The Playlist: Ring Tones Are Music Too

I had the pleasure of having a drink with the so-called Irish Britney Spears, aka Samantha Mumba.

She sings, she dances, and she acts. In fact, she played the protagonist in the hilarious zombie movie Boy Eats Girl, which played this month at San Francisco's Irish Film Festival. I met her at an informal gathering after the movie aired. Actually, Samantha Mumba is not really like Britney Spears. Her R&B pop is more interesting, and it lacks the slutty-virgin innuendo.

Right now, Mumba is working on her upcoming album. (You can get her first album, Gotta Tell You, on Apple's iTunes Music Store.) I joked around that she needed a ring tone to market herself in the U.S., where she's pretty much unknown. She said that the subject had already come up at her record label. "What's the world coming to?" she laughed on her way out of the bar.

Here's what the world is coming to: There's hardly a major pop band out there without a ring tone for sale. Even the American Composers Orchestra will auction off ring tones created by high-brow musicians such as Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Danny Elfman. Miss The Sopranos? Get the ring tone.

There are three types of ring tones: monophonic (one tone played at a time), polyphonic (multiple tones played simultaneously), and master tones. Master tones are music that's been remastered and downsampled for playback on a cell phone; they account for about 60 percent of ring tone revenues, according to a report by Telephia, a mobile-industry research firm. The report found that ring tones from pop divas are popular (that should bode well for Samantha Mumba) and rap/hip-hop ring tones make the most money, at 25 percent of total ring tone revenue. Pop (17 percent) and soul/R&B (14 percent) ring tones are also popular, while alternative/punk ring tones (9 percent) are less so.

"We've tried to make alternative ring tones cool, but it hasn't worked so well," says Cindy Mesaros, vice president of marketing and cofounder of Moderati, a company that creates and distributes ring tones to 14 different U.S. mobile carriers. Aside from hip-hop, Mesaros says that ring tones of movie theme songs do quite well. So does kitsch such as the Knight Rider theme song or Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby."

So what's in a musical ring tone? Right now, the typical file size of a master tone is 150KB, which is sampled at a 48-kilobits-per-second bit rate and a 44.1-KHz frequency. Oh, and it's mono audio since there are so few cell phones with stereo speakers. By contrast, a high-quality MP3 is sampled in stereo at a 192-kbps bit rate and a 44.1-KHz frequency.

It's important for these ring tones to be remastered for the tiny speakers on a handset. "An unremastered ring tone could sound really bad," says Chris Dunn, Moderati's director of production. "The speakers aren't designed to handle the full bandwidth."

Quite different from the early stages of digital music, people seem relatively comfortable paying $2 for a digital ring tone. That's probably because it's so easy for carriers to just add it to a cell phone bill, and because they pretty much control the distribution of ring tones anyway. That's music to the ears of major music labels, whose tunes dominate wireless carrier online stores (called "decks" in the industry).

"The carrier decks are generally limited to the Billboard Top 50," says Jason Kadlec, the director of Business Development at Ingrooves, which distributes ring tones and other downloads for indie labels worldwide. Through multicompany technical and licensing agreements, Ingrooves works to get indie music ring tones on major carrier sites such as Cingular and Verizon as well as sites such as Zingy, Napster Mobile (which debuted last month through a partnership with Ericsson), and Source Mobile. These sites provide music to carriers and sell content on the Internet and via WAP networks.

The complex distribution system is currently unfriendly for start-up bands looking to distribute their own ring tones, but there is hope. A company called Xingtone charges artists $10 to $40 per month to set up an online store to sell ring tones using a revenue-sharing sales model. (There is a free option as well that lets artists upload up to three songs as ring tones.)

"The goal is to create an experience very much like iTunes, if you will," says Jonathan Schreiber, CEO of Xingtone.

Xingtone also makes Xingtone Ringtone Maker ($20), which lets consumers make unlimited ring tones from personal audio content. Consumers can create a ring tone that works specifically with their phone and carrier, taking the guesswork out of resampling and compressing the audio for the correct file format.

Xingtone supports about 400 models, or about 80 to 85 percent of the mobile phones that can play master tones. A new version of the software, due out in time for the back-to-school season, is expected to support ring tones that play in conjunction with images and video. One disclaimer: I haven't tried out the software myself, but a colleague, PC World Senior Editor Yardena Arar, liked it.

One thing I can tell you, though, is that the ring tones that your phone came with make you look dated. "Those are, at this point, irrelevant," says Schreiber.