Mastertones ring up profits
By Edna Gundersen
Contradicting its paranoid and paralytic response to the initial boom in
download technology, the music industry is gleefully embracing the ringtone
revolution, now powering into its second phase as richer mastertones supplant
This week, Nielsen RingScan unveils its mastertone sales data, and Billboard
publishes its inaugural mastertone chart, a clear indication of the song
As album sales sag (down 5% this year), the constant busy signal in mastertone
sales is giving the music industry hope for a turnaround. With Informa Telecoms
and Media projecting a $6.8 billion mastertone business by 2010, labels are
salivating over profit and promotional opportunities.
The mastertone's rise is evident in a comparison of Nielsen's RingScan and
SoundScan data. In the week ending Nov. 12, Akon's Smack That was the No. 1
mastertone, with 164,000 sold. It was No. 2 on the digital chart after selling
104,000 downloads. Beyoncé's Irreplaceable sold 124,000 mastertones and 79,000
In recognition of the mastertone's commercial and cultural clout, the Recording
Industry Association of America, which has certified album sales for 47 years,
recently introduced Master Ringtone Sales Awards by inaugurating 128 gold and
The ringtone market "is a big hip-hop place, heavily driven by teens, and
they're veering to mastertones," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at
Billboard, which will introduce its Hot RingMasters chart on Friday and transfer
polyphonic rankings to its website. "The diminished polyphonic market is
becoming more adult-leaning."
Polyphonic ringtones, synthesized reproductions of songs, were dominant in the
market until more handsets could accommodate the actual sound recordings that
"We were floored at how big the polyphonic numbers were when we added the chart
in October 2004," Mayfield says. "Week in and week out, the No. 1 polyphonic
would outsell the best-selling digital track. You're talking about a whole song
for 99 cents vs. a cheap synthesized version for up to three times the price.
Then polyphonics started trailing off. People wanted the real songs."
The average cost for a ringtone is $2.40, says Paul Leakas, general manager of
Nielsen Mobile. Polyphonics tend to range from $1.99 to $2.50, while mastertones
run $3 or more. The price hasn't hampered the shift to mastertones.
"They've quickly taken over the ringtone space and represent 86% of weekly
sales, compared to polyphonic tones with 12%," Leakas says. "We continue to
track polyphonics, and that space seems to be going to seasonal ringtones and
movie and game themes. More people are opting for actual songs. The major labels
and their artists are fully entrenched in the business. It's very hit-driven."
Trendy polyphonic titles include themes from Mission: Impossible, The Pink
Panther and John Carpenter's Halloween, a perennial.
Among the hottest mastertones: radio hits Jim Jones' We Fly High, Bow Wow's
Shortie Like Mine and Fergie's Fergalicious. Big sellers tend to be current
because consumers switch tones often, discarding last month's flavor for a fresh
hit, making the mastertone trade especially lucrative.
"I prefer the real song as opposed to the polyphonic, where the music is too
manipulated," says Jillian Weyman, 15, a high school sophomore in Tarzana,
Calif. Her favorite ringtone is the Hush Sound's We Intertwined. "The mastertone
just sounds better. If there's a difference in price, it's usually not
Labels are thrilled not only with the fat revenue stream but also with
Before rapper Rick Ross' Port of Miami album reached stores last summer, 1
million phones were ringing with the sound of his Hustlin'. Last month, rapper
Jibbs became the second artist to rack up 1 million ringtone sales of a song not
yet released, when his Chain Hang Low went platinum before his debut album hit
Chamillionaire's Ridin' (You Can't Arrest Me) is the year's top seller, with 3
Rap prevails in the chart's upper ranks, but Leakas notes: "The industry is
widening. In the past, R&B and hip-hop, which had the best sound in a
synthesized clip, dominated. But we've seen classic rock and alternative and
other genres appearing as mastertones have become the primary ringtone."
A key difference between polyphonics and mastertones lies in profit splits. The
former made money for carriers, publishers and songwriters, but not performers.
"With mastertones, the labels and artists are stakeholders," Mayfield says.
"Artists who don't write their own songs get a piece of the action. It's a good
revenue generator for the record business.
"(The mastertone chart) is an important metric. You can't just look at album
sales anymore to decree the health of any record company. You have to look at
more and more parts of the elephant: digital tracks, streaming and ringtones."
Recent sales have averaged 4.6 million ringtones a week. With the expected
addition of Sprint Nextel, Nielsen RingScan will track more than 80% of U.S.
ringtone sales. Anticipating continued growth in the entire mobile sector, the
company will soon track ringback tones, the tune a cell owner installs for
incoming callers to hear.
BMI, a trade organization that distributes royalties to 300,000 member
songwriters, composers and music publishers, projects U.S ringtone revenues will
surpass $600 million in 2006, up from $500 million last year, $245 million in
2004 and $68 million in 2003. Global sales rose 40% in the past year to $3.5
billion, accounting for 10% of the music market, according to the London-based
ARC Group, which forecasts skyrocketing growth into 2008, when sales should
exceed $5.2 billion.
"We might not see triple-digit growth year over year," Leakas says, "but we
expect to see continued growth on a weekly basis."
It brings to mind a sardonic lyric from the Arctic Monkeys' A Certain Romance:
"There's only music so that there's new ringtones."