Ringtones are perking up the record industry's bottom line.
By Daniel Rubin
When Itai Adi's friend Maria is
calling, his cell phone lets him know by playing the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get
Calls from other friends of the high school senior might prompt "Toxic" by
Britney Spears, G Unit's "Stunt 101," or Usher's "My Boo" to ring, depending on
And when his family is on the line?
"I try to find an annoying ring for them," says Adi, 17, who by latest count had
downloaded 30 songs to ring on his cell phone, paying as much as $1.49 a shot.
"It could either be a song I don't like, or, since you can also download noises,
it could be a bird that squawks really loud."
It's all sweet music to the ears of the downbeat record industry. Since catching
on late last year, ringtones have exploded in popularity, producing an estimated
$375 million in U.S. revenue this year, according to IDC, an information
technology firm. The year before: only $18 million. Worldwide sales are far
bigger, particularly in Asia and Europe.
Billboard magazine, known for charting most popular songs, introduced a
ringtones category in November _ one that, not surprisingly, echoes the most
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So who's calling now?
"We've gotten away from `Mission: Impossible' and the `Pink Panther' theme,"
says Adrian McAloon, executive director of content for Ztango, a U.S.
Snoop Dogg and Pharrell with "Drop It Like It's Hot" top the Jan. 1 Billboard
ringtone charts, followed by Usher's "My Boo." Third place: Ciara with Missy
Elliott on "1,2 Step."
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The Billboard Music Awards last month picked its first Ringtone of the Year
Award. It was rapper 50 Cent for "In Da Club."
Meanwhile, ringtones are becoming their own art form. BlingTones has signed
hip-hop artists and producers such as Q-Tip, Rockwilder, Denaun Porter, Salaam
Remi and Hi-Tek to create original 30-second "pieces" available only through its
service. It calls itself the world's first wireless record label.
A personalized ring "is an identity statement," says Lewis Ward, an analyst with
IDC. Many phones allow users to associate different songs with different
callers. "It says something about you to yourself and to your peers."
For those who think ringtones are like, so last year, how about ringbacks?
They're more like next year.
Ringbacks are songs or noises other people will hear when they call you, while
they're waiting for you to answer your phone. Instead of rrring, rrring, rrring,
they could be hearing barnyard noises, Beastie Boys tunes or Beethoven. The
owner of the phone gets to decide what callers will hear.
Ringbacks are so popular in India _ where big sellers are Bollywood tunes and
celebrities' voices _ that within a half-year of their July introduction, more
than one in 10 mobile-phone users had them.
In December, T-Mobile launched the first U.S. ringback service. Verizon Wireless
is test-marketing them in some western U.S. markets for $1 a month, plus $1.99
for each ringback song used. Sprint is expected to launch its service early next
There is a rush to roll out better-sounding songs and crisper cell phone
speakers _ and for good reason. One industry analyst, Ovum, estimates that by
2008 cell phone ringtones, ringbacks and songs could account for 28 percent of
all music sales, including CDs and legitimate downloads. Companies see great
opportunity in allowing people to shop for, buy, save and play songs on cell
"We are seeing the development of a new channel for the delivery of digital
music on wireless devices," said Ward of IDC.
In the United States, most fans of ringtones are under age 25. They pay between
$1 and $3 for a sample of a favorite song _ generally the better it sounds, the
more it costs.
In this country, most shop for ringtones by phone, downloading them from their
carriers. Elsewhere, phone customers are more likely to go to third-party Web
sites for their rings.
The fastest-growing part of the trend _ and the one the music biz puts most hope
in _ are called Master Tones or Real Music ringtones, which have mp3 clarity.
Unlike the cheaper ringtones _ think Mozart's 40th played with one finger _
these are digital samples of the song, vocals and all. The industry likes the
master tracks because they can sell for $3, three times as much as an entire
downloaded song on music Web sites. And the artist gets royalties.
"If you have that hip, Snoop Dogg audio clip when you pick up the phone, you're
going to be that much cooler _ at least, that is the hope," Ward said.