Take one good look. Let’s start with your online shopping.
Who’s responsible for most reviews on Amazon.com?
Experts? Consumer advocates? Independent test laboratories?
Who just gave your favorite movie two stars on Netflix? Roger Ebert?
What kind of people put the “reality” in reality TV?
Where would talent shows like “American Idol,” “The X Factor” and “The Voice” be without…
Credentials are so yesterday. Experience is optional. If it breathes and has half a brain, any Nobody can be Somebody.
On the web, pretenders pose as pros, and social proof trumps scientific evidence. Now, that’s what I call progress, ladies and gentlemen!
A few years ago, British-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen wrote “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.”
In it, Keen describes how he holds the participatory Web 2.0 responsible for at least two things:
1. Making it almost impossible to find high quality material amidst mediocre user-generated web content;
2. destroying profitable professionalism.
Take Wikipedia, which relies heavily on volunteer editors and contributors. Wikipedia gets more traffic than the online edition of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, written by experts and scholars. Keen writes:
“Every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for a professionally researched and edited encyclopedia such as Britannica.”
But why would that necessarily be a bad thing (apart from putting encyclopedians out of business)?
The ever-evolving world wide web is all about user participation. Since the dawn of the egalitarian Internet, experts have had to leave their ivory towers. Information has become democratic: for the masses, by the masses.
We’re now living in the age of the Citizen Reporter, the self-styled critic and open source software. Anyone can share anything, no matter how profound or pathetic. How liberating is that?
Think about it.
In this 24/7 global, unfiltered data dump, there are very few knowledgeable gatekeepers to separate fact from fiction. Any amateur can claim to be an expert, and no one is going to stop them until they are found out.
Case in point:
THE ESSJAY CONTROVERSY
In 2007, a Wikipedia contributor using the name Essjay, had edited thousands of articles. He once was one of the few people given the authority to arbitrate disputes between writers.
According to his user profile, Essjay was a tenured professor of religion at a private university with expertise in canon law. But in reality, Essjay turned out to be a 24-year-old impostor named Ryan Jordan, who attended a number of colleges in Kentucky and lived outside Louisville.
“People have gone through his edits and found places where he was basically cashing in on his fake credentials to bolster his arguments,” said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator, after Jordan admitted that he had fooled everyone.
Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam called the Essjay affair an illustration of the problems of “crowdsourcing” and the “wisdom of crowds,” saying that the crowd accepts authority unquestioningly. Beam:
“Who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or … Essjay?”
Andrew Keen was even stronger in his criticism. He said the whole affair was just one example of people ignoring expert guidance in favor of what he called the “dictatorship of idiots.” In this new “idiocracy,” amateurs rule and professionals are no longer cool.
Thank goodness that’s not the case in my profession: the wonderful world of voice-over acting!
Or is it?
THE DIFFERENCE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Before I go on, let’s just define the territory, shall we?
To me, an amateur is a hobbyist, knowledgeable or otherwise, someone who does not make a living from his or her field of interest, a layperson, lacking credentials.
According to the same dictionary, a professional is someone engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career; a skilled practitioner, an expert.
It’s no secret that each year, hundreds -if not thousands- of hopeful amateurs attempt to break into the business, by presenting themselves as voice-over professionals. It’s never been easier, and I’m not going to belittle anyone for trying.
However, if you present yourself as a pro, you have to leave your amateur attitude behind. In order to compete with the best, you have to hold yourself to the highest standards of professionalism. If you’re not ready, don’t enter the market. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
Now, some of you might say: “I’d rather hire an enthusiastic, talented amateur than a burnt-out, uninspired pro. There’s an abundance of fresh talent at the online voice casting sites and they deserve a chance. Everybody’s got to start somewhere, right?”
Well, let’s see how that works out.
A colleague with years and years of experience, gave me permission to share the following with you:
I’m trying to establish a new voiceover service targeting a specific niche.
I listened to hundreds of demos on Pay to Plays, and I was appalled at the reads (Radio DJ Syndrome) and by the Audio Quality Disorder (AQD).
While clicking through the demos, it was like… ”no, no, no,no,no,no,no,no, maybe, no,no,no,no, yes. no,no,no,no,no…” Maybe .005% of the people were worthy.
Ultimately, I found about 10 voiceover “professionals” on voices.com and voice123, and from various vo groups.
I contacted the people and explained my project. They all agreed to be involved. I needed some demos to get started. I sent them scripts with pronunciations and asked for demos as .wav files. (The 10 scripts consisted of only two or three sentences each!)
I received their demos of my scripts. The audio was shockingly bad.
Here’s what I heard:
Plosives all over the place; lip sounds; miscellaneous noises; “fff” and ”whoosh” breathing sounds; pops; distortion; headphone feedback. Additionally, there was a high pitch whine/buzz throughout the entire recording of one person’s demo.
