Fine-tuning your ring is the latest thing
By Tom Beer
Angela Landon's boyfriend calls
her on her cellphone, and she's treated to the celestial strains of Handel's
"Hallelujah Chorus." When it's her family in Texas calling, her phone plays the
theme from television's "Dallas." NYC friends set off a round of "New York, New
York." Pesky unidentified callers? She's warned with a snippet of Elvis'
Landon has joined the army of consumers spending $300 million a year, according
to one market study, to download customized "ringtones" for their phones.
For one thing, it's a way to integrate favorite music, whether it be novelties
like the "Pink Panther" theme or pop hits like Usher and Alicia Keys' "My Boo,"
into their everyday lives.
For wireless companies, it represents big money — the next step in a
technological evolution that has transformed the mobile phone into a
personalized multipurpose gadget for talking to friends, surfing the Web,
sending e-mail, snapping photos and listening to tunes. And for the music
labels, it could mean a lifesaving foothold in the digital download market
during financially troubled times.
The industry takes this very seriously, so much so that Billboard magazine now
tracks the nation's Top 20 ringtones, alongside its well-established charts for
album sales and radio play.
Most ringtones come as "MIDI" files: brief, synthesized versions of songs
created especially for the cellphone market. At $1.99 to $2.49 a pop, ringtones
are more costly than downloading the original recordings from a service like
iTunes or Napster. They're also, believe it or not, more popular: According to
Billboard, in its first week tracking sales last month, the No. 1 ringtone, "My
Boo," sold 97,000 units, whereas the No. 1 downloaded song, U2's "Vertigo," sold
That surprised Billboard's editors, said Geoff Mayfield, the magazine's director
of charts. "With the download you get the whole song, the full dynamics and
vocals, and you can play it as often as you want. With the ringtone you get 15,
maybe 20, seconds of a synthesizer approximating your song. And yet the No. 1
ringtone outsold the No. 1 download by more than 3-to-1. Considering the
economics of it, and the value proposition, we were just stunned that it was so
Explore the ringtones market, says Mayfield, and you'll quickly find that "it's
a hip-hop world." Rappers Snoop Dogg, Lil' Flip, Chingy and Petey Pablo dominate
the Top 10.
Hip-hop artists have been the most aggressive in marketing themselves with
ringtones. Eminem offers a free ringtone of his single "Just Lose It" for
consumers who purchase the double-disc collector's edition of his new album,
"Encore." Sir Mix-A-Lot has signed an agreement with Versaly Entertainment to
produce ringtones for the youth market, to be made available by most U.S.
Ludacris, Kanye West and The Game joined forces to produce an original ringtone,
"Anthem," for Boost Mobile (a division of Nextel); the song is featured in
Boost's TV ads, and proceeds from its sales have raised more than $20,000 for
Also popular are TV and movie themes: "Sex and the City," "The Godfather" and
"John Carpenter's Halloween." Latin music, both rock and salsa, is a growing
market. You can even get your fix of Bollywood hits from India.