Ring tones make cell phones personalized fashion accessories
By Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic
Knowing where you stand with
Jonathan Moore these days is easy: Just dial the 15-year-old and listen to the
ring he created for you on his cell phone.
The Oakland teenager says he has more than a dozen ring tones programmed into
his phone and uses them to carefully divide his friends and family into an
A-list and a B-list.
"If it's an important person calling me, I got the Mac Dre ring tone," Moore
explained last week, while hanging out in Emeryville with Jabari Harper -- a Mac
Dre-worthy friend from across town. "If it's someone not important calling me, I
got 'Wait' by the Ying Yang Twins."
Three years ago, cell phone customization meant choosing between "ring" and
"vibrate," with a few renegades programming their Motorola with an obnoxiously
tinny version of "Edelweiss." But with ring-tone technology growing at the speed
of sound, new phones can announce callers with the same songs you hear on the
radio, or even allow users to replace a ring with a homemade sound bite. As a
result, young people are programming their cellular phones as the soundtrack of
their lives -- as much a personal statement as the outfits they pick to wear at
school or work.
Industry analyst Roger Entner, a vice president in the Boston office of Ovum
Research, calls the cell phone today's ultimate fashion accessory. He says many
Americans have almost come to treat their phones like another appendage.
"The phone is probably the device that you carry around with you the most, "
Entner said. "You don't carry your car keys around in your house, but you carry
your cellular phone with you. It's closer to you than anything, except maybe
underwear, and some people don't bother with that, either."
With about $400 million spent on cell phone ring tones in the United States last
year, according to Entner, there are tones for everyone -- including the
underwear-optional crowd. Along with Top 40 songs, dialogue from movies and all
manner of sound effects, one company sells four different ring tones of women
having orgasms. Coldplay went down in ring-tone history two months ago when its
single "Speed of Sound" was released on phones before it reached the radio. And
then Coldplay went down in ring-tone infamy a few weeks later, when a single
based on a tone called "Crazy Frog" easily beat "Speed of Sound" to reach No. 1
on the British pop music charts.
The fast-growing trend achieved a landmark of legitimacy last year when
Billboard magazine added a chart measuring ring tones, which can sell 100,000 in
The majority of ring tones purchased in the United States are sold directly by
carriers such as Cingular or T-Mobile, with about 20 percent being downloaded
from the Internet, Entner said. The most popular ring tones sell for between $2
and $3 for a 30-second song fragment, compared to 99 cents on iTunes for the
Billboard charts czar Geoff Mayfield said that disparity proves that ring tones
are seen as more than additions to a musical library. And he wasn't surprised to
discover that the ring-tone chart skews young, with the expected pop and rap
songs clustered in the Top 10. The 50 Cent single "In Da Club" was the No. 1
ring tone last year.
"It's a teen or pre-teen who would want to say 'This is my song.' I think the
older you get, you know, it's not as crucial a way to brand yourself," Mayfield
said. "That doesn't mean you don't have a favorite song anymore, but it would
suddenly become less urgent that people hear it when the phone rings."
Mayfield said he didn't predict the amount of kitsch that keeps showing up on
the ring-tone chart. The Vanilla Ice single "Ice Ice Baby" charted for 12 weeks,
peaking at No. 11 in November -- likely the first time that song has graced a
Billboard chart in a dozen years. The music from the John Carpenter movie
"Halloween" made the Top 10 for several weeks last year, and the theme from the
video game Super Mario Brothers is currently No. 8.
"One of the misconceptions that's come out of the fact that we've had album
declines in three of the past four years is that kids are no longer interested
in music," Mayfield said. "When you see the things that show up on this thing
week in and week out, it suggests the contrary. The success of ring tones
suggests that kids absolutely are interested in music. They'll pay more for one
of these than a digital download. And they seem to buy more."
For some young consumers, ring tones can consume a larger chunk of their budget
than video games or movies. Esmeralda Maciel, 21, of Richmond, has 25 ring tones
on her tricked-out cell phone.
Maciel said she "likes to wake up in a good mood," so she programmed the cackle
of "Family Guy" character Peter Griffin as her cellular phone alarm clock. Her
boyfriend rings in with "Miss You" by Aaliyah, calls from her mother play
"What's My Age Again?" by Blink 182, and several of her friends share the song
"Santeria" by Sublime.
"I also have AC/DC, but I forgot what the song is called," she added. After
fiddling with the phone for 30 seconds, the first few notes of "Thunderstruck"
rock the nearly empty plaza where she's hanging out.
The audio quality on Maciel's phone is decent, sounding like a small transistor
radio. But most ring tones in the U.S. are still polyphonic, which is a
synthesized version of a real song. The Billboard ring-tone chart only measures
polyphonic tones, although Mayfield said a chart to measure better- quality
master tones is expected soon.
Cell phone users in Europe and Asia buy more ring tones per capita, in part
because they generally hang onto their phones for a shorter period of time.
While good phones can play original sound bites -- Moore and Harper say they've
made homemade raps into ring tones, and Entner has his young daughter saying "I
love you" on his phone -- many Americans are holding onto phones that are still
monophonic, which sound like a 5-year-old playing on a 1980s Casio keyboard.
Whether the trend makes cell phones cooler or more annoying is debatable, and
depends on whether you lived in a time before the interruptive devices. As she
walked toward the movie theater at the Bay Street shopping plaza in Emeryville,
Berkeley resident Rachel Bishop, 23, needed prodding to play her ring tone --
and even more convincing to agree to use her name -- because her phone's ancient
version of the Coldplay song "Clocks" sounds like a drunk guy on a kazoo.
"If you buy a cheap phone you can only get the really crappy ring tones," Bishop
lamented. "It's all elevator music for this phone."
Across the mall, Toby Gay, a 14-year-old Alameda resident clad in a Led Zeppelin
shirt, played a slightly better version of "Stairway to Heaven." He admitted the
choice was a bit too obvious, explaining, "The 'Immigrant Song' doesn't sound
too good on polyphonic."
A recent study by M:Metrics, an industry analyst with offices in San Francisco,
found that more than 24 million U.S. mobile phone subscribers downloaded a ring
tone in April. To contrast, fewer than 15 million used their phone to send a
photo message to another phone or e-mail. Entner estimates that the ring-tone
industry, which didn't exist three years ago, will grow to $1.5 billion by 2007.
And the sound will keep getting better.
"We've developed quickly from monotones, which sound like you've just strangled
a chicken, to master tones, which are CD-quality," said Entner, who used to have
former President Richard Nixon's "I'm not a crook" line on his phone.
"I had to change that because my wife started hearing voices and thought she was