I used to joke that if I could get paid to just talk all day I’d be one happy (and rich) person. Then a friend one day told me there’s a thing for that called “consulting,” and a few months later I was officially a blogging coach and soon after a money coach ;)
But the REAL opportunity, as I’m just now finding, seems to be with voice over acting. And today my friend Carrie who’s killing it with voice acting tells us how she got started, and how you can jump into it as well. Along with all the pros, cons, and most excitingly – how much it pays!
A great way to hit our 60th side hustle, thanks Carrie!
[This article was updated in August, 2019 to include even MORE knowledge now that it’s been 4 years since Carrie originally posted this… As you can see below, she’s still very much enjoying it and killing it!]
In a matter of four months, I discovered an industry, started a side hustle in it, replaced my day job income, and quit my job to pursue my side hustle full time. All this on the nights and weekends with a newborn baby in the house. What was my investment to get started in my new occupation? About $300. I’ve since invested a lot more into my business, but fortunately, my original startup costs were pretty minimal.
The industry that I dove into was voice over. I got paid $450 for the first job I ever did. I was instantly profitable. The job was to provide the narration for a two-minute video for a company in Denmark (I recorded it from the closet of my apartment in Kansas City). I made $10,000 over the course of three months on the third job I ever got. I quickly learned that is extremely rare to book a national radio campaign with a worldwide brand as a new voice actor, but hey, that’s my story.
In the rest of this article I’ll tell you what voice acting is and a little about how the industry works. I’ll also outline exactly how I got started, and provide some steps you can take if you’re interested in becoming a voice actor.
What is voice acting?
You know those voices you hear on the radio, TV, and online trying to sell you things? Those are done by professional voice actors. Professional voice overs are also used for narrating audiobooks, product/explainer videos, training videos, video games, animation, live announcing, jingles and more. The voice telling you what stop is coming up next on the bus or subway is from a voice actor. Announcements at the airport and audio tours in museums. I’ve done pre-recorded announcements for award shows. YouTube ads, Pandora commercials, toys… It’s not just TV and radio. The list goes on and on. When you hear a voice but don’t see the person talking, that’s voiceover.
What the Job Entails
I spend my days at home in my vocal booth, reading scripts, editing audio, and delivering recordings to clients. But I didn’t start out that way. My first “booth” was a spare bedroom in my old apartment with sheets hung on the walls. Then I “upgraded” to the closet that we treated with foam and acoustic blankets. I’ve also recorded from my car, hotel rooms, friends houses, and once in an airport. That didn’t work too well.
Of course, there is the business side as well that includes invoicing, marketing, networking, branding, and getting coaching and vocal training. As a voice actor, you’ll spend your time split between doing the administrative things you need to do to keep your business running and reading scripts for commercials, narration, animation, or whatever types of jobs you book.
A lot of times, the jobs that you book aren’t really things that you’re passionate about or interested in. But sometimes you get to work on projects that are right up your alley. Like in this Grammarly ad that got a lot of playtime on YouTube. A friend of mine called me and said he got really confused when he heard it. He often reaches out to me for help editing papers, and he thought one of our conversations was somehow being played back through his computer!
Pros of Voice Acting
- You can do it from anywhere! Well, anywhere with an internet connection that is quiet enough. In 2015 my family went on a cross-country road trip and I recorded many spots from the bathroom… I mean ”studio” of our travel trailer. I would hang acoustic blankets up anytime I needed to record in there. I’ve recorded from a parking garage, and I discovered one of the best, quietest places to record from when traveling: cemeteries. Yes, I look super suspicious pulling up in my car and then going into the backseat with a blanket over my head and a microphone. But you do what you have to do ;) My in-laws are awesome and set up a closet that I use as a studio when we come for visits.
- You don’t need a degree. But professional training is everything. I wouldn’t have been able to get my career off the ground like I did without training and coaching. While training is a must, what I mean is you don’t need anyone’s permission to choose to pursue voice over.
- You can make your own hours for the most part. There are always deadlines for work, but there’s a ton of flexibility overall.
- It’s a cool job! It’s fun, and people will always be intrigued when you tell them it’s what you do.
- It is very lucrative. Or it can be anyway. There are a lot of voice actors out there working part-time, pursuing voiceover as just a hobby, or who are struggling to get their careers off the ground. But on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of national TV commercials have 5-figure paydays. And it’s been really fun to get to grow with a lot of voice actors who are now making over 6 figures. Of course getting to those numbers takes years of dedicated work, training, a good plan, and the endurance to stick with it.
