"The Voice Industry is Broken"

 

Today, I saw a post on Reddit which had bravely been titled:

“The Voice Industry is Broken, here is how I want to fix it!”

Naturally, I felt compelled to read on.

There are, indeed, many issues with the voice industry at the moment. In September of this year (2015) 96.5% of voting members of SAG-AFTRA authorised a strike against the poor working conditions and unrealistic expectations of voice actors in the videogame industry.

At about the same time, voice actors around the world opted to cancel membership to popular casting site Voices.com after information surfaced regarding what many saw as the unfair payment conditions imposed by the company under their new ‘Managed Services’ program.

But here’s what the plucky Redditor had to say:

“The voice industry is a rewarding field, you can earn a living once you find a great client or build a reputation. In fact, a lot of your work will come from repeat customers and referrals; the hard part is getting there.
“Most people will agree that being a beginner in the voice industry is real challenge. To be successful requires a level of momentum that is very difficult to gain. It may involve creating a set of recordings that barely anyone will find the time to listen, or register on a site where you have to compete with hundreds of other voice talent in order to be heard. This leaves you with a very limited portfolio of actual work and little to no reputation to fall back on. It is a pretty hard life as a no-name voice talent. 
[…]
“No one sits down everyday trying to listen to the latest voice talent, but what if the voice talent could come to them. Imagine a worldwide community of talented voice professionals who solve the problem of narrating all the blogs, news articles, long-form articles or even tweets on the internet. Everyday millions of people will be exposed to voices that they have never heard - narrating their favourite articles on the internet. Imagine these same people being able to give each narrator a rating for their performance. 
“No studio necessary, previously unknown voice talent could rise out of nowhere and be world renown [sic.] from the comfort of their living room. Unskilled talent would constantly hone their skills to get the approval of the community and rise to the levels of their superiors. Seasoned professionals would easily sail through the ranks by exercising the skills they have acquired over the years. Listeners would benefit from having audio versions of the millions of articles read every day across the world in all languages. Narrators would now be on a stage where their voices are not hidden on some obscure job hunting site but heard by thousands of people everyday and anchor their places and reputations in the minds of potential clients without the need for a single audition.
“This is a world I imagine, I would like to hear from the people in the trenches if this is your experience and if you think this could work.”

LINK TO ORIGINAL POST

Now, aside from the vast oversimplification of the voice industry’s core mechanics, let’s have a little look at exactly what’s wrong with this idea.

The Redditor is right. The voice industry is a rewarding field, much like many other areas of work. And yes, you can earn a living once you’ve built a reputation. But hold on. What does that mean? “Build a reputation”. I’m quite proud of the reputation that I’ve built over the past few years, and I’m also quite proud that, this year, I managed to transition into voiceover as a full time career. But could I have a done this six years ago when I first started out? Did I have the skills necessary to do this at a professional level full time? Absolutely not! My reputation is the fruit of countless hours of hard work. I’ve had to take ownership of teaching myself. From microphone technique and editing skills, to performance and enunciation. 2009 Will was enthusiastic and eager to get started, but was no in way ready to be voicing anything!

Let’s look at this from another angle. Let’s say my life’s dream is to be CEO of a charity. An animal welfare charity, for the sake of argument. All my life, I’ve been following my idols with great interest! I have a poster on my wall of Kim Hamilton. Matthew Bershadker is the reason I applied to Ohio State University. I may not have graduated yet, but I’m certain, dead certain, that I’ve got what it takes to be a CEO of an animal welfare charity, and I’m going to get there someday!

So. What are my steps? How do I go from student to CEO? Of course, some volunteer rescue work is a great way of showing my alignment to the cause. It’s also brilliant experience for me. I can get a taste for exactly what the work entails, and see if it’s something that I’m really passionate about. After all, one can never truly know until one tries, right? And then, once I’ve proven myself as a worthy supporter of animals, next stop - the boardroom!

