The relationship between radio and ringtones is critical, Mr. Dodes said.
Ringtones are a way for fans to identify themselves with something popular,
similar to a concert T-shirt. It's no accident that the most successful
ringtones are generally radio hits as well.
It's the reason why few artists create songs only as ringtones, despite some
early interest. Certainly an outtake or unused beat from a recording session
could be included as an exclusive ringtone for fans who buy the CD or as some
other sort of incentive, but Dodes said those unique ringtones will never
achieve the kind of sales that "Drank" or "Stripper" did.
While it's possible to sell ringtones directly to fans via the artist's Web site
or third-party partners, the majority of ringtones sold come through the mobile
carrier. All but 3 percent of the sales for "Drank" came through the carrier
But the most important factor to a best-selling ringtone is featured placement
on wireless operators' ringtone menus. Ringtones that have been available for
months can suddenly spike as much as 75 percent once they reach the top of the
carrier's "What's Hot" section.
Ringtone remixes are a common strategy to lengthen the sales cycle for
successful singles. The ringtone for "Stripper" has five versions featuring
collaborations with Mike Jones and Paul Wall. "Drank" has six versions with help
from Kanye West and Yung Joc.
"It's a personalization product, so you need to give people different versions
of the song," Mr. Dodes said.
"They make a person's phone more exciting, I guess," T-Pain said of ringtones.
"You don't want to hear that Verizon tone all day. They've definitely been a big
important part of my whole career."
Some artists remain conflicted about selling their songs as ringtones, feeling
perhaps that the 30-second clips reduce their art to a techno gimmick. But if
T-Pain has any reservations being known as a "ringtone artist," he certainly
doesn't show it.
"As long as someone wants to hear my music," he said, "I don't care if it's a
ringtone or the album or whatever."