Will things get better or worse? That’s a question people consistently ask about everything from the economy to the voice over industry to a change in their favorite restaurant’s menu. While we could sit around discussing the question for hours, or even days, I recall a very short answer that summed it up best:
“Things don’t get better or worse. They get different.”
And that’s exactly what happened in the world of voice over. While some may pine for what might be considered the Golden Age of voice over, others say a new Golden Age may be upon us.
Either way, I have used a few key strategies over the years to sustain my own voice over career through whatever comes across my path. For others facing significant changes in their own careers, or those embarking on the VO bandwagon, perhaps these strategies can help you, too.
The Early Days of Voice Over
While the definition of voice over’s Golden Age may vary, I feel it’s an era reserved for some true veteran voice actors. I don’t consider myself part of the Golden Age, although I have been in the business for more than 25 years.
When I entered the scene in the 1990s, in-person studio recordings were the norm. If you wanted any level of notable voice over work, you needed to live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Southern California where the big studios and the big jobs were.
An average day in the voice over world for me included spending a lot of time attending live auditions, doing in-studio work – and being stuck in Southern California traffic.
Commercials made up the bulk of my work, mostly local commercials for businesses in the area. Yes, the work was exciting. And yes, I had a lot of fun.
I remember working at a studio in Irvine, California, with another OC native; Scott Rummell. He’s one of the top people in the voice over world, with a body of work that includes movie trailers, network promos, and commercials for national and regional TV, and gave me a valuable leg up in the beginning of my career. We used to record spots together, acting as husband and wife for local supermarkets or copier companies.
My background was acting, so I was used to working with other actors and creating believable dialogue. That was always the most fun… getting to work with other actors in a live situation.
A Voice Over Career in the 1990s
- Live auditions
- In-person studio recordings
- Often recording with other actors in the studio together
- Getting work through casting and talent agents
- Voice over actor’s job was to read and interpret the copy
- Engineers and production crew took care of the recording, editing, sound quality, and everything else that went into the finished, delivered product
- In-person marketing – where personality played a huge role
- Printed headshots
- Demos on cassette tapes and then CDs, which were always cheaper if you bought in bulk. I still have a box of CDs left over from 20 years ago!
The early days were exciting. I was getting paid to be an actor – and that was my goal. Some people never get near that. Sure, I had some side jobs at the beginning, like working at a florist and marketing a murder mystery dinner theater, but I was driven to make acting my full-time career.
At one point, one of my side jobs ended. I saw it as a turning point. I knew I could draw unemployment for about six months and use the time to get all the pieces together to really focus on what I wanted to do.
From there, I just took one step after the other. The work got better. I made more money. Time is on your side. If you can stick out the tough stuff in the beginning, it does start to get a little easier.
And although I do miss certain aspects of the early days, I also know things tend to appear rosier in hindsight.
- What I miss most: Working in-person with other actors.
- What I miss least: Being stuck in the Southern California traffic. I can get so much more work when I’m not wasting time on the freeway.
The Digital Age of Voice Over
When the digital age began to unfold, my initial reaction was less than thrilled. It was more like: “Oh my gosh. What the heck is this technology, and how am I going to work with it?” And I might not have, if I had not met my husband.
I was not a computer person AT ALL, and he was the one who really nudged me into the computer and internet age. The transition has been challenging to me, but I’ve been able to learn what I need to know – and usually hire people to help with the rest.
There are people who are more adept than I am with technology, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the progress I’ve made. I still sometimes go through everything I’ve learned and pat myself on the back. These days, technology is wired into younglings, so it’s mostly a breeze for them. They have other challenges.
Technology aside, the biggest challenge in the digital age has been connecting with potential clients; the people who are going to hire you. The current mantra is that anybody and everybody can be a voice over talent – which also comes with a downside.
Now you’re not just completing with the people in L.A. you see in the audition waiting room. You’re competing with people in every state… in every country. You’re competing with the world.
Voice Over Experience Matters
Seasoned voice actors do have the advantage of experience and the ability to say no to jobs that are not a good fit. Examples being clients who may have not directed a lot of voice over recordings and put you through the mill, asking for multiple free auditions or even recordings. Sorry, no.
Seasoned actors can end up with a disadvantage in certain cases. Sometimes a client may be looking for a voice that is unrefined, very raw and not polished. When you’ve been doing voice acting for so long, it’s kind of hard to turn off the polish.
A Voice Over Career in the 2020s
- Digital auditions
- Digital studio recordings
- Usually alone in home studio
- Getting work through voice over marketplaces, casting agencies, talent agencies, pay-to-play platforms
- Voice over actor’s job is everything related to the craft: recording, editing, marketing, maintaining a website, the whole kit and caboodle
- Online marketing where voice over websites and other savvy digital assets play a huge role
- On-demand digital samples of work
- Digital demos
After all these years, voice over work still brings me joy. My biggest joy is pleasing a client… when you get to hear something like, “Gee, that was really fantastic. It’s great working with you.”
I experienced one of those sessions recently, where we just whizzed through a series of difficult recordings for a major university fundraiser. In many cases, they were satisfied with the first take. It’s so freeing to work with someone who has such confidence in my abilities… someone who can just let me go and do my thing.
I used to be thrilled to hear my voice on TV or on the radio. My voice would come on while my kids were watching TV and they’d say, “There’s mom!”
Now I do a smattering of commercials, and the bulk of my work is long-form narration. E-learning and similar projects, along with some phone prompt work. I got into voice over narration very quickly, which perfectly aligns with the demands in the digital age.
And yes, my work is still fun. It’s like a game for me. Every morning I wake up, see what’s in my email inbox. I’m scouting possible jobs not just for me, but also for my college-age daughter who also does voice over work. I meet with her over Zoom once a day to do whatever auditions and client work she has in between her other work and classes. It’s a sneaky way for me to be in constant touch with her while she’s away at college…and she still makes a nice purse from her work too, which helps to pay for it all.
I have a set routine and a speed. It energizes me to think, “There’s another audition, there’s another opportunity.” You never know which one is going to hit with a client. When you do get the job offer, it’s a big win. Fortunately, I put enough spaghetti on the wall so some of it does stick!
- What I enjoy most: Ease and speed of my daily routine.
- What I enjoy least: Dealing with finicky technology. Nearly all of the most memorable scary moments in my career involve technology failing at extremely inopportune times.
How to Keep a Voice Over Career Going
Even though I miss some aspects of the earlier days of voice over, and I am still not a big fan of technology, at no point did I ever want to throw in the towel to pursue another career. As with any type of freelance career, voice over income can fluctuate. But even during years where we didn’t make as much money as we’d hoped, I’m still making more than I would at any other job that uses the education, experience and skills I have.
The strategies I used to keep my voice over career going can be used by anyone in any career. They are:
- Look forward, not back: Remember the past is always rosier in your mind and new things can be even more exciting.
- Know your limitations: There was no doubt I was not a computer person, and I never pretended to be.
- Learn and adapt: I was willing to learn what I needed to stay in the game. This reminds me of an Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” And I certainly thought I couldn’t do all those computer tasks!
- Get a game plan: Those six months of preparing for a voice over career gave me a solid path and foundation for moving forward.
- Keep your eye on the prize: Voice over work was and is my passion. No matter what challenges I need to face, I remind myself daily how lucky I am to have a job I love.
Will I still love voice over with artificial intelligence (AI) honing in? Ask me again in two years (kidding)! Actually, you can check out my take on voice over and AI in my next article: “Is the Golden Age of Voice Over Gone? Part Two: Here Comes AI.” Stay tuned!