By MELENA Z. RYZIK
CARLOS BOUSTED is a laid-back recent high school graduate and a
sometime D.J. Unlike most D.J.'s, though, Mr. Bousted does not have to
lug around crates of records, CD's or even an iPod. His music is
Mr. Bousted, 18, is a ringtone D.J. A competitive ringtone D.J. "You
put certain songs in order and play them against other people," he
said, explaining his technique. "Anytime you're walking around: 'Oh,
what you got?' And then you pull out your phone."
Downloadable ringtones like the ones Mr. Bousted uses -- tunes from
artists like the Yin Yang Twins and 50 Cent -- have been a teenage
mainstay for years, a mushrooming market worth almost $5 billion
globally (the United States share is $600 million and growing).
But as people like Mr. Bousted have grown fluent in the language of
ringtones, industry executives and musicians alike have realized that
they need not be duplicates of already popular songs; there is room
for creativity alongside the commerce.
"We definitely see a market for original content," said Andy
Volanakis, president and chief officer of Zingy, a ringtone provider
that has released an album by the producer Timbaland.
When combined with technology that allows them to sound like music
instead of its tinny shadow, and programs that allow anyone to make,
mix or otherwise devise his or her own ringtones, the seven songs on
the Timbaland album -- among the first meant to be played on a phone,
not a radio or CD player -- suggest that ring tones are not merely a
new money-maker; they are a new art form.
"People have really started to take this stuff seriously," said
Jonathan Dworkin, vice president for artists and repertory at
BlingTones, a Zingy competitor that was one of the first to focus on
original works. Its partners include the crunk progenitor Lil Jon,
Q-Tip and others.
With ringbacks, voice tones (Snoop Dogg says, "Pick up the phone!")
and sound effects crowding the field, there are more opportunities to
circumvent the cellphone's bleep or brring than ever before. Even
Nokia, which in 1991 became the first company to market a cellphone
with an identifiable musical ring tone (Francisco Tarrega's "Gran
Vals" for classical guitar), has moved away from its traditional
tunes. For its newest phone, the Nokia 8801, it commissioned wholly
original music and sounds, composed exclusively for cellphone by the
eclectic Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Later this summer, Zingy
will release a song by Free Murda, a Wu-Tang Clan acolyte, as both a
single and a ringtone; it was produced by RZA, who compiled the scores
for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films.
Why would a serious musician bother? After all, a song can have
multiple lives; a ringtone, just one, and a fruit-fly-length one at
that. (Timbaland's seven original ringtones average just 20 seconds
each.) Money is definitely one reason. As Lil Jon said of BlingTones,
"They cut the check." But that's not the end of the story. "It's
another way of reaching your audience," he added in a telephone
interview. "It's exciting. Like I was already thinking, what if I
produce a song for the cellphone that ends up getting on music charts?
The technology is so crazy, that could one day happen."
Actually, it already has: in Britain, the heavily advertised Crazy
Frog ringtone - based on a Swedish teenager's imitation of a revving
engine - topped artists like Coldplay and U2 on the singles charts
just last month. And the remix is already out.
One BlingTones artist, Tony (CD) Kelly, has already started
incorporating the old standard-issue cellphone rings into his new
ringtones -- a postmodern remix in which the Nokia song morphs into a
hip-hop beat, for example.
Mainstream musicians are not the only ones intrigued by the
possibility of the ringing opus. In 2001, the multimedia artist Golan
Levin, now a professor of electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University
in Pittsburgh, was the co-creator of "Dialtones," a "telesymphony"
(flong.com/telesymphony), composed entirely of the rings of audience
members' cellphones. In Britain (where pop-inspired ringtones already
often outsell the songs they are based on), there's a wide variety of
phone art, from Nick Crowe's "Axis of Evil" national anthems
(artones.net) to Stream & Shout, which paired artists and students to
create original ringtones (streamandshout.net).
"They understood it immediately," Ross Dalziel, a Liverpool, England,
sound artist, said of the teenagers he worked with on the Stream &
Shout project. For many people, especially the young, ringtones are
as musically viable as a favorite mixtape was a generation ago: "The
phone playing their favorite song is their identifier," said Geoff
Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at Billboard magazine,
which began a ringtone chart last fall. "That's part of how they brand
themselves," he added.
Like so much technology before it, then, the cellphone has morphed far
beyond its original function. "A phone used to ring just to get your
attention," Mr. Levin said. Now, said Patrick Parodi, chairman of
Mobile Entertainment Forum, a London-based trade association, "it's
probably the device that identifies us most, along with our cars."
For musicians, the ringtone also presents an irresistible opportunity
to connect with fans. Customization is growing daily: consumers can
now choose what part of Fabolous's single "Baby" they want as their
ringtone; previously, record companes made those kinds of decisions.
"The direction we're going in is you'd actually have this artist
create the ringtone when your boyfriend calls, or your best friend,"
said Amy Doyle, vice president for music programming at MTV, which
helped release the Timbaland album. "So it becomes the artist scoring
your life, almost, on your cellphone."
According to Edward Bilous, a professor at the Juilliard School,
"Ringtones are pointing towards a kind of new interactive media in
which the user and the creator have a more democratic relationship
with each other."
But as every sidewalk, cafe or mode of public transport by now proves,
there's also a performance aspect to mobile phones. (After all, nobody
customizes the ringtone on a home phone.) And not everyone regards it
as welcome. "I think most people would agree with me that as they
exist now, ringtones are a public nuisance," Mr. Sakamoto wrote in an
e-mail message. (Presumably, his composition for Nokia is an
There are certainly limitations to the form, though Mr. Levin suggests
that boundaries breed creativity. But with sales on the rise,
companies like Verizon, Cingular and Sprint are creating music-playing
phones and giving them the ability to tune in streaming radio. And
while Mr. Bilous worries that the ubiquity of musical cellphones might
ruin the listening experience (he is already pondering starting a
course called "From Ring Cycle to Ringtones: A Study in Musical
Attention Deficit Disorder"), others contend that they can create new
fans with every sound. Even the ringtone battles described by
Mr. Bousted, the cellphone D.J., foster community. "You have a little
group of people and they'll decide, like, 'Oh, yours is better,' " he
said. "And then you talk to each other and make friends."
Mr. Levin added: "It can be a vehicle for creative expression both on
the part of the composer and the part of the person who uses it. The
ringtone has a clear connection to everyday life, and because of that
I think it's a vital form." For those who disagree, there's always
Copyright 2005 New York Times.
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