- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Christina Noel knows when her parents are calling her cell phone without even looking at the number. That’s because instead of simply ringing, her cell phone plays a stereo-quality clip of one of the 31-year-old’s favorite songs: “Dear Mom and Dad, please send money/I’m so broke that it ain’t funny/Well, I don’t need much just enough to get me through.”

She recently downloaded the singalong ring — “Baby Girl” by country band Sugarland — from the Internet for a couple dollars along with a few others: Toby Keith’s beer-swilling “As Good As I Once Was” for her brother’s phone calls (“Because he’s a hick,” she chirps.); Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” for her sister Carolyn (“She hates when people call her Caroline. That’s why it’s funny,” she explains with a sly grin); and for her longtime friend Erin’s calls, “The Right Stuff,” by defunct boy band New Kids on the Block, as a shout-out to times past.

“They’re addictive,” the Perry Hall, Maryland, resident says. “It’s inexpensive fun.”

Miss Noel boasts an impressive CD collection and owns an IPod, and whether she knows it or not, the music lover is contributing to a high-speed trend that’s helping young people carve out an identity while simultaneously giving the music industry a timely shot in the arm: ring tones.

Cursed by the groggy city commuter and praised by the wireless and record industries, ring tones — music clips, and now even full songs, downloaded directly onto cell phones — have become big business, fast replacing ho-hum default ringers among the under-35 set.

Ranging in price from $1.99 to $2.50 per download, ring tones are today’s most popular form of downloadable content for mobile phones, according to IT and telecom research firm IDC, and this year, predicts MobileYouth, global analyst of youth market trends in mobile technologies, 16 percent of all music revenue will come from ring tones.

For those thinking, maybe even hoping, that the ring tone craze is just another passing fad, think again, because its success is hinged on a force more powerful than any boardroom marketing tactic: identity, and a mostly teenage one at that.

At the core of the ring tone phenomenon — kicked off in earnest with the advent of phones capable of stereo-quality sound — is “personalization,” to use the industry buzzword.

“What’s on your phone when it rings is not that different than the sneakers on your feet,” says Courtney Holt, head of new media and strategic marketing for Interscope-Geffen-A&M; Records.

“Your wireless phone is yours. It’s nobody else’s,” says Jeff Kagan, telecom industry analyst. “Everything about the phone can be customized,” he says, citing wallpaper, faceplates and games. “It’s an extension of you.”

Roger Etner, an analyst with Ovum, a consulting firm that tracks the commercial impact of technology, estimates that the average under-25 ring tone user downloads about one per week, largely in an effort to be an up-to-the-minute trendsetter. “It’s part of their self-expression,” he says of the ring tone’s youth market. “As part of that, you have to stay current with the times. When there’s a new song coming out, you have to have it.”

Wireless carrier Cingular upped the ante last April by offering exclusive never-before-heard music as downloadable ring tones, kicking off its initiative with advance selections from chart-topping band Coldplay a week before their highly anticipated third album, “X&Y;,” was released. Other wireless companies are now following suit.

The demand for ring tones has forged new links between the seemingly disparate wireless and recording industries, providing a much-needed boost for a music business suffering from illegal downloads.

The record industry receives 50 percent to 60 percent of the price of each downloaded ring tone, which is then divvied up between artists and labels, according to Mr. Etner. Although it seems like pocket change at first, ring tone downloads in the U.S. amounted to a whopping $1 billion in 2005 — 10 percent of the recording industry’s total revenue.

As for the carrier side, John Johnson of Verizon Wireless reports that over 8 percent of the wireless giant’s third quarter 2005 revenue — about $613 million — came from what’s known as “data services,” which includes ring tones, game downloads, text messaging and the new ring-back tones that play music for callers while their party’s phone is ringing.

Wireless companies have created entire Web sites devoted to ring tones, such as Cingular’s www.rucingular.com and Verizon Wireless’ “Hub” (www.vzwhub.com). Third-party companies such as Jamster.com have joined in as well. Ring tones can also be downloaded directly from a mobile phone through a wireless Internet connection, a feature that comes standard on many of today’s phones.

“If you’re at the mall with a friend, you can order ring tones right there from your handset,” says Cingular’s Alexa Kaufman. Teenagers “absolutely love it. It’s been a great way for us to create brand awareness and brand loyalty, which is very tough with this audience.”

Brand awareness and boosting an ailing music industry are about the last thing on young ring tone fans’ minds.

Fifteen-year-old Allison Cohen, a sophomore at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, has downloaded a total of four ring tones even though her T-Mobile cell phone came with some 30 rings. The high schooler purchases ring tones directly from her cell phone at $1.99 a pop, “Mostly to make [my phone] more personal, and also when I see a song that I love it’s my impulse to buy it,” she says.

Like many of her peers, Allison’s favorite music is hip-hop — the leading ring tone music genre — and her recent ring tone choices echo the country’s current top ring tones, among them D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” “Bring ‘Em Out” by T.I. and ” ‘My Humps,’ of course,” by the Black Eyed Peas, she gushes. “It’s one of my favorite songs. It really gets you pumped up.”

In class, Allison’s ring tones go silent, but at home it’s a different story. Her parents “always tell me to turn it down, but whatever,” she shrieks. “I like it.” The charges for the young hip-hop fan’s ring tone purchases are tucked away in a monthly wireless bill paid for by mom and dad, usually without their knowledge.

To Allison and her friends, ring tones are just another way to enjoy music on the go.

With lightning-fast broadband wireless Internet service soon available on many cell phones, mobile handsets will be downloading ring tones in a matter of seconds and are set to become a “next-generation portable music device,” predicts Mr. Holt.

One thing’s for sure, though. Ring tones are definitely not going anywhere.

“Every year there’s another wave of youth that comes on the market,” Mr. Kagan states. “I don’t think it’s going away. It’s going to get bigger.”

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