Voiceover Recipe for Success….or at Least Survival

The voiceover industry has changed, but maybe the recipe for success hasn’t.

Cooking ImageI recently read of the closing of a venerable and much beloved recording studio that in recent years had specialized in recording voiceovers for video games. The article lamented that the owners could no longer bring in enough well paying business to maintain the facility and pay the salaries of the staff. Though I never worked with these particular folks, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for them. Any time dedicated, talented, creative, well-liked people can no longer make a go of it in our business it’s a sad thing in my book. Besides, top-flight recording studios are very cool places to be, and it’s a privilege to work with the folks who inhabit them. I’d hate to think they could all go the way of the dinosaur.

But in the comments below the article, along with the fond remembrances of gigs gone by there was much blaming of VO talent and the advent of home studios for the changes they have brought to the voiceover industry. “No one appreciates floating floors and finely tuned rooms anymore! State-of-the-art equipment is being replaced by $50 plugins! Anyone with a usb mic and a laptop can call themselves a voice talent these days!” These things may be true, but are they really entirely responsible for every brick-and-mortar studio that goes under? I hope not.

I’ll bet  some of the changes brought about by easier, cheaper access to digital home audio recording technology seemed like pretty nifty ideas when studio folks first heard about them. Talent with their own ISDN lines meant a broader assortment of voices that producers could present to clients. Online casting services made finding those voices that much simpler. New media platforms meant more projects, even if the budgets were slightly (to begin with) smaller. All of these had the potential to be good for studios and may have been for a while, but now they are being blamed as the problems, not the solutions.

I suspect it’s more complicated than that, the result of an economic and technological “perfect storm” that has affected many industries, not just ours. No one needs to be reminded of the devastating recession we’re only now really pulling out of. Advertisers cut way back on their budgets at the same time that afore mentioned cheaper media platforms sprang up. Projects created for these platforms were often smaller in scope and ambition – using techniques like motion graphics instead of more expensive forms of animation; stock footage, images and royalty free music instead of expensively shot visuals and custom composed scores.

Voiceover still has to be custom recorded (as of this writing), but with “conversational” delivery replacing more polished styles, who needs an actor who has invested years and money towards training and expects to be compensated like the professional that she is? (Yes, I know that really good conversational delivery is a skill unto itself, but the point stands.) And who cares if the audio quality isn’t pristine? Excellence is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. With thousands of people answering the dubious siren call of easy money and exciting lifestyle trumpeted by the emergent voiceover “guru” industry, finding someone to record copy at home for cheap has become as easy as hiring a plumber, and frequently less expensive.

So where does all this leave us? Who knows, but one thing is certain: change isn’t new, and only those who learn to adapt have a fighter’s chance of surviving.

Which brings to mind a true and charming anecdote that I recently heard. A teenager was given the assignment at school of finding a family recipe to bring in and share with her class. She went to her ninety-year-old great grandmother who rummaged around and found one for an old family favorite, sausage and hominy. The directions were thus:

 “Go out in the field and pick yourself some hominy corn. Soak it in lye brine ’till sun up, then wash it in the crick three times. Stoke up the fire and set the corn to boil, then go out to the smoke house and cut a good sized length of pork sausage….” And so it continued describing an afternoon’s worth of effort to prepare the savory dish.

The puzzled teen showed the recipe to her mom, who drove her to the store where they bought a can of hominy, an onion and some packaged sausage. Within an hour of arriving back home the family sat down to a tasty, nostalgia filled meal together. I imagine that I’ll be reminded of that story the next time someone starts decrying how cheap and convenient technology is killing the voiceover industry.

Thanks for reading. Talk at you later! – Tim

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