Some of you won’t like what I am about to reveal, but it needs to be said.
Yes, I will be the Debbie Downer of the voice over community and the rain on your parade. If you’re a seasoned VO Pro, my message should come as no surprise. But I realize that blogs like these are also read by aspiring voice over artists, and it’s about time that they should know the truth (or at least my version of it). Even if it hurts.
In times of recession, desperate people cling to desperate things. For many, a new career as a voice over artist seems to be the next best thing. Let me tell you point blank that it is not. Far from it. Yet, every day, hundreds of hopefuls plunge into the pool of voice-over talent without even knowing how to swim. Why? Because they’re holding on to ideas that have no basis in reality.
Take your pick and allow me to burst your bubble:
1. “I LOVE YOUR VOICE”
Tons of people have told you that you have a great voice. “You’d do so much better than that woman announcing the Tony Awards,” they said. And you’ve heard it so many times that you start believing it yourself. Could this be a new career; the golden key to fame and fortune?
Without realizing it, you just made mistake number one. Thinking that having a good voice is all it takes, is like saying that, in order to be a successful actor, all you need are great looks. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.
Owning a Steinway doesn’t automatically make you a great pianist. Having a Viking range in your kitchen doesn’t make you a phenomenal chef. Having a good set of vocal chords definitely helps, but it’s a very small piece of a big puzzle. Knowing how to use that voice is a different matter!
Friends have said that you do a mean Morgan Freeman impression. In fact, they like it so much that you’re asked to perform your little trick at parties and high school reunions. It got you thinking: “Mr. Freeman must make lots of money reading a few words off a page. If he can do it, why can’t I? The world loves impersonators, right?”
Wake up, pal! We already have one Morgan Freeman. We do not need a clone. Your impression might be dead-on, but if you’re hoping to ride on the back of Freeman’s success, you’ll always be someone you’re not. Making money impersonating a celebrity could get you in all kinds of legal trouble too. More importantly, you’re betraying yourself by forsaking what makes you truly unique: your very own sound.
3. RADIO GA-GA
You read the news for a local station. The latest membership drive didn’t go so well, and all of a sudden you’re as relevant as yesterday’s paper. What’s worse: you’re out the door. Thank goodness for your radio training. You can always become a voice over artist, right? After all, it’s basically the same thing.
Next, you join one of those voice over casting sites, and you record your first audition: a paragraph from a book about bachelor cardiac surgeons, voluptuous nurses and broken hearts.
Luckily, your membership came with a free voice evaluation and your coach gave your first demo…. a firm thumbs down. What hurt you the most was the fact that she said that you sounded “like a news reader”. Wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing?
Having a radio voice is rarely a plus if you want to have success as a voice actor.
4. EASY MONEY
Even though your financial advisor warned you not to do it, you decide to tap into your nest egg and spend part of your IRA on a decent home studio and on premium memberships of voices.com, voice123.com and a few other online casting sites. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right! These sites will no doubt open the door to big companies offering big bucks to have you do a 20 second commercial or a 2-minute narration. Just wait and see… A few auditions a day will make the recession fade away!
I guess no one ever told you that almost 40% of professional voice overs makes less than $25,000 per year, even after having been in the business for 10-25 years. Over one quarter of those surveyed make less than $10,000 per year. (Source: VoiceOver Insider magazine). If that’s not living large…. I don’t know what is!
Veteran voice actor Ed Victor shared that over the past four weeks, he had submitted 50 auditions on Pay to Play sites. The net result: zero jobs. Mind you: Ed is known as “The Big Gun” of the business. In my opinion, he is the cream of the crop. But even if your last name happens to be Victor, it doesn’t automatically make you a winner.
5. OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
Would you ever pick up a violin and after a few weeks of practice and no lessons, record your first CD? Of course not.
No one would walk into a sports store and get the best tennis gear money can buy, and expect to be playing Wimbledon the week after.