Except, no. That’s not how it works. Nobody, but nobody, is under the illusion that this is how a CEO gains her title. Rising to this level takes time, experience, and a shed-load of hard work. And here’s the real kicker - it’s competitive. Super competitive. To rise through the ranks, you have to compete with hundreds of other competitors in order to be heard. Sound familiar?

Some mornings, I would much rather stay in bed than get up to record another two hours of the surgical training manual which I neither understand nor care much about, but this is what is involved in reaching success, in being proficient, in gaining experience. And overall, it’s a process that I absolutely love!

This attitude of “I’m passionate, therefore I’m deserving” is lazy, and frankly moronic. In any other setting, it’s totally laughable, so why is it so abundant in the performing arts? What is it that makes people believe that voiceovers, singing, acting, artistry, that any of this is easily won? Life is, unfortunately, not an extended episode of the XFactor, and this flawed view of how an industry should work is, at best, naive, but at worst, wholly offensive to the people who have worked bloody hard to get to where they are!

The next thing that irks me is this:

“No studio necessary, previously unknown voice talent could rise out of nowhere and be world renown from the comfort of their living room”.

Let’s take a look at the technical aspects of your average broadcast quality voiceover studio. If I were booked tomorrow to go and record a national broadcast spot at any studio, I would expect to rock up and see probably a Neumann U87, or maybe a Sennheiser MKH-416. If not those exact mics, I’d expect something of a similar spec. Perhaps a Neumann TLM-103, or something by AKG. These are specialist bits of kit. The U87 has been around for literally decades, and will still set you back over £1,500. The build quality is superb. The frequency range - beautiful. If wielded correctly by a studio engineer who knows what she’s doing, and a voice talent who has a good understanding of correct mic technique.

But actually, unless you’ve risen to the ranks of regularly recording for big budget projects with the BBC, Disney, or any of the other big studios, you’re likely to be working from home 95% of the time, so you need to have good kit yourself, and a fairly firm grasp on how the technical side of things works. What is gain staging? Which is better; outboard EQ, or software? How can I dampen vocal reflections in my recording space? A Skype headset and a comfortable living room does not, a professional voice actor, make. 

And then there’s the actual skill in performance. I’ve always classed myself as fairly lucky in that I was brought up by parents who had very strict rules on how I was to speak around them. Mumbling, dropped t’s, and incorrect syntax were not looked upon kindly in our home. At school, I was constantly teased for sounding too posh or proper. Yet, I had a lot to learn when I started my voiceover career. A pleasing voice is one thing, but can you sell a product? Can you flit from “fun, peppy millennial” to “sincere, and commanding” in a single sentence? Can you perform with the same tone for an hour long recording session? Can you pickup a line for a spot that you recorded three months ago whilst maintaining continuity?

Not to mention keeping up with industry trends, and coaching. Peer review, and the number of ‘likes’ that someone might get for reading out tweets are not enough to stay ahead of the curve; to remain a competitor in a competitive industry. Every working voice actor that I know spends time, effort and money on seeking coaching from renowned industry pros. Ever heard of Nancy Wolfson, or George Whittam? You should have!

Going back to my former analogy, owning a laptop with MS Office, and a snappy suit, is not enough to be CEO of the RSPCA.

And finally, although I could go on about this for hours, these services already exist, and it’s utterly horrifying! It’s certainly not the global platform of exposure that seems to be advertised in the post above.

Voicebunny have, or certainly had, an API which, when embedded into a blog, would automatically cast a member of the site (I hesitate to use the term ‘voice actor’) to read each new post aloud for a laughable fee. Six weeks ago, I received an email from a company called Audiolingo (completely out of the blue) informing me that I had been booked at a rate $4USD per 200 words to narrate a number of articles which had been pulled from the web. To give you an idea of how absurd this rate is, I’ll look at the minimum rates for voiceover published by UK performer’s union Equity, of which I am a member. The Equity minimum for a non-broadcast voiceover is £125 per hour. That is, as of today (Friday, 4th December 2015) $188.83USD. Based on a generous average of three hours production time per finished hour of produced audio, and an average read time of 10,000 words per hour in the finished audio, that works out at $66.66USD per hour of work. Around a third of the minimum that is deemed fair by my union. If I took jobs that paid rates like these, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent!

