Typecasting Voice-Over Artists
Why versatility makes you a most valuable player (MVP) of voice-over
I was introduced recently to the greatest basketball player in the world. Not literally, of course. But to what makes him the greatest and how he’s able to perform each and every night in America’s National Basketball Association.
His name is LeBron James. He’s arguably the most perfect player in the game’s history (and we’re not just talking about his beautiful, heroic upper arms).
LeBron can score from close range or far out, can leap to grab missed shots at either end, can soar out of nowhere to block shooters, can dribble past defenders like lightning, can pass the ball like a magician, and can be trusted to make the game-winning shot. He’s also a 4-time NBA MVP (most valuable player).
As you might able to appreciate, the thing that makes ‘King James’ (his nickname) the greatest basketball player in the world today isn’t just one thing.
Although we’re obviously different kinds of performers, I think it’s fair to say that LeBron and I have a fair bit in common. The fact that he’s now wearing purple for the Los Angeles Lakers is obviously a bonus! But on a more serious note, isn’t the fact that we both do lots of things at a high level pretty special?
When I first started in voice-over, travelling up and down the country to voice dozens of radio commercials in a single session, being versatile was a highly prized skill. Today, it still can be, but sometimes isn’t always, and it depends on who you’re working for.
People’s values appear to be changing. Today, some branding experts claim you should choose three words to describe your voice and use that as your slogan on your business card, website, and email footer. But it’s a bit difficult when you’re a versatile, old school voiceover artist, who’s rich in experience, expertise and excellence, who can sell her skills with dozens of adjectives, and who’s voiced for any genre you can think of for more than three decades. Whew! There just isn’t enough room on the page.
Perhaps room (or space) is exactly the problem. Perhaps today’s voice-over market is so crowded that the job is becoming less and less about being an excellent all-rounder with natural talent and skills built on layers and layers of experience. Perhaps now the job is becoming more and more about being able to do one thing, or a couple of things well (or dare I say it, just ok).
When ISDN first came out, it was claimed that producers would be able to cast more precisely; that they would be able to find the right voice for the right project. And yet 30 years on, I don’t think that’s always happened. My understanding is that some radio stations have a list of voice-over artists who are used for everything. But they’re not often right for everything. And they’re not often right, because they’re not versatile.
In a competitive, perhaps overpopulated industry, typecasting, or picking someone based on the first five seconds of their demo, might make casting directors’ lives easier. But unfortunately, it discriminates against versatility. It limits an artist’s performing palette and restricts their ability to display their spectrum of skills. It also limits the freedom of clients to change their mind about how they want a project to sound. For the experienced, versatile artist able to take direction, this is no problem. But for others, it can mean painfully long recording sessions, being dropped and never being booked again.
Casting based on someone’s age, or what they look like – unintentionally or not –is another issue. If you have to ask why, it’s because voiceover is a blind medium. Listening with your eyes can’t be done. Forget photos and ages. That’s confirmation bias – and it’s also a bias that can result in miscasting, mistakes and misadventures with time and money.
A further issue is that vocal ages vary. So if you can sound millennial when you’re 40+, you should be getting work.
And last but not least, there’s suspension of disbelief. Imagination is all part of the act. Just click on my C Beebies demo on my TV & Radio Promos reel and tell me if you can hear a mature woman with a grown-up daughter.
So what’s given rise to these issues with casting? Is it that the power of the image has undermined the power of the voice? Maybe. The world has certainly become a lot more image-conscious since the days when nobody knew what their favourite radio presenter looked like – or even cared.
Perhaps values have changed.
But for me, the voice will always be – like LeBron – king.
Because versatility is value.
Versatility is VAT.
Versatility is Value Added Tanya.
And that’s why from now on, I’ll always cheer for LeBron and why he’ll always be my MVP.