Sunday, March 11, 2007

Economies of Sound: Ringtones

Not an original topic, I know. Ringtones have been discussed, and debated, and analyzed to death.

One problem though, I still don't get them.

Ok, so I understand their popularity. It's an identity. Just as people put skins and cases on their gadgets, having a speaker blare out a particular tune is as close as most of us will come to having a soundtrack (lest we walk around with a ghetto blaster 24/7, and risk getting lynched). I get that part. I take part in that part. My 6700 is currently pimped out with a delicious little sample of Baba O'Riley by the Who (just the opening intro right before the drums and guitars kick in, very simple, very subtle, and as rings go, I either get the "I know that" nod, or the I-think-that's-cool "what is that").

What I don't understand is people's willingness to accept the current business model surrounding the ringtone. It's currently a boon to the music industry, and another source of revenue to keep a failing business model afloat (and yet another way NOT to pay artists, but that's another post).

Love them or hate them, Apple has set the price of a single at 99 cents. This seems appropriate (though I question their crappy bitrate, and DRM, but that's also another post). After years of CD inflation pricing at places like Tower Records (RIP), the 99 cent store attitude of the iPod companion was a breath of fresh air.

So, why are ringtones still 2-3 times more expensive? In essence they are the same thing, both a data file with the audio information needed to create sound to drive a speaker, but the ringtone is a vastly inferior version of that information. Usually consisting of just an intro or chorus, and at a ridiculously low quality (as it only will be played out the back of a crappy phone speaker), One would assume that it would be the single NOT the ringtone that would be worth more...

Of course Apple has recently announced their Awesome Phone (awesome like a hotdog), and sadly I think a lot of people will be disappointed by it once they use it for a while.
One reason they might not realize right away:

It will probably still use ringtones.

This is of course WILD market speculation, but the music industry has already ceded too much power over music to Apple as it is. I find it highly doubtful that they will just yield one of their last remaining cash cows over to Jobs and Co. Also, if you watch this insanely fine toothed comb over of the iPhone announcement, you'll see a new iTunes tab for ringtones.

So, how disappointing will that be? Here you've payed $600 for the privilege of being locked into a 2 year agreement with Cingular, and you legally buy your music at 99 cents a song, and this is going to be the Music/Feature phone to kill all SideKicks and Chocolates, but you'll still have to buy separate ringtones. This thing'll hold 8GB of movie and song data files, but you'll still have to purchase separate audio data files to change your ringer? It WONT be able to use the songs already on it as ringers?
Of course, we don't know this is what will happen, but looking at how cut throat the economies of audio have become, I just don't see this working out in favor of Mr and Mrs Consumer.

Most phones these days use MP3 files for ringtones. For my next post, I'll talk about another topic that's been beaten to death: How to "roll your own" ringtone.
ringtones, cellphones, audio sound design, some audio guy, business, annoyed, rant, iphone

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