People often ask me how I got into voice acting, and I always joke and say “it was an accident!” Truth is, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I held on because it was my ticket out of trouble. I also happened to be a trained actress who was scared of my own shadow, so a voice over studio was a perfect place to hide.
The story takes place in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, a bilingual city made up of a French speaking majority (65%) and an English speaking minority (15%). We call them the Francos and the Anglos. It’s not uncommon for these two cultures to clash. A small minority of people (like me) are 100% bilingual, with no accent in either language.
The story goes something like this:
Howard Stern begins airing his show on an English radio station in Montreal (Quebec, Canada); he insults French Canadians at a press conference (the one launching his show); as a gesture of goodwill, a competing English radio station plans to record French radio liners to appeal to all the French speakers in the region; I work at a bar where the deejays from that station hang out; the deejays ask me to translate and record some radio liners for their goodwill campaign; I agree and officially become initiated to the voice over sector.
What’s interesting to me now, as I look back, is that aside from continually performing as a child, I had a strong connection to my voice. At seven years old, I noticed my voice was significantly lower than my friends’s voices, and after watching Adventures in Babysitting, I was downright convinced I should be a blues singer and that someone should please discover me and train me now! Unfortunately, the nuns who ran the school choir railroaded that dream in an instant (that’s a whole other story), so I put my voice aside up until I was 19 years old.
That’s the year Howard Stern had his kerfuffle with his French Canadian audience. The French radio liners I was asked to record (by deejay Rob Wreford) were variations on the theme: “You’re listening to Mix 96FM”. After I got to the station and translated the liners to French, I put headphones on, stood in front of the microphone (I probably did a million takes before I got it right), and it was LOVE.
I’ll always remember the exact moment I heard the liners on the radio for the first time. I was at a grocery store, and suddenly whatever was playing on the loudspeakers irritated me. So I stopped and listened to what was bothering me, and it was….me! Life is ironic that way.
The rest is pretty much history. Thanks to voice acting, I’ve stayed out of trouble, I’ve always been able to pay the bills (knock on wood), I’ve been able to move to Los Angeles, and to continue growing as an actress. Today, I still record voice overs weekly. I went from recording radio liners, to announcing at the Olympics in 2010, to acting in video games, to regularly voicing commercials, and everything in between. Amen.
The Voice Acting Playground
If you read my first e-book series about Acting In Los Angeles, you know that Los Angeles is the most competitive market in the world for actors. The most beautiful and talented people from all over the U.S. (and all over the world) are here. The same is true for the most beautiful, enticing, funny and talented voices in the world. They’re here, they’re online and you’ll have to get pretty serious about voice acting and announcing if you want to get in on the action. That said, for some determined individuals, it’s not an impossible task.
The most significant hurdles will be the cost to learn, the cost to be competitive in the marketplace, the time it takes to become competent, and the resilience to pull through it all.
American Voices vs Canadian Voices
All cultures have their sensitivities and tastes. The same is true of Americans. Some foreigners, including Canadians, can cross that cultural bridge successfully. And if you have local success somewhere, that can cross borders, but it’s rarely easy and usually involves quite a bit of work. In the case of voice overs for instance, working on your standard American accent is important.
Union and Non-Union Voice Acting Gigs
The rules that apply to film and television actors also apply to voice actors: the market is incredibly competitive. In order to get hired, one must be a fantastic actor, have a dash of “je ne sais quoi” and a good agent.
That said, in the case of voice acting, there is plenty of work to be had online on Pay to Play sites like Voice123. Note that most of this work is non-union (though some few union gigs do appear form time to time). Still, these sites are excellent places to cut one’s teeth.
For us union actors, these sites are frustrating: the work exists, but we cannot do it. Be that as it may, it is common for lesser known union actors (i.e. not celebrities) to lend their voice to non-union projects, especially in the commercial sector where it’s difficult to be identified, and where rates still pay somewhat decently.