Now explain to me why some wannabe voice actors dig deep into their pockets and invest in top of the line equipment without any formal training or experience, expecting instant return on investment?
It takes great skill and practice to breathe life into a text, as well as technical expertise. It’s very similar to mastering a musical instrument. It usually takes many years to become an overnight success. And as we’ve seen, even respected talents find that the pickings are becoming increasingly slim. So, if you’re still thinking of pursuing a voice-over career, think again…. and then some more.
In a way, it’s like that picture on the box of your microwave dinner. It makes you hungry, but the meal usually doesn’t taste half as good as it looks. What’s even worse: it doesn’t have enough nutritional value to sustain you! Yet, millions are falling for it…. and are left hungry and feeling ripped-off.
Well, there’s your reality check. I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty. Feel free to disagree with me. After all, everything is a matter of perception. That’s why I’m really interested in your assessment of the voice over business. Is it a goldmine or a minefield?
What advice would you give to a newbie? Have you seen talented people fail? What went wrong? Have you made it against all odds? If so, what’s been the secret of your success? What voice over myths would you like to bust?
I think I can add some insight here, that you may find interesting:
First, I agree with about 75%-80% of what you say, but some other things, not so much. Let me quote some of what you have said:
“So, you join a reputable voice-over site and record your first audition…Luckily, your membership came with a free voice evaluation, and your coach gave your first demo a firm thumbs down.”
>>>You actually have something backwards here. On Voice123, we screen demos, and we often find that we upset people by removing them from our site for their poor quality. Many times, that angry phone call to me is backed up by an email from, either the maker of the demo or the school, who tells me I am crazy and have no idea what I am talking about.
I am a modest man, but I do know I started in VO’s in 1992, and was trained by some of the best that are still in the business and working today. So, my ears dont lie,
“#4. EASY MONEY”
>>>I agree 1000%. There is no such thing as easy money in any biz.
“Even though your financial advisor warned you not to do it, you decide to tap into your nest egg and spend part of your IRA on a decent home studio and premium memberships of voices.com, voice123.com and voplanet.com. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right! These sites will no doubt open the door to big companies offering big bucks to have you do a 20 second commercial or a 2-minute narration. Just wait and see… A few auditions a day will make the recession fade away!”
>>> I think this is a bit unfair to all castings websites. The online casting sites do work for many professional voice talents.
I know because I work here, and you can ask anyone that I probably have a bead on what thousands of talents are doing, and I am referring to three types:
1. The one’s who work
2. The one’s who dont work
3. The one’s who did amazingly well for years, but cant find work online.
I would never take anything away from great talents with experience, but the truth is that working online is a different playground.
Working online is a bigger stage. The communication is colder, quicker, and faster. I have seen people get work from twitter posts.
Does not getting hired make someone ‘less talented’ or a casting website wrong? No, not at all. But in 2005, when I first joined Voice123 as a talent, after one year, I thought online casting was flawed. I mean, how could they not hire me. BUT…when I started working here and saw that online talents who work are, in fact, highly skilled at:
3. finalizing contracts
4. sound production
5. online marketing & communication
Well…at that point, I had a big slice of humble pie, and realized just how little I knew.
I think there are 2 reality checks here:
1. One for those who think that because they worked offline for 20 years or more, that they must be destined to work online. Working online is for voice entrepreneurs, and you need a steel gut for it. I do think it is unfair to steal credit from the amazing pros I see working online.
2. There is also a reality check in it for those who believe that when they lose their jobs from the recession, they should go into voice overs. I mentioned ‘screening demos’ earlier. In all honesty, my heart breaks for some of the people who jump online too soon. This is also a reason that Voice123.com has a refund policy.
In light of that, the term Pay 2 Play is unfair because it implies gambling. The people who find work on Voice123 are hardly gambling, and casinos dont give you money back when you lose.
Let me answer these questions, too, to the best of my ability:
Is it a goldmine or a minefield?
