As early as 2000, the German company Siemens had developed a phone that could also play MP3 files, but due to memory constraints phones that played digital sound files as ringtones appeared only in 2003 (for example, Nokia’s True Tones format). At present, most newer handset models feature the capacity to play sound files as ringtones, which are typically limited by a maximum length of thirty seconds like other ringtones. Numerous file formats are used for this purpose instead of MP3 files, which are still typically too large to download efficiently via mobile. For the most part, sound file ringtones (sometimes called “ringtunes” or “mastertones”) involve low–grade, highly compressed files that only use the small phone speaker’s 300 to 3000 Hz frequency range. Although sound file ringtones account for only a small percentage of global ringtone sales, the strongest ringtone markets (Europe and East Asia) have been slightly boosted by the appearance of sound file ringtones. For example, the Japanese ringtone market, which in 2003 alone was worth US$900 million or between a quarter and a third of the year’s global ringtone sales, witnessed US$66.4 million worth of sound file ringtone (or chaku’uta) sales .
Perhaps a stronger threat to the profitability of the ringtone industry lies in the development of strategies and technologies by consumers and companies to create ringtones at inexpensive prices. Ringtone piracy by small companies and individual users, in the manner of MP3 files, is rampant worldwide, particularly in Asia — where music piracy in many forms is widespread . In this case, ringtone Web sites are selling ringtones based on copyrighted material at low prices without paying licensing fees to music publishers or record labels. With the appearance of the sound file ringtone, the potential for free duplication of ringtones seems limitless, as it could easily follow the MP3 model of peer–to–peer distribution. Despite the much–vaunted ability of the cell phone to monitor and control individual transactions — which is not equally true of Internet activities — some software companies are creating products for combining peer–to–peer file sharing with ringtone creation . Furthermore, even legal enterprises have produced technologies that threaten ringtone consumption. Xingtone, a company founded in early 2003 and based in Los Angeles, has produced a downloadable computer program that allows an individual to transform any sound file (from a CD or an MP3, for example) into a sound file ringtone. After a consumer pays the one–time fee of US$15 for the software, she can easily produce ringtones for her phone without any further cost. Brad Zutaut, the CEO and co–founder of the small company, has stated repeatedly (with the support of the Recording Industry Association of America) that the program falls under the domain of fair use in copyright law. Beginning his enterprise from the impulse of wanting to make ringtones that were not commercially available, Zutaut argues that ringtones, which are merely data transfers, should not be so expensive and that “ring tones are not going to save the music industry” . The company seems to have been successful and has pioneered music promotion deals with record labels like Disney’s Hollywood records and the independent Artemis Records (whose band Sugarcult released a single from its album via ringtone in partnership with Xingtone). More recently, Xingtone has received financial support from Siemens to expand its operations . Although Zutaut has stated that the company has a three– to five–year window, it is unclear whether Xingtone will be bought out by a major media or entertainment conglomerate — whose business interests might seem to conflict with those of the company . Other companies such as ToneThis (also from LA) have followed Xingtone’s lead and are producing similar software packages . Since the software in question has appeared recently and only affects sound file ringtones, it remains to be seen whether it, or pirated versions thereof, will have an impact on global ringtone sales or prices. It certainly is the case that piracy generally eats into ringtone sales — for example, an estimated 90 percent of ringtones in Malaysia are pirated — and the recording industry is attempting to forestall further declines in profits by eradicating what it refers to as a piracy “epidemic” .