And as for our Redditor, a quick search through his post history shows that he’s a software developer who has been trying to hawk his blog-narration browser plugin for the past year or so to various communities on Reddit. He has posted the same post quoted above, verbatim, to no fewer than four Subreddits. He is an opportunist trying to sell his own product at the expense of an industry that he is no part of.

It’s ideas and mindsets like that of our dear Redditor that give companies like Voicebunny and Audiolingo the power, nay, permission to hire people at rates like these. To demand work at a fraction of what is deemed fair because they know that they can! Yes, the voice industry *is* broken, or is certainly breaking along some of its seams, but this is not because it is competitive, or because fame and fortune aren’t instant and guaranteed. It’s because of the sense of entitlement; the need for overnight success; the ignorance of the hard work and effort involved in being successful, which ultimately all lead to the untrained masses thinking that they can take shortcuts, and that it’s fair to drive prices down.

Yes, it’s a pretty hard life as a no-name voice talent. It’s a pretty hard life as a med-student, too. There are no shortcuts in life, no matter how much Simon Cowell might try to lead you to believe otherwise!

Are you SURE you mean 'Trans-Atlantic'?

Listen to this Blog post using the player above.

I’ve noticed a trend lately, in the world of voiceover castings.

Many producers are starting to ask for a British voiceover artist with a Trans-Atlantic accent. They stress that this British accent should sound ‘standard’, or ‘neutral’, and should not seem to hail from any particular locale.

This is a point of much confusion, as a standard british accent and a trans atlantic accent are two rather different things.

Let’s first look at the Standard British Accent. In fact, there is no vernacular formally referred to as Standard British, but this is commonly understood to denote RP, or Received Pronunciation.

RP is natively spoken by around 3% of the British population. It is widely spoken in the South of England, although it is also used by upper classes throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

The term RP has been in use since the early 1800s, and was previously referred to as Public School Pronunciation - Public Schools in England, confusingly, being expensive private schools. Over the years, the accent has evolved. My native accent is Standard Southern British, and is the closest modern proximation to RP. Although a small number of people still speak full RP, their subsequent generations are likely to adopt SSP instead.

So what does RP sound like? Queen Elizabeth II, and David Attenborough are notable speakers. In the movie My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle is begrudgingly taught to speak in RP. The accent has many defining characteristics, but perhaps most notably the accent is non-rhotic, meaning that the sound [r] does not occur unless followed immediately by a vowel. For instance, the word flower, which ends on a schwa in RP, “Flower”, but ends with a soft R sound in Standard American, “Flower" 

Contrary to what Stewie Griffin of Family Guy fame may lead you to believe, a w, followed by an h, followed by a vowel, does not result in a [hw] sound in a native RP speaker. For example, the words wear (as in, wear some clothes) and where (as in where are you) are homophones. Some institutions, such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, may teach that the latter should be pronounced [hw]ere, although this is not a motif of the vernacular.

The Trans, or Mid-atlantic accent is a solely acquired way of speaking. It did not evolve naturally in any location or culture, and was created for clarity in American theatre arts and radio. It is an American dialect, and was widely used in film from the 1930s to the 1960s. Katharine Hepburn and Norman Mailer commonly used a mid atlantic accent. Like RP, The Mid-Atlantic accent is non-Rhotic, contrary to most other American dialects. Clipped T sounds are also used in words like water or Nottingham. The accent was taught in American private schools, for a short period until the end of the 2nd world war. It is unlikely that there are any people for whom a trans-atlantic accent is the daily norm.

In summary, neither mid-atlantic, or RP are commonly used for contemporary purposes.

The accent that is being sought in most of these castings is likely SSP.

So, when you post your next voiceover job, spare a moment to think about whether or not you really want to be reviving the heyday of the silver screen, or whether you might prefer something a little more in keeping with the product you are trying to promote.