By MELENA Z. RYZIK
CARLOS BOUSTED is a laid-back
recent high school graduate and a sometime D.J. Unlike most D.J.'s, though, Mr.
Bousted does not have to lug around crates of records, CD's or even an iPod. His
music is strictly cellular.
Mr. Bousted, 18, is a ringtone D.J. A competitive ringtone D.J. "You put certain
songs in order and play them against other people," he said, explaining his
technique. "Anytime you're walking around: 'Oh, what you got?' And then you pull
out your phone."
Downloadable ringtones like the ones Mr. Bousted uses - tunes from artists like
the Yin Yang Twins and 50 Cent - have been a teenage mainstay for years, a
mushrooming market worth almost $5 billion globally (the United States share is
$600 million and growing).
But as people like Mr. Bousted have grown fluent in the language of ringtones,
industry executives and musicians alike have realized that they need not be
duplicates of already popular songs; there is room for creativity alongside the
"We definitely see a market for original content," said Andy Volanakis,
president and chief officer of Zingy, a ringtone provider that has released an
album by the producer Timbaland.
When combined with technology that allows them to sound like music instead of
its tinny shadow, and programs that allow anyone to make, mix or otherwise
devise his or her own ringtones, the seven songs on the Timbaland album - among
the first meant to be played on a phone, not a radio or CD player - suggest that
ring tones are not merely a new money-maker; they are a new art form.
"People have really started to take this stuff seriously," said Jonathan Dworkin,
vice president for artists and repertory at BlingTones, a Zingy competitor that
was one of the first to focus on original works. Its partners include the crunk
progenitor Lil Jon, Q-Tip and others.
With ringbacks, voice tones (Snoop Dogg says, "Pick up the phone!") and sound
effects crowding the field, there are more opportunities to circumvent the
cellphone's bleep or brring than ever before. Even Nokia, which in 1991 became
the first company to market a cellphone with an identifiable musical ring tone
(Francisco Tarrega's "Gran Vals" for classical guitar), has moved away from its
traditional tunes. For its newest phone, the Nokia 8801, it commissioned wholly
original music and sounds, composed exclusively for cellphone by the eclectic
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Later this summer, Zingy will release a song
by Free Murda, a Wu-Tang Clan acolyte, as both a single and a ringtone; it was
produced by RZA, who compiled the scores for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill"
Why would a serious musician bother? After all, a song can have multiple lives;
a ringtone, just one, and a fruit-fly-length one at that. (Timbaland's seven
original ringtones average just 20 seconds each.) Money is definitely one
reason. As Lil Jon said of BlingTones, "They cut the check." But that's not the
end of the story. "It's another way of reaching your audience," he added in a
telephone interview. "It's exciting. Like I was already thinking, what if I
produce a song for the cellphone that ends up getting on music charts? The
technology is so crazy, that could one day happen."
Actually, it already has: in Britain, the heavily advertised Crazy Frog ringtone
- based on a Swedish teenager's imitation of a revving engine - topped artists
like Coldplay and U2 on the singles charts just last month. And the remix is
One BlingTones artist, Tony (CD) Kelly, has already started incorporating the
old standard-issue cellphone rings into his new ringtones - a postmodern remix
in which the Nokia song morphs into a hip-hop beat, for example.
Mainstream musicians are not the only ones intrigued by the possibility of the
ringing opus. In 2001, the multimedia artist Golan Levin, now a professor of
electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was the co-creator
of "Dialtones," a "telesymphony" (flong.com/telesymphony), composed entirely of
the rings of audience members' cellphones. In Britain (where pop-inspired
ringtones already often outsell the songs they are based on), there's a wide
variety of phone art, from Nick Crowe's "Axis of Evil" national anthems (artones.net)
to Stream & Shout, which paired artists and students to create original
"They understood it immediately," Ross Dalziel, a Liverpool, England, sound
artist, said of the teenagers he worked with on the Stream & Shout project. For
many people, especially the young, ringtones are as musically viable as a
favorite mixtape was a generation ago: "The phone playing their favorite song is
their identifier," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at
Billboard magazine, which began a ringtone chart last fall. "That's part of how
they brand themselves," he added.
Like so much technology before it, then, the cellphone has morphed far beyond
its original function. "A phone used to ring just to get your attention," Mr.
Levin said. Now, said Patrick Parodi, chairman of Mobile Entertainment Forum, a
London-based trade association, "it's probably the device that identifies us
most, along with our cars."
For musicians, the ringtone also presents an irresistible opportunity to connect
with fans. Customization is growing daily: consumers can now choose what part of
Fabolous's single "Baby" they want as their ringtone; previously, record
companies made those kinds of decisions.
"The direction we're going in is you'd actually have this artist create the
ringtone when your boyfriend calls, or your best friend," said Amy Doyle, vice
president for music programming at MTV, which helped release the Timbaland
album. "So it becomes the artist scoring your life, almost, on your cellphone."
According to Edward Bilous, a professor at the Juilliard School, "Ringtones are
pointing towards a kind of new interactive media in which the user and the
creator have a more democratic relationship with each other."
But as every sidewalk, cafe or mode of public transport by now proves, there's
also a performance aspect to mobile phones. (After all, nobody customizes the
ringtone on a home phone.) And not everyone regards it as welcome. "I think most
people would agree with me that as they exist now, ringtones are a public
nuisance," Mr. Sakamoto wrote in an e-mail message. (Presumably, his composition
for Nokia is an exception.)
There are certainly limitations to the form, though Mr. Levin suggests that
boundaries breed creativity. But with sales on the rise, companies like Verizon,
Cingular and Sprint are creating music-playing phones and giving them the
ability to tune in streaming radio. And while Mr. Bilous worries that the
ubiquity of musical cellphones might ruin the listening experience (he is
already pondering starting a course called "From Ring Cycle to Ringtones: A
Study in Musical Attention Deficit Disorder"), others contend that they can
create new fans with every sound. Even the ringtone battles described by Mr.
Bousted, the cellphone D.J., foster community. "You have a little group of
people and they'll decide, like, 'Oh, yours is better,' " he said. "And then you
talk to each other and make friends."
Mr. Levin added: "It can be a vehicle for creative expression both on the part
of the composer and the part of the person who uses it. The ringtone has a clear
connection to everyday life, and because of that I think it's a vital form." For
those who disagree, there's always vibrate.