As described above, the commodification of the ringtone has occurred in several stages. These stages provide the outline of a model for ringtone development, whereby functional tones become: 1) monophonic ringtones or simple melodies; 2) polyphonic tones (MIDI synthesizer music); and, 3) digital sound files (True Tones or other company–specific formats, and ultimately MP3 files). These developments in the ringtone have not progressed uniformly around the world. Instead, particular convergences of national legal systems, consumer preferences, and the interests of local wireless firms and handset manufacturers have led to differing rates of acceptance for each type of ringtone, as well as ringtones generally. For example, the high rates of cell phone use in Asia have led to particularly enthusiastic adoption of both older and newer forms of ringtones. South Korea is a striking case. Seventy percent of the population owns cell phones, the ring–back tone was pioneered there, and mobile music sales (estimated at 400 billion Won or US$336 million in 2003, increasing 400 percent in one year) seem to be quickly replacing recorded music sales (193.5 billion Won or US$162.4 million in 2003, declining 30 percent in a year). When Ricky Martin’s new Spanish language album was about to be released in May 2003, the South Korean director of Sony (Korea) Yang Beom–joon, released the album six days ahead of schedule in ringtone form. This precipitated a rush of downloading in which over 100,000 downloads of album-track sound file ringtones and related materials occurred in a few weeks. In Japan, the massive mobile music market (estimated at US$900 million in 2003) seems to be saturated with polyphonic ringtones and has been steadily shifting to sound file ringtones. In Europe, many of the older cell phone markets (as in the U.K., Spain, France, Germany, and Italy) are focused on polyphonic ringtones and seem less inclined to switch to sound file ringtones. Paradoxically, regions that have been slower to adopt mobile telephony, as in Central and Eastern Europe, are adopting the newest technologies and thus seem to be more amenable to sound file ringtones. The U.S. market has been generally slow to adopt ringtones, although they seem to be popular within particular ethnic communities — African–Americans seem to have been among the more avid consumers of ringtones, a tendency perhaps reflected in the presence of cell phone references in hip–hop and R&B, as have been Latino/as . The fragmentation of the mobile telephone market, incompatible networks, the delay in providing 3G services, and the bill structure of calling (American cell phone users pay to make and receive calls) are all factors in hindering cell phone use in the U.S., which predictably correlates with ringtone consumption. Moreover, the U.S. demonstrates a resilient culture of computer and Internet use, making rare the use of services like text messaging (which have become significant cultural phenomena elsewhere) .
SMS is a protocol that was initially created in the late 1980s by GSM (originally Groupe Spécial Mobile, now Global System for Mobile telecommunications), the main mobile system protocol that accounts for about 80 percent of new wireless use worldwide. See “GSM captures 80% of digital mobile market,” Scoop (27 January 2004), viewed online at on 1 September 2004. Also see John Scourias, “A Brief Overview of GSM,” viewed online at -berlin.de/~jutta/gsm/js-intro.html on 15 June 2004.5. Vivienne Chow, “Tone of the Future,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 27 September 2001, Feature, p. 2.6. See “An Interview with James Winsoar,” viewed online at _with_james_winsoar.htm on 6 May 2004.7. See “Ringing the Changes,” Economist, 17 April 2004, p. 62: “The dubious firms that currently dominate the ringtone business (many of which began life as providers of porn phone lines) may be squeezed out.”8. Hayden Porter notes that there are two main text formats for monophonic tones, Ring Tone Text Transfer Language (RTTTL) which was developed and used by Nokia, and iMelody, developed by the Infrared Data Association (iRDA) and adopted by Ericsson, Motorola, and Siemens. See Porter, “Phone It In!,” Electronic Musician (February 2004), p. 77.9. MIDI was developed in the early 1980s by synthesizer manufacturers (especially Japanese companies like Yamaha and Roland) in order to coordinate many different synthesizers in rock concerts. Despite its numerous limitations, MIDI become the standard protocol for the transfer of digital instructions to electronic musical instruments.10. See Joseph Palenchar, “NPD Tracks Rising Adoption Rate of Highly Featured Cellphones,” TWICE: This Week in Consumer Electronics (9 February 2004), p. 36. The NPD Group is a consumer tracking company based in Port Washington, N.Y. that has tabulated consumer information for business use since 1967 (see www.npd.com).11. Steve McClure, “‘Ring Tunes’ Ready to Roar for Japanese,” Billboard (13 March 2004). Estimates for the global ringtone market in 2004 are around US$4 billion, as described in Scott Banerjee, “Who’ll