Wagner's Ring? Way Too Long
By Stephanie N. Mehta, FORTUNE senior writer
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Today, most ringtones for cellular phones are snippets of
existing songs or compositions, with top-40 and hip-hop hits making up the bulk
of the downloaded tones. But a new generation of songwriters sees the mobile
phone as an emerging medium for artistic expression, and they are composing
original material exclusively for cellphones: the ringtone for ringtone's sake.
It isn't easy. After all, pop and rap artists have three whole minutes to tell a
story with their music. Those jazz and classical dudes get even longer. But when
you're writing a ringtone, you have about 20 seconds to convey a message of
love, heartbreak or hope -- or at least come up with an infectious hook.
"With ringtones, it has to be memorable," says producer Eddie O'Loughlin. "And
it's got to have a little bite to it."
A 60-year-old music veteran who discovered such acts as rappers Salt-N- Pepa,
O'Loughlin's perfectionism could have a big payday. Ringtones are a shockingly
lucrative business, generating more than $2 billion in annual worldwide revenues
for the record labels that license their tunes and the retailers and phone
companies that sell the tones for about $2 a pop.
Everywhere you look, non-musicians are trying to cash in on the craze: Movie
studios want to make bits of film dialogue available -- instead of your phone
trilling, perhaps you'd like it to have Jack Nicholson say, "Here's Johnny!" And
sports figures are recording shout-outs that fans can buy in lieu of regular
Disco D aka David Shayman, a 25-year-old deejay/producer/composer, first got
turned on to the possibilities of ringtones when retailer Best Buy decided to
turn some music he'd written for one of its commercials into a ringtone and
offer it on the Best Buy Web site. (In fact, composing standalone ringtones is a
lot like writing music for commercials or jingles. "It's a very similar
concept," says Dee Robert, a singer and songwriter who has worked with O'Loghlin
and Disco D on ringtones. "You're trying to push a product in a very short
amount of time.")
It is one thing to write a killer ringtone, but then it needs to get airplay, or
phone play. That's where companies like Jamster come in. Jamster, a unit of
Internet services company VeriSign, formats music for distribution on mobile
devices and markets the ringtones on its Web site and through TV ads on MTV,
BET, and other music-oriented networks. Jamster even has its own studios, where
engineers will take ringtones and replay them on different cellphones to hear
how the clips will sound.
O'Loughlin, who owns a production company called Next Plateau Entertainment, has
compiled about 20 original ringtones from various artists, which he's pitched to
Jamster executives, who will decide which ones to license and market -- and
perhaps turn into hits.
Ringtone technology came out of Finland, which may not rule the music world but
definitely rocks when it comes to cellphones. A decade or so ago the Finns had a
problem. Big-shot executives would be sitting in a conference room, they'd all
put their phones on the table, and -- these being important people -- they'd all
have the same hot gadget. Then one of the phones would ring and everyone would
lunge because there was no way of knowing whether the phone was Pekka's or
Around the same time, an engineer for Finnish cellphone maker Nokia figured out
a way to change the sounds a phone makes by sending codes over the air -- the
same technology used to ship short text messages. Nokia commercialized the
service in 1997, and soon it wasn't merely executives using ringtones to
personalize their phones (they all have Beatles ringtones, anyway) but
hip-hop-loving kids looking for the latest sound and harried soccer moms who
program different rings for each of their kids and friends.
Yet only recently have serious music figures like Sir Mix-A-Lot viewed ringtones
as a platform for their creativity. (The "Baby Got Back" rapper has produced "MixTones"
for an outfit called Versaly Entertainment.) That's largely due to new handsets
that play "true tones," or reasonably good versions of recorded music.
Before true tones came along, phones could play only polyphonic or even cruder
monophonic tones, which could capture just a song's melody, often in
tinny-sounding bleats. Disco D, monitoring the "Love You Tonight" recording to
make sure a typical true-tone cellphone could replay the upper and lower notes,
says he doesn't compose for older handsets. "I, like, want some control over how
my art gets transmitted."
Berry Gordy had his "Hitsville U.S.A." house. Phil Spector had the Brill
Building. Eddie O'Loughlin has Disco D's home studio in Brooklyn's Williamsburg
neighborhood, and a couple of other studios just like it.
A songwriter in the 1960s, O'Loughlin realized he had a knack for helping tweak
other writers' work. He formed his own production company and in the 1970s
helped launch the music careers of Gloria Gaynor and John Travolta. In the 1990s
he reinvented himself yet again as an executive for rap label Tommy Boy, then
founded Next Plateau, in part to capitalize on the ringtone craze. "The fact
that he's still relevant is insane," says Disco D.
O'Loughlin is old-school in at least one way, however. Even though he's
producing standalone ringtones, he wouldn't be averse to returning to the studio
to expand the most popular rings into full-length tracks. "There's nothing like
making a hit record or producing a hit act," O'Loughlin says.
As for musicians who think ringtones aren't real art, O'Loughlin predicts that
they'll eventually come around, recalling that when he got his start in the
music business there were high-minded performers who wouldn't dream of appearing
on television. "There's more income in ringtones, and they are going to be
important tools for launching a record, even a career," O'Loughlin says.