- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Usher, Nelly and Eminem aren’t just music stars.

They are also lords of the ring tones.

More cellular telephone users are replacing the normal rings that play when they receive a call with a synthesized version of their favorite song. By one estimate, sales of customizable ring tones will almost double to $159 million this year.

Most of the musical ring tones available today are “polyphonic” versions of popular songs that play out in a series of simple beeps. But in the next year or so, consumers will be able to use a clip from an original song as their ring, opening a potentially lucrative new revenue stream for the struggling music industry.

In other words, instead of a polyphonic version of “My Boo,” the Usher-Alicia Keys duet that has topped the singles chart for weeks, cell-phone users will be able to use a clip from the song’s master recording.

“Consumers have shown they’re willing to go out of their way to get a ring tone even if it’s just a [lousy] bunch of beeps. Imagine what will happen when they can download actual song clips,” said Adam Zawel, a wireless telecommunications analyst for Yankee Group, a Boston technology research firm.

It generally costs between 99 cents and $3 to download a ring tone from Web sites such as Zingy.com, which sells more than 2 million ring tones a month. The latest pop songs are available, as well as classics such as the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” holiday tunes, TV theme songs and even “voice tones” in which recordings from celebrities such as William Shatner and Beyonce alert cell users to incoming calls.

Consumers in the United States spent $80 million on ring tones last year, according to Mr. Zawel’s research. He predicts that they will spend $159 million this year and $265 million in 2005.

European and Asian consumers embraced ring tones years ago, making the global market worth about $3 billion, Mr. Zawel said.

The explosion in the popularity of ring tones in the United States has lifted spirits in the slumping music industry. Executives are particularly excited about technology that will allow cell-phone users to play actual songs on their phones.

“It’s a brand new opportunity to bring in revenue for us and the artists,” said David Ring, vice president of business development and business affairs for the nation’s largest recording company, Universal Music Group.

The industry has been plagued for years by online file-sharing services that allow music fans to download almost any song for free, but analysts said ring tones could finally give the labels a way to make money off the Internet.

“If you’re in the recording industry, you can’t really use the model that drove the industry for decades,” said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, the industry’s top trade publication.

This month, Billboard introduced a weekly chart listing the 20 most popular polyphonic ring tones in the nation. “My Boo” topped the first Hot Ring Tones chart in the magazine’s Nov. 13 edition.

At least one company has dampened the industry’s enthusiasm for ring tones.

Xingtone, based in Los Angeles, sells a $19.95 online software kit that allows fans to turn digital music files — including those acquired through illegal file-sharing — into “ring tunes.”

“We know some people don’t like what we do, but the customer does,” said Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Schreiber. He would not disclose the company’s annual revenue.

Mr. Ring declined to discuss the potential impact of Xingtone on the market. The bottom line, he said, is that after years of suffering from piracy, consumers have shown they are willing to pay for music again.

“That’s the really good news,” he said.

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