Ring Tones Acquire Some Classical Tastes
By LAURIE J. FLYNN
CHUCK WORKMAN used to cringe
whenever the cellphone of someone nearby played a few bars of a popular song
instead of simply ringing.
"I would think, 'It's a phone, let it ring,' " he said.
But Mr. Workman, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker in his 60's, is
now among a number of older consumers who are personalizing their cellphones by
replacing the standard straight-out-of-the-box ring with a snippet of music.
One recent week, his cellphone, a BlackBerry, played "Short Ride in a Fast
Machine" by John Adams. Before that, it was Mozart's "Magic Flute."
Today, consumers in Mr. Workman's age group represent a tiny fraction of the
market for ring tones. Almost one in four cellphone users 18 to 24 years old
have bought a ring tone in the last six months, and the percentage is even
higher for younger teenagers, says Jupiter Research, a technology market
research company in New York. But only 9 percent of cellphone users 35 to 44
have done so, and only 2 percent of those over 55 have bought a ring tone.
Part of the reason for older people's slowness toward personalizing ring tones
is that the selection for this group has been limited. But that is changing.
Boosey & Hawkes, a British classical music publisher, for example, recently
decided to capture some of the market by making 300 of the most popular
classical music recordings in its catalog available as ring tones. These include
familiar pieces like Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Copland's "Appalachian
Mr. Workman became familiar with the Boosey & Hawkes collection (booseytones.com)
through his movie-making, and now likes to use music he has used in his films.
"I'm really not much of a downloader," he said. "Until now, whatever's on my
phone I'd use."
In the nine months since Boosey & Hawkes began selling ring tones, the company
has experienced a surge in interest, according to Steven Swartz, a spokesman for
the company who is based in its New York office. Mr. Swartz said that cellphone
users liked classical music as ring tones not just because they liked a certain
recording, but because the classical ring tones are rarer and seem less
intrusive than ones based on popular music.
But Boosey & Hawkes's classical tones cost much more than most popular ring
tones, $5.56 apiece, compared with $2 to $3 for more popular genres.
Julie Ask, a senior analyst at Jupiter, said the number of new ring-tone
customers was increasing more slowly since the days of early adopters. But
current customers are buying more than ever, she said.
In 2005 the ring-tone market had revenues of $603 million, and that number is
expected to reach $931 million this year, Jupiter says. By 2010 ring-tone
revenues are forecast to grow to $1.3 billion.
"It's not about having a fancy ring tone, but it's really about personalizing
your cellphone," said Bruce Gibson, an analyst with Juniper Research, a market
research company and consultancy in London. "It becomes a statement of who you
are." The increase in selection is clearly attracting new customers. "The
ring-tone market is getting more sophisticated," he added.
As a category, classical ring tones have not made it to the Top 10 yet. From the
start, the focus of the industry has been on popular music, since teenagers have
shown the most interest in modifying their phones.
Hip-hop and rap are the most popular music for ring tones, together accounting
for about a quarter of sales, followed by pop rock and soul and R&B, according
to Telephia, a market research company tracking the mobile phone industry. Among
the most popular are "Hollaback Girl," by Gwen Stefani and "Just a Lil Bit" by
To help increase sales, some music labels are using ring tones to market new
albums. Madonna, for example, released her single "Hung Up" as a ring tone last
fall before she released it as an official full-length download.
More and more, consumers are buying so-called real tones, those derived from the
master recording of the music, over traditional, computer-generated ring tones.
With the rate of growth in ring-tone sales slowing, entertainment companies have
been branching into related products, most notably personalized ring backs —
that is, the tone or music that is played for callers as they wait for the
person they are calling to pick up. Unlike ring tones, which are priced
individually, ring backs are usually sold as a monthly service. Cellular
carriers offer various pricing plans for ring backs, starting at about a dollar
For now, the ring-back industry is aimed at younger customers, starting off the
way the ring-tone industry did. But demand for downloadable ring backs is
expected to grow quickly in the next few years. Even Mr. Workman may get one.