In the early to mid-2000s, the cabability to play a customized sound for incoming calls — normally a blaring few seconds of a favorite song known as a “mastertone” — was actually a fun novelty for individuals buying their first cellphones. Ringtones became an aural fashion accessory, as people scrambled to personalize their phones with the newest or coolest tunes.
Mastertones mimicked the clarity of the things you could hear on the radio, making the ringtone an easy and addictive method to hear snippets of one’s favorite music. People also could assign different ringtones to different callers — say, “Take This Task and Shove It” whenever your boss calls, ha ha — being a sonic type of Caller ID.
At the same time, much was created from the vast amounts of money ringtone sales brought to a grateful music industry that was struggling to evolve to the digital age. “It’s the evolution of the consumption of music … I recall looking at forecasts way back in 2005 and 2006 that sort of touted ringtones since the savior of the industry, since it was revenue which had been really growing from nothing,” said David Bakula, senior vice president of client relations and analytics for Nielsen Entertainment.
“It was a fantastic barometer of methods people were beginning to live around entertainment on their phones,” he explained. “Ringtones were an extremely big a part of that.”
Ringtones were popular partly simply because they were one of the first audio products you can access over your cell phone, said Richard Conlon, senior v . p . of corporate strategy, communications and new media for Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), the music-licensing organization.
“There was clearly a tremendous novelty phase associated with https://www.mobilesringtones.com, and our hope was in the ’04, ’05, ’06 period, when things were still climbing, we would see (ringtones) be considered a gateway product,” he explained. “We saw the market grow from $68 million retail in the U.S. in ’03 to about $600 million in ’06.”
In 2006, the RIAA instituted the first awards system for ringtone sales. Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” earned the difference of being the largest-selling ringtone ever during 2009, going 5 times platinum. However the sales dipped. Despite the enormous development of smartphones, mobile audio products including ringtones and ringbacks (which is actually a song that plays while a caller’s waiting around for a solution) brought in only $167 million a year ago.
A couple of things: The novelty in the musical snippets wore off. So we learned how to make custom ringtones for free. Musical ringtones may be costly. Consumers who wanted to both own a song in the entirety and possess the otaqjf play as their ringtone were required to make two separate purchases. Costs for ringtones varied, however the 20- to 30-second snippets were often pricier than purchasing the whole song. Someone who updated their ringtones frequently could easily pay $20 per month or maybe more.
But with the rise of audio-editing software and free Web programs dedicated to making ringtones, users could easily manipulate sound files to create their particular custom ringtones from songs they already owned. And as smartphones evolved, using their enticing menu of video, games, music and Facebooking, suddenly ringtones didn’t seem so exciting anymore.
“The accessibility of a lot of other activities on your phone takes the focus a little bit far from some of the things that were big before,” said Bakula of Nielsen. “These various ways consumers want instant, on-demand use of a limitless variety of titles has truly changed the model in just about any entertainment category that people track. Whatever you see one day, or one year, could be completely opposite another year. And this was one thing with ringtones.”
There’s another factor at play, too. Surveys have shown that as text-messaging continues to grow in popularity, especially among younger users, people don’t make calls as often. So ringtones are less of a priority.
Cellphone users may not think about them as much, but the gradual decline in the once-lucrative ringtone has become bittersweet for folks within the music industry.
“Admittedly, it was a little sad,” said BMI’s Conlon. “In BMI’s early digital days, we made more cash from ringtones than other things; it accounted for more than half of our income stream. And today when you think of it, it’s basically zero.”