- Low barrier to entry. You don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment to get started. You do, however, need some good quality equipment, but you don’t have to spend a fortune on it. (I’ve offer resources to help you select equipment, get proper training, and start auditioning here in my free getting started in voice over guide.)
Cons of Voice Acting
- Work is never guaranteed. It’s a competitive industry, and sometimes (if you’re auditioning) you’ve got to beat out hundreds of other voice actors to get a job. There’s not much of a safety net aside from your ability to market yourself and consistently book work. Agents and casting sites can help in this area but it’s ultimately up to you.
- Training can be expensive and time consuming. It takes time to get your skills up to a competitive level. The voice over industry is competitive and full of people who have been doing it for decades. As a beginner you can’t really expect to compete with people who have more skills, knowledge, and connections than you do. But even those people started as a beginner years ago. It’s okay to be a beginner and start from where you are today. While getting enough equipment and know-how to start auditioning doesn’t cost much, a good coach does — and should. But in my experience, it is well worth the investment. If the cost of training is prohibitive, there are many online groups you can join for free that are extremely helpful, but aren’t a substitute for 1-on-1 coaching. (More info on these types of groups in the guide I mentioned above.)
- It can be isolating. If you’re an introvert like me, this could also go in the pros category. But you can expect to spend the majority of your time alone in your recording space. I sometimes joke that my job is to stay locked in a soundproof box in my house shoes talking to myself all day long. (Nightmare for some, dream job for others.)
- Certain types of work are easier to get if you live in LA or New York. Although this hasn’t stopped me from making six figures from home in Kansas City. I have flown out to LA a few times for auditions, but I do the vast majority of my work from home. About every other month I do a directed session at a local studio.
How Much You Can Make Doing Voice Over
This varies from job to job and depends on whether you are a union member or not. You can check out current union rates here. What I’ve discovered is that outside of union rates, it’s subjective when it comes to pay. Many audition sites will allow you to bid your own price for a job. On these sites, a job may get one bid at $20 and another bid from a different voice actor for $1,000. It’s a matter of what you feel you’re worth and how much clients are willing to pay for truly professional work.
One of my most memorable paydays was $3,000 for 45 minutes of work. I was getting paid $500/spot (whether the spot was 60 seconds or 15) for a cinema ad campaign and did six spots in under an hour. It was my first time seeing that kind of cash come in from voiceover, and I remember feeling like there had to be some kind of mistake when the check came in. I was ecstatic!
The rate for voiceover work varies depending on what type of job it is (the pay for narrating audiobooks is very different than the pay for voicing commercials), how long the work will air, and where it will air. So you’ll see rates ranging from a couple hundred dollars well into the thousands.
When I was first starting out, I took jobs that I wouldn’t today. But I learned my lesson on accepting less-than-optimal rates. I am a huge advocate for charging what you’re worth and not underselling yourself–even for new voice actors.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Money magazine just came out with a list of the highest paying jobs you can do at home, and interestingly enough voice over work clocked in at 2nd place! With an average of $72/hr. So obviously those actors aren’t doing it right like Carrie is ;))
How I Got Started
Before we dig in here… If you ask any voice actor how they got started you’ll likely get a TOTALLY different answer from each person. There’s not one, straight and narrow path like, “I went to voiceover school, completed my residency, bought a mic and now I’m a voice actor!” I’ll tell my story but just remember that your path will be different. I also highlight other voice actors’ getting started stories on my website so you can see the unique journeys different people have had.
Okay, here’s my story…
It all started with podcasting. My husband and I have hosted and/or produced thousands of podcast episodes starting way back in the ancient days (2010). We used to work for a podcasting network and we’ve had our own personal shows off and on since 2010 too. We’re always on the lookout for a good new show to binge. At the time I discovered voice acting, I had a 45 minute commute to work, so I got lots of listening done.
One day, I randomly picked a new podcast I had never listened to, the Go For It Show with Tyson Webb (sadly, it’s not around anymore). I turned on the latest episode and set off for work. About half way through the episode, a light bulb went off.
The show I happened to be listening to was an interview with a voice actor named Alyson Steel. I was only half paying attention until I heard her answer the question, “What does a typical work day look like for you?” I had a baby that year and had just gone back to work. I was dying to be able to spend more time with my daughter and husband.
This is what Aly’s typical work day looked like: She got up, did yoga, got her kids off to school, checked her email for scripts, spent some time in her voiceover booth recording spots for radio, TV, internet, telephone systems, etc., got on Facebook for a while, did a little more recording, then called it a day. Um… AWESOME!
