Cell phone users provide musical interlude for callers
By Jefferson Graham
Cell phone ringtones — those ubiquitous, chirpy sounds — have caught on to the
tune of an estimated $4 billion worldwide. Now musical ringers are moving inside
T-Mobile on Wednesday rolls out "Caller Tunes," which plays 40-second song
snippets to your caller until you answer — at $1.99 a pop. Tunes range from
Beyoncé's Baby Boy to holiday classics. Verizon Wireless began testing a similar
"ringback" service in two California markets last month.
They are part of a wave of new song-based ring features. Billboard now runs a
chart of top-selling ringtones. Tonight, at its annual awards show, Billboard
will give its first "Best Ringtone of the Year" award.
"Master tones" — ringers that play the actual song — are just taking hold in the
USA and work only on the newest handsets. Michael Gallelli of T-Mobile says
Caller Tunes "has the potential to become much bigger ... than ringtones."
"I can assign a different song to everyone who calls me," he says. "That's
Popular ringtones can rack up sales of 200,000 units at $1.50 to $3 each, says
Mark Frieser at researcher Consect, which compiles Billboard's chart. "When kids
buy a ringtone, they're looking at it as a way to personalize their phone
experience, to show who they are," he says.
Young people, of course, have resisted licensed online music services,
preferring instead to face potential lawsuits from the recording industry and
pluck songs for free from song-swap sites. "They're happy to pay for anything
that will make them look that much cooler in terms of their peers," Frieser
Ringtone sales here are a fraction of those in Europe and Asia. Frieser expects
U.S. sales of $300 million in 2004. He projects U.S. sales could grow to nearly
$1 billion by 2008.
Major record labels have been mostly left out of the ringtone market; royalties
go to songwriters and music publishers. But master tones and services like
Caller Tunes pay money to the labels and "are a more interesting business for
us," says Michael Nash at Warner Music Group.
Michael Gartenberg at market-tracker Jupiter Research thinks ringbacks could be
a tough sell. "There are those who will love it, and others who find it
annoying," he says.