If your only source of information about the voiceover industry is social media, you might think the golden age of VO is gone. And the business is a barren wasteland of scarce opportunities, declining rates, and predators hiding behind every corner ready to pounce on the pocketbooks of talent who don’t know any better. Like the service industry maxim that people only share bad experiences, online voiceover culture often seems to be the same, with the most active conversations trending negative by a large margin.
Fortunately, while the buzz churn of Facebook and others serves a purpose to educate and warn new and less-experienced talent about the traps they potentially face, it does not fully represent today’s marketplace realities.
Indeed, the more I take stock of the industry at large, the more I’m convinced we may actually be living in the golden age of voiceover and not even realize it.
There’s no question that broadcast rates have taken a substantial hit over the past decade. With the march of technology giving buyers access to talent across the world this was inevitable. Contrary to a lot of the debate out there, strong broadcast rates were not so much a function of union protections as they were the result of the talent pool being both limited in number and geographically concentrated in Los Angeles and New York in particular. Before the turn of the century, voiceover as a lucrative career was not really a viable option outside of those markets. Sure, quality local and regional talent could often scratch together a low six figure income working on commercials, imaging, affiliate work, promo, and TV narration in their area, but if you wanted to do the highly visible and bigger-budget work it was pretty much LA or NYC. A few hundred great talent did the vast majority of this work, working through a network of a dozen or so agency players, about the same number of prestige casting directors, and almost always recording at professional storefront studios, because that was physically how it had to be done. It was a closed market that could easily dictate prices to the buyer.
The internet changed all that. Remote connectivity, online casting, the ability for local and regional agents to access national jobs, and the inevitable introduction of more quality talent to the competition pool had a natural effect on supply and demand, tilting the playing field away from the gatekeepers who could preserve rates by controlling access to talented voice actors. The market spoke.
The good news is that the supply of quality voice actors isn’t endless. Like singing, screen/stage acting, or professional athletics, inherent talent is essential. Ultimately, not that many people have it, and even fewer combine it with business sense. There’s a reason that if you hang around VO social media long enough you’ll realize it’s mostly the same people from platform to platform: There aren’t that many of us.
To be sure, there are far more working voice actors today than before the advent of online casting and easy remote connectivity. Nevertheless, it’s more likely a matter of thousands than tens of thousands, and certainly not the silly numbers you hear quoted by doomsayers and online casting sites that count every half-completed profile ever filled out as one of their “800,000 talent.”
The practical effect of the still limited supply is that while the market has corrected broadcast rates to reflect current supply/demand balance, that correction is now largely over. Broadcast rates have hit a floor, and talent have done an exceptional job of educating themselves on how to negotiate, further plugging any remaining holes in the dam. When every single new casting platform trying to break in and re-disrupt the industry is making hardcore pledges to preserve rates and put talent interests on an even playing field with buyers, we know something has changed. No, things aren’t going back to the way they were for commercial work, but we have reached an inflection point. From here forward commercial rates are likely to see a very slow climb. Not back to the heights of twenty years ago, but there’s nowhere to go but up.
The good news is that while there’s probably somewhat less actual TV and radio commercial work out there today than in the past, (especially as terrestrial radio has gone into deep decline,) internet commercials, pre-roll and the like are exploding. The internet IS TV, which is something we need to remind our clients every time we negotiate web ad rates. The future of commercial work is more volume-oriented, but there will be more volume than ever before thanks to the internet.
Lost in the apoplexy over broadcast rates is the steady climb in non-broadcast narration rates. In a strong economy, industrials that were fetching $400 a few years ago are now often garnering $750 and even $1,000 without companies batting an eyelash, especially if you are working directly with the end user. This work is beyond abundant. Highly skilled talent can essentially book it at will when following auditioning and marketing best practices. There is virtually no end to it. Moreover, the global E-Learning industry is about to hit an annual spend equal to the Department of Defense. Common talent rates are simply staggering as content creators, corporations, and institutions struggle to find voice actors who can capably and competently narrate tens of thousands of words with compelling delivery technique and rapid turn times. Hit a voiceover conference these days and you’ll find it’s the E-Learning superstars buying more drinks than the commercial heroes of yesterday.
Animation remains a bastion of the old guard, largely LA, largely union, and with potentially major league paydays as the world class acting chops needed to make it in that genre are not in massive supply. And video games continue to be a compelling choice for talent both in and outside of LA, offering prestige roles which can boost the visibility and demand of talent who book them.
There was recently a snarky social media thread questioning why any successful talent would ever coach other talent, “to book their work.”
The bottom line is that there has never been more work out there than there is today, and while there have also never been more talent chasing it, the quantity of work is increasing faster than the size of the talent pool. Talent who are legitimately qualified to coach aren’t teaching anyone to book their work…..they can quite literally have as much work as they want. It’s hanging from trees for those who know how to master the use of their time.
Right now, the historical elite of the industry are suffering. The day of the seven figure voice actor, outside of animation, is nearly at an end. That’s the new normal. But the day of the low to mid six figure voice actor is upon us. There are hundreds if not thousands of them now. This never used to exist outside of the coastal markets. Our industry is almost unique in the modern economy in that the concentration of wealth is shifting from the one percent to the middle and upper-middle earners. Anywhere else in society this would be enthusiastically celebrated at this point in time.
It’s time we started to see the blue sky behind the many silver linings in the changes our craft has experienced.