Scott Gentle is happy to tell you what’s for dinner. It’s beef. One of Gentle’s most requested voices, one of many he does, mimics the tough, cowboy-like sound of actor Sam Elliott, who first recorded the iconic “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement.
Gentle, a voice actor from Forest Hills, Queens, has worked with companies ranging from Nike, Penguin Books, and Party City, to Marvel Entertainment, The Mob Museum, and Malaysia Airlines. He has been a voice actor for more than ten years. Back then, “the internet was raging away,” Gentle said. And now, further technological advancements and changing business practices have made the voice-over industry look a lot different than it did when he started.
As a veteran in the voice acting industry, Gentle has experienced the effects of these changes firsthand, and he’s not too happy about them. For one thing, some of the changes have made steady work even harder to find.
Voice-over work has always been unpredictable. “You can never quite predict where the work is or where it will come from,” Gentle said. “Usually, I get something right in time to pay a massive bill.”
Gentle always wanted to “speak for a living.” In high school, Gentle says, he asked a peer how he got his job at the local radio station. “And he says ‘the same way you can get it if you show up in the next hour when I turn in my resignation,’” Gentle said. Two hours later, Gentle had the job.
He worked at eight stations before he stepped back from radio when he got “pink-slipped” in 2019. He used his severance package to fund his home studio, which turned out to be fortuitous. Over the years, Gentle has often worked as a voice actor in recording studios, an environment he is comfortable in. But as time went on, more and more recordings were done from home, because recording equipment became cheaper and easier to access. Now, many voice actors are responsible for the technical side of recording as well as producing the desired voice-over.
“You know for a few hundred bucks for a microphone, a few more hundred bucks for an audio interface, cables…. For a few grand you can get set up,” Gentle said. These days, he mostly works out of a space in his apartment about the size of a phone booth. He has recorded from closets and cars in a pinch.
But new technology brought more competition, and companies capitalized on the high number of freelancers. Once equipment became easier to come by, floods of people decided to try their hands at voice acting. In turn, online sites connecting freelancers to clients have started to emerge.
Voices.com, the largest such online voice-over marketplace, changed the way actors look for employment. The site, founded in 2005, has more than 200,000 voice actors and receives more than 5,000 job posts a month. David Ciccarelli, the founder and the Chief Executive Officer at Voices.com, says the site receives about 20,000 new voice actors a month. He estimates about five to ten percent are semi-professional or professional voice actors.
Gentle used the site a few years back and had secured work through it, but he has since left the site.
“The whole thing is about the bottom line. They come along and basically say, ‘Okay, this is what we think the price of the voice-over is based on this little survey we did,” Gentle said, in reference to Voices.com. “So the economics of scale come into play. But of course, they skewed everything to their lower end. So you’ve got the quality of voice-over talent going down, you’ve got pricing going down.”
Voices.com collects a 20% platform fee and charges subscribers $500 a year. The site’s algorithm aims to match jobs to qualified voice talent, and also offers a way for clients to message actors, download completed audio files, and pay actors. The site includes a Voice Over Rate Sheet, which recommends a budget for the project. An estimated budget for an internet advertisement, designed to be shown worldwide in perpetuity, is around $1,600.
Before Voices.com, Gentle says, industry websites were simply posting boards for jobs, with modest subscription fees. Voices.com, he says, “just infected every, every corner of the business in this way of thinking.”
Some voice actors, including Gentle, have accused Voices.com of taking out more money than they advertised. In 2018, one actor even sued, filing a complaint in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York alleging that Voices.com “retains a large portion of the budget for the job without revealing to either the voice seeker or the talent that they will be retaining a large portion or how much they are retaining.” Voices.com did not return NYCityLens‘s requests for comment on the complaint.
The internet has affected the voice-over industry in another way too—altering the types of jobs in demand. For a report called Media Trends and Their Impact on Marketing and Advertising Into 2020, Voices.com surveyed 750 professionals, such as producers and commercial directors, to gather information about what content would be created in the coming year. The key finding is that jobs for quick, internet advertisements are on the rise. About 55 percent of creators plan to make more internet and video advertising, while 35 percent plan on making less radio, television, and movie trailers. In 2019, there was a 55 percent decrease in jobs in television on the site, a 44 percent decrease in documentary jobs, and a 34 percent decrease in movie trailers.
Internet videos are the number one job category on Voices.com, but these jobs tend to have faster turnover and lower budgets, since the content is shorter in length and is in constant need of updating. Actors, therefore, have to do multiple small jobs for the same pay as what they used to get for one larger or mid-sized job. “The way it works with those sites is that they are much lower-paying jobs,” Gentle said. “The people that offer them are the most demanding and most difficult people to work with.”
But Ciccarelli of Voices.com defends the model. Despite large numbers of users, Ciccarelli says that premium, experienced talents still easily land employment at fair rates. He explains that actors create a profile on the site, similar to a LinkedIn profile. They can link samples of work, skill sets, academic backgrounds, and languages they are fluent in. Users are also reviewed after a job, so five-star actors are more likely to get work.
Ciccarelli argues,in fact, that Voices.com is incentivized to encourage higher rates, and higher earnings for actors, because the company relies on the success of the actor. “The cream rises to the top,” he said. “The talent that belongs on top is going to break through the noise.”
He even says actors have been earning more recently. “Most business people don’t want to insult the freelancer, they want to pay them market rates,” Cicarelli said. “Our average transaction value has actually been going up. I think that’s partly because we have been educating the buyer that if they want a professional, come here for these rates.”
And Ciccarelli believes that further technological advancements will create more jobs for voice actors, just in different areas. “I’m optimistic about all these manifestations of how voice can be used in our day to day lives,” he said. “It’s not just the classics, like radio and TV commercials that our mom and dad probably watched. It’s more like voices showing up in our social media, in how we commute, whether we’re listening to a podcast or an audiobook on the subway, on the way in, or we’re driving around and interacting with our car.”
Others worry, however. Technological advances are pushing the voice-over industry in new directions, they ask, but does it have the power to replace it? Artificial Intelligence voices are becoming more and more advanced and are starting to be used in advertisements.
VocalID, a company that creates synthesized voices, started by making customized voices for people who could not speak. “We work specifically with many patients who have had neck cancer,” said Rupal Patel, the founder and CEO of VocalID. “On top of that, we are working with companies and brands that want voice products that are more unique sounding than what exists today on the market.”
Even though a synthesized voice can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Patel is seeing smaller and mid-sized companies begin to purchase artificial voices. She said new techniques are bringing down the costs dramatically.
“It’s not going to replace all things that a voice actor does, but there are probably some things that it can be a substitute for,” she said. Patel explained that artificial-intelligence voices still cannot create the natural pauses that make speech sound completely human.
Ciccarelli is not worried. He says human voices carry too much emotion to be captured with artificial intelligence. “When I move in to, like, the educational space or even the entertainment space, there’s no way I’m listening to a synthetic,” Ciccarelli said. “If it’s an audiobook telling me the story, a character in an animated production, the voice is literally breathing life into a character.”
Gentle, too, is impressed by the advancements in technology. He even plays around with AI voices online in his spare time. But he doubts he is in danger of losing his job to a synthetic voice.
“I’ve heard some really, really good synthesized voices,” Gentle said. “They’re able to get a lot of emotion out of them. They really are. And it’s extremely impressive. But they are a lot of work, even with quantum computing. People’s brains still work way faster.”
Gentle is currently voicing an astronaut for an Australian metal band’s album.