By Steve Mollman
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Were you to see Kara Edwards shopping in her local grocery store in North Carolina, you'd probably have no idea that she's an incredibly strong Japanese boy who can fly through the air while throwing punches. But that's what she is -- at least on TV.
A professional voice actor, Edwards is the English-language voice of Goten, a character in the hugely popular Japanese anime "Dragon Ball Z," which broadcasts in the United States and other countries. As a professional voice talent for the past 10 years, Edwards has played many characters, and been in many commercials.
But the competition is heating up. "Right now, the market is being saturated with actors," she says. The reason? Internet advances have made it relatively easy for anyone -- anywhere in the world -- to set up shop as a voice talent (though it helps to have a talented voice).
Ten years ago, Edwards says, the marketplace for voice talent was completely different. "Being a voice actor meant you had to have an agent," she recalls. "They called you in for auditions and you went to a set location to record."
Today, it's almost too easy. Voice actors can be their own agent. Clients find them through personal Web sites or via talent-congregation sites Voices.com, Voices123.com, and CommercialVoices.com. In place of mailing demo CDs, MP3 files are emailed, or sound clips are kept on a Web site. Many voice talents work from a home studio that can be set up for a few thousand dollars.
"That's why suddenly everyone is a voice actor," says Edwards. "How many businesses can begin with so little?"
And these businesses can be started from anywhere in the world. The thousands of talents listed at Voices.com speak more than 100 languages, notes CEO David Ciccarelli. On the site you can hit a Play button that's placed next to a talent's name and hear what they sound like.
Much of the work is corporate in nature, but "more and more, these professionals are being hired for entertainment purposes, such as film and dubbing for broadcast content distributed around the world through new and traditional media," says Ciccarelli.
Maureen Egan has been in the voice business for 20 years. "In 1985, there were no podcasts," she notes. "No one had a Web site. Today I regularly voice a podcast for a high-tech client, which they share on their Web site as a value-added service."
She also does e-learning narration for companies in Singapore and Australia, and in the Middle East her voice can be heard on phone-messaging systems. In some U.S. stores she's the voice on a point-of-sales video describing a workout machine (the original was in Cantonese).
Meanwhile it's the voice of Michiru Yabu, an independent voice talent in Yokohama, that you'll hear on many travel videos in Japan that were originally in English. You'll find her work profile scattered across many web sites, including Voices.com and Voices123.com. She also does podcasts, Internet radio and phone-messaging systems.
Falling technology barriers mean it's easier not just to demonstrate talent and exchange files, but also to make and receive payments. Edwards often gets paid through PayPal. In some cases, she says, an entire project -- from negotiating to hiring to exchanging files to payment -- takes only a few hours.
It's also become much easier for her to do research. If someone wants a voice that sounds like a particular character, she can usually find a YouTube clip of that character in a matter of seconds and start practicing. "YouTube has changed my life," she says.
With the barriers to entry so low, the competition for work can get intense. At Voices123.com employers put projects up for bid and let voice talents from around the globe compete for the job.
Edwards wonders how many voice talents the market can really support. "Not all of us can make a living doing this," she says. "At some point, the ones that aren't earning will have to find other work. I just hope I'm not one of them!"