At the end of the episode, she mentioned that she offers private voice acting coaching for $150 for an initial hour consultation (her coaching model is different now and I still highly recommend her). My husband, Derek, is a budgeting fanatic, so I figured he wouldn’t be too excited about me asking to spend $150 to learn more about a job that neither of us had even heard of before that day. Fortunately, he told me to go for it. (He would later tell me that he could tell how excited I was and that he could “sense” something.)
I booked the session with Aly, a 20-year voice acting veteran, and she spent an hour telling me all about the business. I took notes like a crazy person. I still have them. That night, I recorded a very rough sample reel on the equipment Derek and I use for podcasting and sent it to Aly. She was beyond encouraging, so I hired her to coach me as I worked to get my new business going.
The Ball Started To Roll…
I become a voiceover sponge, reading, watching, and listening to every voiceover resource I could find. Meanwhile, I started auditioning for work on an online casting site. They had a special where I could sign up for my first month for $10. When a client on the site likes your audition, they can shortlist you. I started getting shortlisted almost immediately. And one morning as I was leaving for work, I whispered to Derek who was still in bed, “I got my first job. $450!” I was thrilled and he was shocked!
I had booked my first paying job about seven weeks after learning voice over was even a thing and I was totally obsessed. I started living, breathing, and eating all things voiceover. Well, not eating…
(We’ve come a long way since this pic! This was in an isolation booth at a at a co-working space I used to use that just happened to have a full blown recording studio. The door was five inches thick and weighed a freakin’ ton! The mic in this pic was the same we used for podcasting and originally cost $100 in 2010. I’ve since upgraded my set up which you can learn more about in my getting started guide.)
I’ve been having a blast. Like in any business, there are ups and downs, but I have now been booking work on my own and through my agents and manager, while continually seeking out the best training in the industry. I get to network with the amazing contacts I’ve made over the years, am nationally represented by one of the best agencies in the business, have voiced highly played television and radio commercials, and built up a hefty clientele of repeat business for my voiceover services. In 2019 I joined the Actors Union which I still can’t believe!
I’ve worked with hundreds of companies now, including Taco Bell, Kmart, REI, Grammarly, Pandora, 7-11, Walt Disney World, AT&T and am loving doing promos for the Netflix Series Spirit Riding Free.
Here Are The Steps I Took in Detail
(I’m laying out the path I took, even though I realize your path will look way different. If you’re less interested in how I did it and would rather just hear about how you can do it, skip down a section.)
First, I made the decision to make a real go of it. Since I’ve been voice acting, I’ve had hundreds of people ask me how to get into the industry. I think the first step is that you have to want it. Badly. And you have to want it enough to put in the effort it requires. Of the many who have picked my brain on becoming a voice actor, only a small percentage actually followed through with the steps I suggested. Voice over work sounds like a ton of fun — and it is — but it is also a business. Voiceover jobs don’t fall into your lap just because you’re sort of interested in trying it out. This leads me to the second thing I did, and probably the most important.
Then, I hired a voice over coach. There are so many people on the web claiming to be voice over coaches, and you have to be careful that the one you work with isn’t just trying to build up your confidence, make you a half-ass demo, take your money, and then send you on your way to poor results, no income, and frustration. Sadly, this does happen. You only get one chance to make a first impression with potential clients and agents, and your coach should be someone who helps you develop your skills and make a demo that is going to give them a good first impression. Look for someone who knows the industry, is connected to agents so they know what a good demo sounds like, and doesn’t just crank out demos for anyone who will pay their fee. You want someone who gives you personalized attention and will be there for the long haul.
Thirdly, I devoured everything I could get my hands and ears on about the VO industry. Blogs, books, podcasts, everything. I’m really glad I did this because I ended up booking my first national radio spot in a matter of weeks, and all of the research I did, combined with my sessions with my coach, helped me to feel like I knew what I was doing when I walked into the recording studio for the first time. I lay out some great resources that I devoured in those first weeks and months in a free guide that’s available on my website (more info below). A word of caution on this: If someone is promising you something that sounds too good to be true, make sure to vet the person before giving them any money.
Next, I auditioned. Auditioning was my only method of getting work for my first full year as a voice talent. I was still working full time, so I would try to do ten auditions when I got home from work, and as many as I could on the weekends. This didn’t always happen, but it was my goal.
Lastly, I marketed myself. After my first year, I wanted to have more control over my business, so I developed a targeted system and marketed my services to potential clients I really wanted to work with, mostly for e-learning work. By doing this I was able to build up a steady stream of repeat clients, many of whom I still work with today.
