Cellular Ring Tones: The Latest Way To Say This is Me!

Ringtones, those digital sound bites that 'ring' through cell phones especially during critical moments in darkened movie theaters, presentations, and anywhere there are signs posted to turn your cell phone off, have become a flaming financial success for the record and movie industry beyond all imagination. After the record industry lost billions to illegal downloads and digital music consumers and providers lost every court battle since, the market place going rate for an MP3 download has settled down to 99 cents per song. But then came ringtones! They can cost from $2.00 to $3.00 each and that's only for a 15 second sound clip of the same music! And the kids are willing to pay! Who knew?

My daughter introduced me to ringtones a few years ago with her cell in her hand coming down the stairs. "OK, call me." she said.

"When her cell phone rang, "Wow, it's the theme to Friends. Oh how cute!" I affirmed.

Then came the $300.00 cell bill. Then came the discussion. Then the youthful offense...the discussion about the offense...the offense about the discussion about the offense.. the new family rule and finally (drum roll please)... listening to more ringtones!

Today's ringtones have come a long way from those monophonic and polyphonic synthesized tones. Now they're called "mastertones" which are pure 15 second MP3 cuts from CD's or anywhere else music is produced. Whether downloaded directly into a cell phone from Verizon, Cingular, Sprint, or T-Mobile, or from an Internet site like Jamster, you can find ringtones and listen to samples from every genre of music, along with movie clips, wallpaper for your phone, and cell phone games. (in case there's a moment in the day that isn't filled up with music, DVD's, video games, and TV.)

Driven by the youth culture's insatiable hunger to individuate and customize, industry sales topped $4 Billion in 2004 world wide, and continually outsells all other musical sales online. That's right, ringtones are making more money than any song downloaded from iTunes, Napster, MusicMatch or anywhere else.

Take the case of Kyle. Barely in his twenties, he works, goes to school and has an active social life with lots of friends. "Would he consider doing an impromptu interview?" I wondered.

Twenty years his senior, I risked rejection, but since he rents a room in our house, and he was stuck watching his dinner cook on the stove, I knew I had a chance.

"Hey Kyle, how's it going? Do you download ringtones?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said with a slight tinge of embarrassment, "I buy a lot of ringtones." he said with a hesitance to leave the conversation and let his food burn. "Everyone of my friends and family all have their own." He's referring to the practice of assigning a specific ringtone to each individual in your contact list, so you know who's calling by the song that's played.

"Cool...can you remember who has what tone?" I asked.

"No. But each group has a similar sound, depending on who they are." I assume that means Marilyn Manson tunes would play for his Goth friends, and maybe Country Gospel for his family, etc.

I thought I was unique in discovering this tone assignment skill. I gave my daughter "Nocturne" on my Nokia phone, because she stays up late every chance she gets. The guy who worked in the cube next to me downloaded new ringtones every week, and assigned them to each person according to how he presently felt about them. A baby crying tone for his daughter, a rocketship blasting off for some business contact, scream sounds for his wife. All day long... ringtone after ringtone... week after week. I don't work there anymore.

Ringtones are so popular that Billboard now tracks the top 100 downloads. Hits like "My Goodies" by R&B singer Ciara have sold over 1 million ringtones.

The cell phone carriers maintain tight control of their systems and so far, the hacking industry hasn't figured out how to get a ringtone inside a cell phone directly, at least that I'm aware of. So this gold mine for the music industry has been piracy proof. Which means that the supply of new ringtones will never be exhausted.

Rick David writes a feature column entitled, "Don't Laugh, It Could Happen To You" for San Diego Merchant America.com

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