Frontlines

The Melodious World of Freelance Voice Acting

By Ella Riley-Adams July 9th, 2014

When Business Insider published “20 High-Paying Jobs You Can Do From Home,” patent law ranked number one with $112.20 per hour. However, while the majority of other professions on the list were predictably related to programming, you may be surprised by the second highest-paying freelance gig: voice acting, which pays an average of $72.70 per hour.

Five years ago, recording vocal tracks for commercials, movies, and audiobooks wouldn’t have even made it onto the list—but not because jobs didn’t pay well. Most production houses had their own studios with directors and engineers, and voice actors would go in for their sessions. Today, with improved digital technology, voice actors can do their job from a home studio and send tracks to producers via email.

My father, James Adams, runs BeeAudio, an audiobook production company that teams up with narrators who live around the world and work remotely. He told me 90 percent of the company’s narrators have never met, even though they regularly work together.

Now, the overall cost for a narrator to set up a home studio with Protools audio software is roughly $1,500. This low-cost entry has caused the voice market to expand, giving more people the opportunity to sell sound bites and books. Sites like voice123 or Audiobook Creation Exchange are teeming marketplaces where publishers and audiobook sellers can find the right freelancers for a project. To book work with a production house like BeeAudio, actors send audition tapes to casting director Jackie Rosenfeld. She takes notes on each actor and then calls them when they fit a project.

At the moment, Rosenfeld is working on a collection of short stories that calls for multiple narrators. “So far I know I need a male who can speak Italian, a woman who can do a Jewish grandmother, and another man with a convincing Slavic dialect,” she explained. “I refer back to my list of talents and see who has them. Then, I go listen and listen and listen again until I get that gut feeling I’ve found the right person.”

When I spoke to voice actor David Drummond, he was in the car driving from Seattle to Spokane to audition for a zombie television show. Drummond typically works from home, reading audiobooks in his personal studio, having trained as a stage actor and recording radio commercials before “falling into” narration. Audiobooks have become his main source of income over the past seven years. As general access to the industry has improved, Drummond has found it harder to get work.

“There are so many people hanging a shingle out there as narrators and as voice-over people. And with the globalization of the work, anyone anywhere on the planet could be doing what I’m doing,” he said.

Newcomers without preconceptions about the voice-over industry will accept lower rates than Drummond. Though he’s protected by the SAG-AFTRA union, which ensures a higher rate for experienced actors, some companies will opt for more inexperienced ones in order to keep costs down. Adams notes that the difference between a book read by an experienced actor and one read by an inexperienced actor is not reflected in sales, so it’s hard to justify a more expensive actor, unless it happens to be a high-profile reader like Jim Dale, who worked on the Harry Potter audiobooks.

But as the market ages, audiences will become more discerning and, as my father predicted, talent will rise to the top. “If the price falls to such an extent that you can’t get good talent, then the price has to go up,” he said.

While David Drummond works with trepidation, R.C. Bray, a narrator who focuses on mystery and horror genres, could not be more enthusiastic. He used to commute 90 minutes per day to act in commercials for a production company, listening to audiobooks during the drive. Now, he works from home 95 percent of the time. Bray gets a steady flow of work from his relationships with people in the industry and also finds jobs on Audiobook Creation Exchange.

Enabled by technology, Bray connects with clients and conducts his own recording process, allowing for maximum efficiency and easy access. As the market grows, voice actors will reap the benefits of high-paying gigs and the opportunity to apply their dramatic skills offstage.

Take it from R.C. Bray: “Think about it—I’m paid to read books all day!”

Image by Jared Polin
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