You may have noticed that “buy a microphone” or “learn how to use audio editing software” is nowhere on this list. Fortunately, I just happened to have had a hobby (podcasting) that gave me a head start in those areas.
It was not a smooth road to making a full-time income with voiceover work, particularly in the first year. It was risky to leave my job when I did, and although things ended up working out, there were some shaky moments. My income was dependent on whether or not I would book that next job. Getting regular, repeat clients helped to ease the burden I felt to constantly be booking new work.
And I never stopped seeking counsel. Along every step of the way, I consulted with my amazing voice over coach, who was (and still is) over the moon about my success. She has talked me down from the ledge, encouraged me, shared her wisdom, believed in me, and helped me to believe in myself. In a word, she is invaluable. I’ve also been involved in voice over mastermind groups that have helped me grow my business through motivation, connections, and voice and business skills.
By now you’ve recognized a common theme throughout my story: coaching and training. Voiceover is one of those industries that seems easy to get started in because “it’s just talking.” And while I do know a few people who have made amazing careers for themselves with no or limited coaching, you’re much more likely to grow your business–and experience less frustration–if you invest in developing your performance.
After all, many of the most acclaimed athletes, speakers, and entrepreneurs regularly meet with their coaches for ongoing development, so I figure I’m in good company.
(Pic above is of my current vocal booth at home. I’ve got my computer monitor and mic mounted to the wall and of course a shelf for my coffee!)
Want to Be a Voice Actor?
I get asked all the time “How do I get started?” or “Where do I go to get the jobs?” I answer these questions cautiously because I want to give the right kind of advice, and also because I’m trying to gauge if the person asking is setting themselves up for failure and frustration because they think it’s going to be easy. If someone ever tells you it’s going to be easy to start a 6-figure business, they’re pulling your leg. Starting a voiceover business may not be easy, but with the right plan and expectations, it’s totally doable. And totally worth it.
Here are a few steps I recommend you take if you’re interested in pursuing a career in voice over. These are the Cliff’s notes.
- Get a voice over coach. I recommend Alyson Steel. She’s awesome. It may sound ridiculous to hire someone to teach you how to talk. You’ve been doing that for years! But I promise there is a lot more to voiceover than just talking. A good coach can help catapult your career to the next level much faster than you could on your own. They can also save you from a lot of confusion and disappointment if you’re auditioning a lot and just can’t figure out why you’re not booking any jobs.
- Listen to your coach. No really, your coach will be able to tell you what your next steps should be. At some point, you’ll need to make a demo and start auditioning and/or marketing your services. Your coach will let you know when you’re ready and will make suggestions for getting started. He or she can also help you with acquiring all of the equipment you’ll need for your new career.
- If you want to go rogue and just get out there and see what happens, check out this guide to getting started in voice over without a coach, available on my website. It includes microphone recommendations and other helpful resources. But remember, you’re much more likely to get the most out of your investment if you hire a reputable professional who is familiar with the industry to guide you.
- Listen to commercials. Or audiobooks, or e-learning programs, or whatever it is you want to voice. I used to hate listening to radio commercials in the car. Now, I’ll actually change the station when music comes on so that I can study the commercials!
- Market yourself. Once you feel your skills are competitive, get a website up and running, get a demo made, and start reaching out to your ideal clients and agents. But don’t do this too early. If you’re going to invest in a demo, make sure it represents you at your best. So don’t do it first thing. If you make your demo first, then start getting training afterwards, your demo will be outdated almost immediately. (Meaning: You will be better than your demo so your demo will actually be holding you back from getting jobs!) Make sure you’re competitive before paying money to get a demo made.
- Keep practicing. I absolutely love doing voice over. It’s fun, and I get to be creative and even goofy sometimes. (Sometimes I scare the crap out of my husband when a job requires screaming. I always forget to warn him ahead of time!) There are people all over the world working hard to perfect their skills, and if I want to stay competitive with them, I have to practice to keep up my chops. I know they are practicing and getting coaching, and that motivates me to keep up (or slightly ahead). ;)
- Grab my (free) how to get started in voice over guide. I give away some of my best secrets on how I grew my voice over career, as well as some super valuable resources in the guide. Everything mentioned in the section above is expanded on in the guide, from equipment to training and coaching recommendations to marketing and even invoicing clients.
Let me know if you decide to look into it!
[Love a fun hustle? Check out all 59 others we’ve featured here: Side Hustle Series]
Top photo by drestwn
Jay loves talking about money, collecting coins, blasting hip-hop, and hanging out with his three beautiful boys. You can check out all of his online projects at jmoney.biz. Thanks for reading the blog!