Ringtone revolution

Can you believe cell-phone ringing is the latest billion-dollar industry?

Apparently there’s a cell phone faceplate out there colored the same shade as my Honda Civic. Inwardly, I die laughing to sloppy, bleepy midi versions of songs like “In Da Club” and “Eternal Flame.” I can purchase an animated version of Justin Timberlake winking as wallpaper and preference my text message signature to bear a dog licking its unmentionables.

Cell phone customization has slowly crept into the American obsession with personal identity, with some flying-fingered folks paying as much attention to phone aesthetics as they do the food that they put in their bodies. The multi-billion–dollar industry of selling the perfect phone grabs the attention of not only the likes of AT&T and Cingular, but also companies like Fox Networks, Universal Records, and Vans. Most notable of these successions is the rise of the ringtone, an audible declaration to yourself and the public that a) you have a phone call and b) you know how to use the Internet.

Despite the inevitable foray of bleedideedee-dee-deeblees during the highest point of the movie at the local MegaCinePlex 30 and growing number of “wireless-free” zones in public spaces, more than 200 companies have met the growing demand in the touted $1 billion ringtone industry. Mostly in regard to buyers in Japan and Britain, phone-makers, record labels, and even hobbyists team up with major providers to produce music, animal sounds, game themes, celebrity voices, and general noise for $1 to $3 a pop.

Although the U.S. has not been the most participatory in the ringtone revolution, innovators have tried hard to cast the 120 million American cell phone users into the ring and get them to continue buying once they’ve started.

Companies like Xingtoners allow users to convert their own mp3s and audio clips into ringtones through their Web site and then deliver it to their phone or send to somebody else. Multi-track polyphonic ringtones and special cell speakers are starting to replace monophonic phones, whose technology allows only one note to be played at a time.

Services like Vodafone and Ringtone Galaxy allow a small monthly subscription price to keep users up on downloading Top 40 ringtones, screensavers, and logos. True Tones has developed CD-quality sound for Nokia 3300s, with the capability for sounds of singing and well as instruments. There have even been ringtones developed to repel mosquitos: Korean company SK Telecom introduced a downloadable ringtone in July 2003 that plays a frequency inaudible by the human ear but proven annoying to the flying pests.

In early 2003, companies like SSEYO pumped out ringtone remixers, technology that allows the creation of your own beats out of your personal sound library. And in July, Motorola announced that cell phone users can be their own ringtone DJs; teaming up with DJ Collette, Paul Van Dyk, and Felix da Housecat, the makers have released exclusive tracks by the famous DJs to be tweaked and re-programmed by the user. With control of certain polyphonic inputs such as drum sounds, piano loops, and basslines, Motorola hopes to attract customers by allowing more control and interaction with the technology. So now, That Guy who’s always checking out his own ringtones on the subway (“Wow! FunBeat 12 is so wicked!”) will now be creating his own “compositions” all the way home.

In Britain earlier this year, the quantity of some ringtones actually outsold the number of record singles sold on the same songs. Because of the U.K.’s 2 million mobile phone users, record companies like EMI, Sony Music, Warner, and BMG have started paying attention to the demand of their products, even if they are humming out from the tiny speakers. With this loud era, labels are even considering buying ringtone companies to provide “singles” from their individual artists to cater to ringtone demands.

With new technologies, Americans have adopted “Why Can’t We Be Friends” as part of their identity and rocked the “Itchy and Scratchy Show” theme over the lull of everybody else’s buzzing and burring cell noises.

Respect the etiquette, though — it’d be awfully embarrassing to have “Like a Virgin” bleeping over the “I Do”s of a friend’s wedding.