In one case, I heard a kind of crackling noise that I knew could be due to a bad hard drive.
I sent samples of the people’s audio to Dan Lenard, the Home Studio Master. He confirmed my claims and he said he’s heard worse! (He said the noise that I thought was a bad hard disk was probably a broken microphone.)
One person ignored the phonetic pronunciations I provided. A few ignored the audio file-type specification. A couple people sent me .wav files not compressed as .zip files. One person sent me a .wav file that did not contain any audio!
One person told me he would be part of the project. In that email, he said he’d been having email troubles, and that’s the last I’ve heard from him! I tried contacting him through one of the p2p sites. I’ve had no response following his first email that stated he would be part of the project.
The audio from almost all the people was unusable.
So, in an email to each person, I explained in detail the issues with his or her audio, and asked for retakes
Then, the retakes deadlines passed, and I hadn’t received the retake demos from 5 of the people, so I emailed those 5 people and asked if they were still participating.
One guy said “I’m going to pass at this time. Thank you though”. His demo had already been sent to two voice-seekers. Had I not inquired, I would have discovered he was no longer interested only at the time I had committed to a job using his voice! He did not have the courtesy to inform me he was withdrawing from the project.
The demos of these people, on their profile pages, sounded good. The audio they sent me was crap.
According to Dan, the audio I received is representative of what ”professional voiceover talents” are giving to paying clients.
I’m absolutely dumbfounded that the poor quality of the audio that these ”pros” gave me is the same poor quality audio that goes out to clients.
I’m dismayed by the unprofessionalism displayed by some of the people.
Bad audio and amateurism are two big reasons the business is going to hell in a handbasket.
ATYPICAL OR TREND?
It’s very easy to discard this story as anecdotal evidence. If that were the case, why are more and more voice-seekers leaving comments like:
“I cannot emphasize enough that I need high-quality audio. I expect all reads to be performed in some kind of professional or home recording studio with high-quality gear. Second-rate audio quality is not acceptable for this project.”
“MUST be absolutely crystal clear audio with none/minimal ambient noise.”
“Narrators must be able to record in high quality (either at a recording studio or at home with the appropriate equipment that can produce high quality). “
“The audio must sound professional! Please do not send me audio that sounds like you recorded with a cassette player!”
“We would need the person hired to record the voice over in his own home studio with professional voice equipment, we had someone do it on their computer and it sounded awful and unprofessional.”
Well, one response would be: “If you expect professional quality, start paying professional rates! You get what you pay for.” My voice-seeking colleague continues:
“When clients have to ‘beg’ for quality audio, it indicates there is a problem of poor quality in the industry! Why do clients have to specifically demand high quality audio? We are supposed to be professionals!
For my new service, I’ve decided to only hire members of SaVoa, the Society of Accredited Voice Over Artist.”
The amateur invasion has opened many doors to deserving, talented individuals. But as always, if you don’t apply a fine filter, the floodgates will bring a lot of crap too, stinking up the business.
ARE YOU ALARMED?
In a strange way, my colleague’s story put my mind at ease. I’m not as worried anymore by the influx of upcoming voice talent as I used to be.
Wikipedia learned from the Essjay affair, and in an article addressing the reliability of the site, writes:
“The Wikipedia model allows anyone to edit, and relies on a large number of well-intentioned editors to overcome issues raised by a smaller number of problematic editors.
It is inherent in Wikipedia’s editing model that misleading information can be added, but over time quality is anticipated to improve in a form of group learning as editors reach consensus, so that substandard edits will very rapidly be removed.”
I predict that a similar kind of self-regulation will take place in the voice-over industry, or in any type of market that is overcrowded by freewheeling wannabes. Otherwise, something like a Pay-to-Play model will be as sustainable as the career of an aspiring voice actor.
Erik Sheppard of Voice Talent Productions puts it this way:
“The average lifespan of a voiceover “career” seems to be about a year. Every year old names drop off the radar and new ones appear, just to be replaced again the next year.
It seems to take about that long for The Blue Snowball Coalition of new talent to realize that they jumped into this without knowing what they heck they were doing and then they are on to the next get-rich-quick scheme. Sad really. I imagine there are a lot of old USB mics collecting dust out there…”
So, what’s your take on the avalanche of amateurs? Do they cheapen our community, or do they enrich us? Are they to blame for the steady decline of rates and standards?
Are they stealing jobs that should have gone to seasoned pros, or do they pick up the crumbs no one wants to eat?
Should some Pay-to-Plays put up a barrier of entry and be more rigid in their quality control, or will the weakest links just put themselves out of the game?
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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About the author
is a multilingual voice-over professional, coach and writer. His blog has been voted one of the most influential voice-over blogs in the industry. He's an expert contributor to Internet Voice Coach, the Edge Studio, the International Freelancers Academy and recordinghacks.com.