Drive the U.S. Ringtones Market?,” Billboard (18 September 2004).12. According to the Yankee Group, based in Boston, the global ringtone market in 2003 amounted to US$2.5 billion; the London–based ARC Group estimates that market at US$3.5 billion. See Laurie Flynn, “The Cellphone’s Next Makeover: Affordable Jukebox on the Move,” New York Times (2 August 2004); and Scott Banerjee, “WMG Inks Mobileway Deal,” Billboard (24 July 2004).13. Scott Banerjee, “Ringtone Rumble Brewing,” Billboard (22 May 2004).14. The two major forms of music publishing royalties are mechanical and performance royalties. The former governs the mechanical reproduction of a particular musical composition (in the form of sheet music or recording), whereas the latter covers performances of such music (either scores or recordings) in public spaces.15. “Ringing the Changes,” p. 62.16. For example, in the small but growing U.S. market, the dominant companies currently are Zingy, Moviso, and Modtones (see “Ringtone Rumble Brewing”).17. Jason Ankeny notes that “While the top–selling single in the U.S. during the last week of September, rapper Lil’ Kim’s ‘Magic Stick’ moved 7,000 retail units, Moviso sold 17,000 ‘Magic Stick’ ringtones over the same period.” In Jason Ankeny, “The New Sounds of Music: Ringtones, the Celestial Jukebox and the Mobilization of Media,” Wireless Review (November 2003), pp. 30–31.18. A succinct discussion of this phenomenon can be found in Dave Laing’s “World Record Sales 1992–2002,” as part of “The Music Industry, Technology and Utopia — An Exchange between Marcus Breen and Eamonn Forde,” Popular Music, volume 23, number 1 (January 2004), pp. 88–89. Laing’s short piece includes a telling chart noting global record sales over a ten–year period: after peaking in 1996 at US$39.8 billion, sales have been on a steady decline, reaching US$31.0 billion in 2002.19. Scott Banerjee, “Getting Their Cut,” Billboard (22 May 2004).20. Paul Sexton, “New Chart Calls Up U.K. Ringtone Sales,” Billboard (5 June 2004), p. 44. Sexton notes that the “[f]inancial and professional services firm KPMG will compile [the chart],” “London–based Official U.K. Charts Co. will market” it, and “David Simmons, CEO of music rights and publishing company Songseekers, conceived the chart last year. Simmons is also head of the MEF Ringtones Initiative. He says he has heard ‘good noises of support’ from Vodafone and other major network operators.” Far from being unprecedented, however, this new chart merely codifies the informal “top ten” charts on many ringtone Web sites.21. “Billboard Bows Ringtones Chart,” Billboard (6 November 2004). Thanks to Hazel Carby for pointing out this recent development to me.22. Uimonen, “‘Sorry, Can’t Hear You!’” Uimonen’s main argument concerns the idea that ringtones are actually music instead of noise, but the author also argues for a more nuanced version of the personalization thesis: “[r]inging tones offer alternative means to personalize one’s phone. Personal and/or collective music tastes define the melodies that are selected“ (p. 61).23. “The New Sounds of Music.”Teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have decreased spending on clothing by 10 percent in order to pay for electronics goods.24. A survey by Yankee Group revealed that 18 percent of mobile phone users are interested in ringtones. The greatest interest in ringtones is found in young adult (18–24) and teen (11–17) age groups, with 41 percent of the former and 22 percent of the latter downloading at least one ringtone per month. The NPD Group has claimed that teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have decreased spending on clothing by 10 percent in order to pay for electronics goods. See Sue Marek, “Raising the Bar on Ringtones,” Wireless Week (15 May 2004), p. 25; and, Yuki Noguchi, “Teens Ring Up Market Share,” Washington Post (25 April 2004).25. Oliver Burkeman, “Fellowship of the Rings,” The Guardian (13 August 2003).26. See Juliana Korantang, “Gold Rush is on in Mobile–Music Sector,” Billboard (26 June 2004).27. Ibid.28. Strategy Analytics, a research firm in Boston, estimates U.S. ringtone sales in 2003 at US$128.6 million. See Michel Marriott, “They Ring, Sing and Make Phone Companies a Bundle,” New York Times (4 May 2004).29. The growing Chinese consumer goods market is another potential site for ringtone sales, the significance of which I discuss below.30. The oft–cited figures of US$3.5 billion global ringtone sales in 2003 and US$32.2 billion in music industry sales in the same year are mentioned in “Tingalingalingaling!” New York Times (18 January 2004).31. Phil Hardy, “Music Executives are Guardedly Optimistic Despite the 7.6% Fall in Global Recorded Music Sales in 2003,” Music & Copyright (28 April 2004).32. Korantang, “Gold Rush.”33. “Technology Briefing Telecommunications: Stooge Sounds Invade Ring Tones,” New York Times (11 August 2004).34. “Ringtone Music Piracy Flourishes in Asia,” Sify News (27 August 2003), viewed online at =13234789, on 18 August 2004.35. Jason Ankeny presents the typical viewpoint in “The New Sounds of Music”: 2b1af7f3a8