The tones, they are a-changing

Real musical samples are set to be the next big thing in ringtones. But with record companies in on the act, they won't come at pocket money prices

Emily's phone rings. She is a bright and fashion-conscious 16-year-old from London. A tinny version of Eamon's "I Don't Want You Back" emanates from the handset, appropriately signifying that it is her ex-boyfriend calling. If it had been her friend Kate the ringtone would have been Britney.

Emily's phone rings. She is a bright and fashion-conscious 16-year-old from London. A tinny version of Eamon's "I Don't Want You Back" emanates from the handset, appropriately signifying that it is her ex-boyfriend calling. If it had been her friend Kate the ringtone would have been Britney.

Just about all her friends have had different tunes assigned to their numbers, to identify them when they call. Yet she also thinks that ringtones are a "total rip-off", while still admitting to being addicted to buying them.

She is one among thousands of British teenagers fuelling what this year will be a £70m industry. According to Universal Records, in 2003 the Sugababes hit "Round Round" actually made a larger profit from the jingle than from the single.

Last May, Music Week magazine started a chart for ringtones, but long before that, the popularity of a ringtone was widely considered as good a sign of where the kids were at as any singles chart. In fact, the sale of CD singles has dwindled, while the ringtone business has risen to 10 per cent of the global music market. Yet unlike singles, ringtones haven't been making money for the record labels.

The reason is that royalties for mono- and polyphonic tones go entirely to the music publishers, who own the rights to the song. The labels only have the rights to the recording. (In the same way, if a band wants to perform a Beatles song, it has to pay the publisher, not the record company the Fab Four were signed to.)

The record companies, however, are set to ring the changes. The next generation of phones boasts the curiously archaic-sounding "hi-fi" capability, which makes them capable of playing so-called "sample" tones. These are simply snippets of MP3 files, and so, being excerpts of the original recording, royalties have to be paid to the labels.

And that could mean big money. Right now on the web, a sample tone of anything in the Top 10 is likely to cost about £4.50. This is the most expensive form of music ever created, by a factor of more than 25. An entire album of music priced like that would cost a whopping £400.

With the global ringtone market becoming part of an ever-expanding $3.5bn (£2bn) business, it's no wonder the record labels want to tap in to it. But surely there is a limit. By anyone's reckoning isn't £4.50 for 30 seconds of music a bit steep?

The problem seems to be a combination of the record labels wanting to make up for lost time and the fact that so many different people are involved in getting the music to your phone.

According to a recent report from the media analysts Informa, the labels typically want between 25 and 40 per cent of the price of a sample ringtone.

"And then," says Simon Dyson, co-author of the report, "there are all the others who want a slice of the pie - the publishers, the resellers, even the internet service providers."

The question remains whether the ever-increasing cost and sophistication of ringtones is a fad or a genuine development in the way that music is experienced and enjoyed. Analysts predict healthy growth for at least the next two years, but only if costs are matched to demand.

As playgrounds around the country can testify, the cost of ringtones is currently in step with the level to which kids are willing to indulge themselves. Despite still often retailing at more than £3, prices of mono- and polyphonic tones are rapidly dropping.

However, not only are the sample tones much dearer, they also invite direct comparison with the full tracks that can be downloaded off the internet for between 75p and 99p a pop.

It is this comparison that is sparking outrage in dozens of websites and chatrooms. The outrage is also leading people to seek creative ways of getting music on to their phones cheaply. And the record labels could hardly have chosen a worse group to annoy over a technology issue.

In the US, some are setting up websites that let you transfer music you already own to your phone. The leader is a company called Xingtones, offering a $14 software package that enables you to send any sound file that is on your computer to your phone. However, copyright law in America allows for private copying. In the UK, all copying is strictly illegal - save where there is a specific and well-defined exemption; and there isn't for copying between PC and phone (nor, indeed, between CD and iPod. We're all breaking the law).

For the Xingtones website to offer a similar service in the UK, it will either have to institute a mechanism for collecting royalties, or flagrantly flout the law. That has led rapidly to the creation of the "real music" ringtone industry, based on cover versions of the hits that the kids want, which neatly sidesteps having to pay royalties to the labels. The trouble with these, though, is that despite being MP3s they tend to sound like karaoke night.

Of course, that still leaves phones such as the Sony Ericsson P800, which can play a ringtone from any MP3 you happen to own converted to a wav file. The trouble is, it takes quite a lot of ingenuity to get the music from the computer to the phone.

According to Steven Mayall, the co-author of the Informa report, "the reason that the ringtone business has been booming for so long, in spite of the seemingly high prices, is because it's incredibly simple to get content straight to your phone if you pay for it - and quite difficult to get it without paying. The opposite has been true on the internet. But as phones become more sophisticated - more like mini-computers with high-speed 3G access to web-style content - the easier it will be to get hold of free music."

A survey for musically.com conducted in the US found that 51 per cent of people said they would download a pirate tone if they could, but overall only 26 per cent actually had.

If ringtones remain expensive and piracy becomes easier, the market for hooky ringtones will flourish. But that might only last until the record companies persuade the handset manufacturers to make piracy difficult or impossible. This is what has just happened in South Korea, where the local mobile operators and handset manufacturers have struck a bargain to limit what mobile phones can do with open MP3 content. We can expect more of the same in Europe: Sony Ericsson, for instance, has a deal with Sony Music, and Motorola has a three-year marketing partnership with MTV signed last year for $70m.

Meanwhile, back in the low-budget consumer world, I asked Emily what she makes of the new sample ringtones. "They're cool," she says. However, she thinks she won't be able to afford to get ringtones so often if she gets one of the new phones. As for making her own ringtone, she says she would have a go if someone showed her how to do it. But right now, she says, she still gets confused trying to download normal music from the internet. The record companies may be safe for a while yet.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

Web developer (C#.NET, ASP.NET, MVC3/4, HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT

£35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment