Letting a new creativity ring out
By Melena Z. Ryzik
Carlos Bousted is a laid-back
recent high school graduate and a sometime disc jockey. But unlike most disc
jockeys, Bousted does not have to lug around crates of records, compact discs or
even an iPod. His music is strictly cellular.
Bousted, 18, is a competitive ringtone disc jockey. "You put certain songs in
order and play them against other people," he said, explaining his technique.
"Anytime you're walking around: 'Oh, what you got?' And then you pull out your
Downloadable ringtones like the ones Bousted uses - tunes from artists like the
Yin Yang Twins and 50 Cent - have been a teenage mainstay for years, a
mushrooming market worth almost $5 billion globally. But as people like Bousted
have grown fluent in the language of ringtones, industry executives and
musicians alike have realized that they need not be duplicates of already
popular songs; there is room for creativity alongside the commerce.
"We definitely see a market for original content," said Andy Volanakis,
president and chief officer of Zingy, a ringtone provider that has released an
album by the producer Timbaland.
When combined with technology that allows them to sound like music instead of
its tinny shadow, and programs that allow anyone to make, mix or otherwise
devise his or her own ringtones, the seven songs on the Timbaland album - among
the first meant to be played on a phone, not a radio or CD player - suggest that
ring tones are not merely a new money-maker; they are a new art form.
People have really started to take this stuff seriously," said Jonathan Dworkin,
vice president for artists and repertory at BlingTones, a competitor of Zingy
that was one of the first to focus on original works. Its partners include Lil
Jon, the progenitor of crunk, a type of hip-hop, Q-Tip and others.
Even Nokia, which in 1991 became the first company to market a cellphone with an
identifiable musical ring tone - Francisco Tarrega's "Gran Vals" for classical
guitar - has moved away from its traditional tunes. For its newest phone, the
Nokia 8801, it commissioned original music and sounds composed exclusively for
cellphones by the eclectic Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Later in the summer, Zingy will release a song by Free Murda, an acolyte of the
rap group Wu-Tang Clan, as both a single and a ringtone; it was produced by RZA,
who compiled the scores for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films.
Why would a serious musician bother? A song can have multiple lives; a ringtone
has just one, and a fruit-fly-length one at that. Timbaland's seven original
ringtones average 20 seconds each. Money is definitely one reason. But that is
not the end of the story.
"It's another way of reaching your audience," Lil Jon said by telephone. "It's
exciting. Like I was already thinking, what if I produce a song for the
cellphone that ends up getting on music charts? The technology is so crazy, that
could one day happen."
Actually, it already has: in Britain, the heavily advertised Crazy Frog ringtone,
based on a Swedish teenager's imitation of a revving engine, topped artists like
Coldplay and U2 on the singles charts just last month. And the remix is already
Mainstream musicians are not the only ones intrigued by the possibility of the
ringing opus. In 2001, the multimedia artist Golan Levin, now a professor of
electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was the co-creator
of "Dialtones," a "telesymphony" composed entirely of the rings of audience
In Britain, where pop-inspired ringtones already often outsell the songs they
are based on, there is a wide variety of phone art, from Nick Crowe's "Axis of
Evil" national anthems to Stream & Shout, which paired artists and students to
create original ringtones.
For many people, especially the young, ringtones are as musically viable as a
favorite tape was a generation ago. "The phone playing their favorite song is
their identifier," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at
Billboard magazine, which began a ringtone chart last autumn. "That's part of
how they brand themselves."
For musicians, the ringtone also presents an opportunity to connect with fans.
Customization is growing daily: consumers can now choose what part of Fabolous's
single "Baby" they want as their ringtone; previously, record companies made
According to Edward Bilous, a professor at the Juilliard School in New York,
"Ringtones are pointing toward a kind of new interactive media in which the user
and the creator have a more democratic relationship with each other."
With sales on the rise, companies like Verizon, Cingular and Sprint are creating
music-playing phones and giving them the ability to tune in streaming radio. And
while Bilous worries that the ubiquity of musical cellphones might ruin the
listening experience,others contend that they can create new fans with every
"It can be a vehicle for creative expression both on the part of the composer
and the part of the person who uses it," Levin said. "The ringtone has a clear
connection to everyday life, and because of that, I think it's a vital form."