The American Union (SAG-AFTRA) in Commercial Voice Overs
On that note, be aware that besides the animation and looping sectors, the commercial sector is the last voice acting sector in which the union still exerts some power. But that power is waning fast. The last few sectors who pay union rates are in the financial, automotive, healthcare, and pharmaceutical sectors.
As there are less commercial breakdowns that pay union fees, the competition to book those fewer jobs intensifies. This is exacerbated by an ever-increasing population of voice actors who, thanks to advances in technology, can easily record from home. As I update this article, the Coronavirus Pandemic is forcing the last few actors who weren’t equipped with home studios to get to it.
For more about setting up home studios, read my book Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
To make matters even more competitive, higher paying campaigns often seek famous actors to voice them, reducing the chances for the average Joe (who might be a great actor) to book them. (Note that the few industries that still allocate “union” budgets to advertising campaigns can afford to pay for “name talent” in their campaigns.)
What You Need to Succeed in Voice Acting
In light of all this, to make headway in the union sector in Los Angeles, you will need:
- Outstanding acting chops (ones that jump out from behind the microphone);
- A style that is in demand;
- A quiet recording studio along with decent editing and recording skills;
- Voice Acting equipment;
- Availability (auditions must often turned around within the hour);
- A voice acting budget to market your business;
- A stomach for rejection (the number of auditions one can record is astounding);
- Good business practices.
If you are a union actor, you’ll definitely need excellent representation.
Voice Over Demos for Union Actors
To get a great agent, you’ll need a great voice acting demo that showcases your acting chops and your style. A demo showcasing a beautiful voice or a unique voice won’t do much for your bottom line unless it’s accompanied by great acting skills. If you have a young ethnically ambiguous voice and you can act, this is most definitely your time.
As far as what sells, watch and listen to commercials: young women with a strong attitude and nerdy sounding guys do well. In voice overs, being funny is also a huge asset. In 2020, announcers are way out the door (unless you work in live shows, events and games) and women with deeper voices may also struggle since higher pitched voices are in style at the moment.
Lastly, you shouldn’t produce your commercial demo on your own. If you want representation, use a professional commercial producer (someone who produces commercials for a living). You can generally find this person by referral from a voice acting coach or even from an agent. Think about it: agents listen to voices and commercials for a living. They can tell when you’re trying to sound like a commercial and when you’re actually in a commercial. Why risk it?
Voice Acting Training
If you’re a trained actor, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting. If not, take beginner theater classes and stick with it. Voice acting is an art and you never “arrive.” Acting training should be your single biggest investment. For more about this, read my Voice Acting book. The great thing about training to be an actor is that it may lead you to act on stage or on camera. Do it wholeheartedly and see where it leads.
Regardless of your level of acting, everyone would benefit from a good voice acting class. For instance, working a microphone requires some technique. Also, a commercial job shouldn’t be tackled like an animation job (or like a narration, or like a video game). There are nuances to be aware of in every sector. If you take classes with industry professionals (casting directors for instance) and you impress them, they may send you auditions.
Like in any business, you must be resilient, patient and persistent if you’re going to reap the benefit of your voice acting investments. Here, there are no shortcuts. It can take a long time to be a full-time voice actor. How long? No one knows, but unless you do something for five years steady, I say you haven’t really tried.
When the going gets tough, having creative outlets that don’t directly depend on the opinion of others can be healing (like writing, painting, playing music, etc.). Hobbies that have nothing to do with the business can also keep you grounded. The important thing is to find ways to stay sane and stick with it. Within five years you’ll know whether your investments will pay off. If they don’t, think about this: when one door closes, another opens.
Want some VO advice you can hang your hat on and act on TODAY? Don’t do it alone, piggy back on my success by joining my “Everyday VO” newsletter here to get exclusive tips from me, so you can do VO the Clever Way, Right Away. My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn how to make $$$ in VO, read my e-books about Voice Acting & Announcing.