>>>I would say…a coal mine. Compared to how things were for me 8 years ago, there is more opportunity now, than ever before. I prefer having a choice and control over my own career, over waiting for managers/agents to call me any day of the week, while spending money on a circuit of classes to meet people. Is it still hard work? Yep.
What advice would you give to a newbie?
>>> DO NOT put yourself online until you are 150% ready to go. Working online is public record. If you show up on the scene as a ‘newbie’, it will take you a long time to shake that reputation. People have long memories, and when working online, they have tools to keep their memories, long after you have forgotten about that bad day you had. Treat every audition like you are walking into an agent’s office to read.
Have you seen talented people fail?
>>> Oh yes. I don’t know where to begin.
What went wrong?
>>> They simply did not adapt to online communication. I think there is a large generation gap with how people were used to communicating, compared to how they are expected to now.
The biggest problem…there is one rule of thumb about working online: ‘Saving someone time using a computer is a big hug to the person trying to hire you.’ Most talents with experience offline for years are eloquent and beautiful in how they speak and write. Working online, that is just too much to read and listen to.
I cannot express enough how much I feel for those who write me with the opening sentence, ‘I have been in this business 25 years….’ Online casting is only 6 or 7 years old, and working online changes all the time.
Have you made it against all odds?
>>> I am going to say, ‘No, but I got lucky to be hired at Voice123.’ I was already a voice over artist who took some time off after 9/11 to learn a new trade. I needed the money. It just so happened, all of that helped me get hired here. Still, I knew I was behind the times when I started at Voice123 in 2007. There is so much more at play than people realize when working online.
If so, what’s been the secret of your success? What voice-over myths would you like to bust?
>>> What is success? Being rich? Being a movie star? Or simply doing what you love to do? I feel successful. I love what I do.
I think the last thing I would like to mythbust is…
‘The voice over industry has slim-pickings’.
>>>>Oddly, voice overs have not changed that much, only the way in which business is being conducted has changed. Just yesterday…an agent I know decided to work strictly online. Times are just changing in the way business is being done, but the way people read and record to sound professional, no…that has not changed.
Talent is talent.
Business is business.
Best to all of you, and stay strong.
Mike Coon says
Thanks for the great article…honest, concise and understandable.
I have been blessed with voice and sound professionals who encouraged me to START in this business eight years ago. Am I “successful” yet? In some regards, yes and in some, no. I DID get a thrill recently when a friend of mine contacted me out of the blue and asked if I had voiced an advertisement that was running on cable TV in Northern CA….and recognized me! (one HAS to enjoy the small victories!)
Your analogies to success in VO to learning a sporting or musical skill is right on. Too few people are willing to do what it takes to hone a craft before expecting to reap the rewards…sad state of our culture these days!
My advice to folks who want to get going in pursuit of this vocation is to take advantage of the web-based resources available, develop a tough outer skin to withstand the 100 “no’s” you’re inevitably going to hear before a “yes” comes along, get some kind of recording system and practice, do some “freebies” for friends who own companies that advertise in your area, practice, read out loud and practice! I firmly believe that anyone can do anything if their vision is clear and they are willing to risk to have what they say they want, and I’ll support those who are willing to work for it! Whew, kind of “airy” there, but it’s what I believe!
Paul Strikwerda says
Congratulations on being recognized! Every now and then we need those small victories to give us an energy boost… It’s like that extra shot of espresso in our latte! And voice-overs make a living by making air particles move in formation, it’s only appropriate to be feel kind of “airy”. Stay in the flow, Mike!
Leesha Saunders says
Thanks for the great article Paul! When I first considered studying to become a voice artist, it took me almost a year. My problem was a good one; I had to consider the costs, time, and effort that I would need to invest in becoming a voice over talent. As such, I have no regrets.
This business can bring out the best in a person. Talent is for sharing, but you’ve got to do the business. Thanks for dispelling the myths!
Paul Strikwerda says
My pleasure, Leehsa. Best of luck to you in this exciting and wonderful career!