Lord of the rings
Until recently, your average record company executive probably reacted to the
sound of a mobile phone blaring out its ringtone with the same weary resignation
as the rest of us. Like reality TV or clipboard-clutching charity muggers, they
were one of modern life's petty irritants.
In 2004, however, your average record company executive is more likely to stifle
a cheer every time he hears a tinny version of a chart hit bleeping from a
nearby Nokia. According to some sources, the mobile phone ringtone has come to
save the music industry.
Three years ago, personalised ringtones were given away free on websites run by
amateurs, who dedicated their spare time to programming mobiles to play Eminem
songs instead of merely ringing - a hobby that seemed to rank alongside
translating the Bible into Klingon for pointlessness. Nobody would call
ringtones pointless today.
Last year, mobile phone users spent $3bn on them. They account for 10% of the
world's music market. Over the next 12 months, more and more new phones will
play "mastertones" - not bleepy electronic facsimiles of chart hits, but the
hits themselves. Unlike the current monophonic and polyphonic ringtones, their
sales will generate money for record companies. There is talk of mastertones
ultimately replacing the ailing single format.
While James Gillespie of the Official UK Chart Company, is cautious about
rumours that sales of ringtones will soon be included in the singles chart
-"It's something we'll possibly look at in the next few years, but it's a big
'possibly'" - others are more bullish: after all, the British singles chart is
soon to include legal downloads, and their sales are barely a fraction of
"It's only a matter of time before someone comes up with a mastertone chart,"
says Rob Wells, new media director of Universal Music UK, "and before that
starts to carry more weight than the singles chart. I absolutely, definitely,
believe one hundred percent that ringtones should be included in the charts."
Wells adds that "the speed with which ringtones took off surprised pretty much
everyone", but with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why they became
so popular. Constantly changing your ringtone combines several pubescent
obsessions at once: pop music, computer technology and playground one-upmanship.
According to Paul Reilly, technical adviser on a terrifying-sounding publication
called Ringtone Magazine, their appeal has spread far beyond schoolchildren. "We
started putting pages in the magazine about classic ringtones and we discovered
that a lot of people's parents, who saw the magazine lying around the house,
bought them. People also change their ringtone depending on where they are. I'm
a Celtic fan, so when I'm at a football match, I have a Celtic ringtone, but I
live near the Ibrox stadium, so when I go home at night, I have to change it."
The rise of the ringtone throws up some puzzling questions for the music
industry. "One of the things we have to look at is why kids are perfectly happy
to spend £3.99 on a ringtone, but they think a similar amount is too much to pay
for a single," says Gillespie. One theory is that ringtones are simply easier to
buy. There is no need to go to a shop or access a website, simply send a text
message and the cost is added to your phone bill. Another is that the onslaught
of reality TV has devalued the singles chart in the eyes of its traditional
Certainly a ringtone reduces pop songs down to their barest essentials and in
doing so sorts the wheat from the chaff. It gives short shrift to bland
songwriting. Unless a song has an instantly recognisable melody, it won't work,
which may explain why R&B and hip-hop, with their emphasis on sonic novelty and
infectious hooklines, vastly outsell the work of Westlife or Gareth Gates in
ringtone format. Gillepsie says ringtones are the millennial equivalent of
dressing like a punk or a mod. They tap into the youthful desire to define
yourself via the music you like.
"Their popularity demonstrates that kids still care about music in a very
definite way. They're taking the song they like and using it as a way of
manifesting their identity. When a ringtone blares out on the bus or in the
middle of a film, it says 'I'm here, and this is what I like.' It's like wearing
a badge with your favourite band's name on."
Nevertheless, for anyone brought up on the old-fashioned notion of a single as a
tangible object, something you buy, keep and pull out decades later, playing the
B-side and poring over the sleeve in a fit of nostalgia, buying a new ringtone
every fortnight is a difficult concept to grasp. There is a certain kind of
fortysomething Mojo reader who will peevishly expound on how the ringtone is
symptomatic of the ever-deteriorating quality of rock and pop music. Even the
people who love a song enough to pay £4 for it in ringtone form are sick of it
after two weeks.
It is fair to say that Wells has not lost much sleep worrying about whether the
ever-increasing popularity of ringtones suggests that pop music has become an
inherently transient medium. "The disposability of music?" he frowns, "I don't
know about that. The issue is that there are consumers spending considerable
volumes of cash on the products. If they're going to be spending more money on
music, as opposed to spending small amounts of money and keeping the music for a
long time? The more money they spend on music, the better."