Cell phone's ring intones a new phase in cool factor
By Ed Masley
Vanilla Ice is back in action on
the Billboard Charts.
But don't call it a comeback.
The rapper's old No. 1 novelty hit, "Ice Ice Baby," is making its move on
Billboard's newest chart, "Hot Ringtones," which for three weeks now has
monitored what kids are hearing when their cell phones light up.
"Basically," says Billboard business writer Brian Garrity, "the launching of the
chart reflects the growing revenues the recording industry is generating from
ring-tone sales. It's estimated to be about a $300 million market in the U.S.
It's also a market, Billboard Director of Charts Geoff Mayfield notes, that
suggests that kids will pay for music even after all these years of getting it
"If you'll remember, after 18 years of measurable growth in one shape or form,
there was all of a sudden a three-year decline in album sales, and a lot of doom
and gloom was being written about the music industry and kids not being into
music anymore and all this other stuff," says Mayfield. "Then you looked at ring
tones and the fact that that little market was starting to become meaningful.
And it's like, 'Here's an indication that, you know what, music really is still
important to kids.' "
So how exactly does it work?
"By and large," says Garrity, "they're beamed right to your phone. There are
opportunities to purchase them on the Internet, but then that still requires
some kind of delivery via the wireless network to your phone. So you either do
it over the wireless Web or there's some kind of other network delivery through
things like text messages over your phone."
The primary method of purchase, he explains, is through your handset.
"If you have a Web-enabled phone," he says, "you acquire the ring tone through
For now, the chart is tracking only those synthetic reproductions of the hits
you've no doubt heard by now. But as master recordings, or master tones, become
more readily available -- and popular -- the chart also will tally those.
As Garrity explains, they've held off on the master tones for now "just because
the majority of ring tones that are sold are what's called polyphonic ring
tones. Master ring tones sample the master recording, and it's actually a
snippet of the song that plays versus a reproduction of it. And that's where the
real money is, potentially, for the music industry. The price on those is
upwards of three, four dollars for a master ring tone versus one to two dollars
for a polyphonic ring tone."
The recording industry, he says, prefers the use of master tones over polyphonic
ring tones for one simple reason: money. The reproduced sounds of the latter
reward only the songwriter.
The chart is compiled, says Mayfield, by combining data collected by the
nation's leading ring-tone sellers -- 9squared, Dwango, Faith West/Modtones,
Infospace Mobile, Kanematsu, MIDIRingtones/AG Interactive and Zingy.
With the notable exception of Vanilla Ice and the theme to John Carpenter's
"Halloween" a few weeks back, the Ringtones chart is, as expected, a reflection
of the Hot 100.
Usher and Alicia Keys' "My Boo" has held the No. 1 position for the past three
weeks on both charts. And R&B and hip-hop tend to dominate both charts.
As Mayfield says, "That makes sense. It's the most-heard music on the radio now.
Top 40 stations are still fairly high on R&B and they have high rotations. And
all those R&B and hip-hop stations out there play those songs a lot. So the
songs that have the largest radio audience tend to be hip-hop."
Hip-hop also tends to play more to the ring-tones demographic.
"The ring-tone consumers tend to skew younger," Garrity says. "So it usually
signals kind of what the flavor of the moment is."
Which doesn't quite explain Vanilla Ice. "It could be a kitsch factor," offers
One thing you shouldn't plan to see a lot of on the Ringtones chart is rock 'n'
roll. "I think it also speaks to the fact that when you're talking something
like a ring tone," Garrity says, "it's harder to produce a guitar riff than a
Another reason for the emphasis on current hits, says Garrity, is marketing.
"The stuff that's getting serviced for ring tone and promoted among the
ring-tone services is current product," he explains. "The whole thing with these
tones is they're supposed to be kind of disposable accessories. ... And
obviously, what's hot today isn't going to be what's hot tomorrow or three
months from now. So the whole intent is that within a few months -- sometimes
shorter, sometimes longer -- you're gonna swap it out for something else."
Despite the disposable nature of a ring tone, Mayfield bristles at the notion
that his latest chart is kind of silly.
"How much have you read about itunes or the ability to buy a digital download in
the past two years?" he asks. "You've probably seen a lot of coverage of that in
the business press and the consumer press. But the No. 1 ring tone the first
week we did this chart sold 97,000 transactions in a week, and I promise you
that's more than three times what U2 had at No. 1 on the digital tracks chart.
"So in terms of whether or not this will be something for the long term, I kind
of suspect it will."
Is he willing to grant a distinction, at least, between the "meaningful"
relationship a kid forms with his "My Boo" ring tone vs. the relationship that
same kid might have formed with, say, the Beatles' "Revolver" or an Otis Redding
record in the '60s?
"I don't think we should be that judgmental," he says, "when someone decides to
pay money to say, 'This is part of my identity.' "
"I think it's gonna be a business for a while. And even if it only remains the
activity of the young, that's still something we should pay attention to."
But Garrity is more relaxed about it.
"Ring tones are fun, first and foremost," he says.
So is it fair to call them novelties?
"I guess to a certain extent they are novelty items," he says. "I don't think
you're gonna have consumers who are religiously checking the charts to see if
their song is the No. 1 ring tone. This is much more of an industry barometer
than something that the average consumer would care about. What it can speak to,
though, is the broad popularity of a single in general. If across multiple
platforms -- CD, download, digital ring tone -- you start seeing the same songs
show up, then chances are that you've got a pretty good hit on your hands.
"And I think that's really the significance. The chart is more a kind of
recognition of the fact that cell phones are becoming a viable business here in
the U.S. It doesn't, I guess, necessarily suggest some kind of sacrosanct
concept of quality music."
Ironically, having a chart-topping hit on the Ringtones chart may mean your time
on top is running out. If everybody's phone is playing Usher, how much fun is
As Garrity says, "It's all about personalization, right? ... So I would think
that as the market evolves, that factor alone should prompt greater consumption
of ring tones, because if you're really concerned with the fashion, kind of
taste-maker element of these things, where you have the coolest phone because
you have the coolest ring tone, you have to constantly keep up with what's
regarded to be the coolest song."