who are vying for those spots and I think you have to kind of get into that mindset where one wants the accent… It's almost like villains sound the same - you know from the 50s - up until now, and you've got those quirky characters… So if you're in that market, maybe that's something you could pursue seriously, but here in South Africa, those opportunities don't pop up much at this point. Now I'm 45 I'm not really seeking them out you know, but if one happens… I do explainer videos which are very different - you know “Meet Ted. Ted took a bus to town. Etc…” And they've got an animated character doing his thing… I do those but they don't really count ! They're fun though. They're not characters, but they're animations…
TVO: If you could talk to that kid, that 20-year-old, what would you say to him ?
CL: What's funny is the 20-year-old me was kind of very similar to the 45-year-old me at 21 ! I was the acting station manager of the radio station that I spoke about, so it's been busy and hectic even from there… What I would tell young Chilu is don't be anxious to get to where you need to go. Take your time. I always used to marvel at guys who would say in January, “I'm releasing my next album in March next year” And I'd say, why so long, because with me, it's like I'm releasing my album - okay I've made the decision, now four weeks from now it should be out. And I was that guy, but sometimes, slow boil, a slow brew is better than a mad rush, and so I'd suggest that people just take it easy. Step back, look at the big picture regarding life, you know, and savour the journey. Don't just sprint, if that makes any sense. Maybe that's an abstract explanation, but I think that's what I'd tell the young me. Don't try to eat everything at the same time. Just make it last.
TVO: And then where to from here ? What are your plans for the future ?
CL: Well baby steps. I'm taking everything slowly as per the advice previously ! I'm carrying on doing voice because that keeps me busy - I mean straight after this chat we have three pending sessions that I'm doing from here… but long story short, lots of voice overs. Potentially some new music we've recorded, which has yet to see the light of day. And then back to our podcast. We used to do a podcast called Key Africans Unlocked, back in 2000 and then we've been on a long hiatus, so we have a meeting today talking about how we're going to revive it, so maybe March or so there should be some episodes out. We'll see, depends on what'll happen in the meeting today. So stuff like that.
TVO: Yeah it's super interesting, I love your podcast !
CL: Oh thank you, thank you !
TVO: Then there'll be a sequel to the book ?
CL: You see I was avoiding that… the pressure every other week… How do I make the sequel ? Because the first one ends when I get on the plane coming to Joburg so it's a coming-of-age story which ends in 1999… And I'm not the first guy to do it… So I've had some people say why did you end the book in ‘99 ? and there are many reasons for that so I don't want the sequel to just be a follow-up… Like, now I'm on the ground in SA, and then… Because then that will be boring. So I need to find a creative angle which still touches on the various journeys and various stories that have happened since ‘99 - but not in a chronological way as I did the first one. So I'm not too sure yet. When I do start writing the new one I'll let you know. There is pressure, I get that question pretty often unfortunately.
TVO: And where can people reach you and find your podcasts and your books and your music ?
CL: So on all social media if you want to find me, I'm there with the handle @chilulemba. The podcast will be on Spotify that's where we're targeting for it to be. Old episodes on keyafricans.com and then if you want to get the book it's on audible.com, it's on Apple Books, it's available as a Kindle book. I'm told Exclusive Books have run out so it might be a question of reprints, I'm not too sure. And yeah, if you just Google me… It sounds so… “Google me”… But yeah you will find the information you're looking for ! And if you're on Clubhouse, catch me there too.
TVO: Well thank you Chilu, it was super interesting speaking with you ! I hope our audience have got lots of information from you there. Thank you so much Chilu !
CL: Thank you, have a good day ! Salute to everyone watching !
Chilu's book "Finding my voice": https://www.exclusivebooks.co.za/product/9780620842143
Chilu's podcast: https://keyafricans.com
Join the Facebook group: Mzansi Voice-Over People https://www.facebook.com/groups/mzansivoiceoverpeople
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