Sex, drugs and selling some cellphone tones
By Jeef Leeds
Rock bands have long prospered by
living -- and selling -- images of hard living and brash poses. But sex, drugs
and rock 'n' roll are no longer enough. The definition of cool for some acts now
includes mobile-phone ringtones.
Ringtones, the synthesized melodies that are programmed to play when a cell
phone rings, have proved to be such a lucrative side business for cellular phone
companies that record labels in the US have decided they want a piece of that
Warner Brothers Records in the past few days began showing commercials on MTV
and MTV2 for a set of voice-greeting ringtones recorded by members of the punk
band Green Day, in what music and cellular industry executives said is the first
time a record label has paid to run its own ads for the digital snippets in the
The commercials, which are part of a broader advertising campaign to promote the
Sept. 21 release of American Idiot, the band's first album in four years, are a
milestone for an industry where many are looking to products other than compact
discs to steady the shaky revenues of the music market.
To some artists and music executives, the marketing of ringtones suggests the
subversion of music to marketing ploys.
"There is a sense among some that it bastardizes the music, takes away the
sincerity and the original intent of the artist," said the artist manager Tony
Dimitriades, who represents acts like Tom Petty. "With where we are today, there
seems to be a notion that anything goes and who cares?"
But Tom Whalley, the chairman of the Warner Bros label, part of the Warner Music
Group, said that advertising the phone tones is just one part of his label's
shift from mere disc factory to marketer of artists' lifestyle products.
"We're in the culture with each and every one of our artists," Whalley said.
"The ringtone can help connect that fan to the artist. If it's done with taste,
I don't think it crosses that line where its commerce over art," he said.
Taste is not the first notion that springs to mind when sampling the Green Day
ringtones, which cost up to US$2.49 apiece. They include the band members
belching and cursing, as well as offering witty ripostes. "Pick up the phone!"
demands Mike Dirnt, the band's bassist, in one. "It's your mother. I know. She's
But the ringtones are in keeping with the sneering image of the punk outfit,
best known for songs like Basket Case and Brain Stew, both of which are also
being sold as ringtones.
There is also no question that, even if ringtones do not represent pure artistic
ambition, they are resonating with the public. Last year, cellular phone users
worldwide spent US$3.1 billion on ringtones, according to Consect, a mobile
market research and consulting firm, with popular choices including Beyonce's
Crazy in Love. (The global music business is more than 10 times as large.)
The US market, which lags behind Europe's and Asia's, rose to about US$150
million in retail sales, up from US$45 million the year before. Analysts expect
the market to expand even faster now that handset manufacturers are cranking out
more sophisticated phones that can play multi-channel audio files with pieces of
an actual recording, with sound quality far superior to the tinny synthesized
versions of songs known as monophonic or polyphonic tones. Phones usually have a
screen that can display a list of hundreds of titles, which sell for US$1.50 to
US$2.50 and usually contain a 30-second clip of the song.
Record executives say the market appeared to hold only limited benefits for them
until recently. To produce monophonic or polyphonic tones, mobile companies did
not need to license the actual recording of a song. Instead, they licensed the
composition from a music publisher, paying a 15 percent royalty on average. (A
song's writer or copyright holder and the artist who records it are not always
the same person.) But when the real recording is used, as with so-called master
tones, record labels typically receive a 50 percent cut.
Complaints about the encroachment of commercial interests into the music world
are nothing new, of course. Outrage over the licensing of music for
advertisements, like Nike's use of the Beatles' Revolution to peddle sneakers in
the 1980s, has faded, so much so that few eyebrows are raised when Jaguar uses
the Clash's London Calling to sell cars or Wrangler Jeans borrows Creedence
Clearwater Revival's anti-establishment Fortunate Son for a feel-good campaign
to sell pants.
The new trend is taking the record companies afield from their main business
too. Two years after Universal Music Group created an in-house ringtone
division, Universal Music Mobile, one-third of its sales come from non-music
tones, including sound effects and jokes from impersonators, like the one who
imitates George W. Bush (in Chinese, for the local market).
Cedric Ponsot, the chief executive of Universal Music Mobile, said he
occasionally had trouble persuading artists, including the rock band U2, to
approve selling their music in ringtone form, especially before improvements in
sound quality. He said he tells artists, "If your fans are willing to pay two to
three euros for a ringtone, you should respect that."