Crazy World: How an annoying frog conquered the globe

This weekend, Britain is set to have its first number one inspired by a ringtone. Adrian Turpin traces the growth of a phenomenon from Scandinavian internet joke to international annoyance
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It wasn't quite an apology. But almost. "I don't know what to say," said Erik Wernquist. "Really I don't. Some people obviously think this thing is worth paying for."

It wasn't quite an apology. But almost. "I don't know what to say," said Erik Wernquist. "Really I don't. Some people obviously think this thing is worth paying for."

History has a precedent for Swedish innovators who have had cause to regret their creations. Alfred Nobel endowed his peace prize as an act of contrition for developing dynamite. Wernquist's crime against humanity is of a different order, although Britain's commuters, teachers, parents and television viewers might disagree. He is the man who put flesh on the Crazy Frog ringtone and began its transformation from Scandinavian internet joke to multimillion pound international annoyance.

If you hadn't seen or heard Crazy Frog (which seems hard to believe), you would not immediately take him for a frog.

Unlike most amphibians, he is blue not green, walks on two legs and has a belly button. The latter seems a bit superfluous for a creature hatched from spawn, but then so does the 1950s-style motorcycle cap. Between the creature's legs there used to hang a small blue set of genitals (more like an epiglottis than a penis), but after a deluge of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this has been discreetly covered with a black blob, at least on television.

Crazy Frog's rivet - now playing on a train or bus near you - is the constipated phut of a badly serviced East European Trabant car driven by a boy racer who has just passed his test: "a ding ding ding dinga ding ding ..."

The fact that this makes anyone over the age of 18 want to stick their fist through the television screen and grab him and his little blue nadgers has clearly not harmed his prospects.

To date, the company Jamster has made more than £10m from people downloading Crazy Frog ringtones. As if that weren't enough, this week a CD version of the song produced by the German dance act Bass Bumpers has been outselling Coldplay's new single by more than four to one. More than 400,000 copies of the single - which splices the frog theme with Harold Faltermayer's Beverly Hills Cop theme tune, "Axel F" - have been ordered, according to the label Gut Records. On Sunday, Britain will have its first ever ringtone-inspired number one, and there is not a thing that Coldplay's Chris Martin or anyone else can do to stop it.

"Kids obviously find it cute and cool," said Gennaro Castaldo, a spokesman for the HMV record shops, attempting to explain the phenomenon, "but students and even office workers seem to be drawn to its rather kitsch, ironic appeal. The only real issue is whether the record label can press enough copies to keep up with the huge demand that we're seeing right now."

No one has been more surprised at Crazy Frog's success than Daniel Malmedahl, a 24-year-old computer salesman from Gothenburg in Sweden. Malmedahl was 17 when he decided to record an impression of his friends' motorbikes on his computer. Why? Just because. "We had mad laughs because it's so characteristic, this two-stroke engine sound. My friends found it funny when I started imitating it," Malmedahl recently told the BBC. "When we recorded it, we found it very very funny. We laughed until we got tears...

"I'm very, very, very stunned that it's gone so far, almost too far. It's such a little creation. It's less than a minute and I would guess that most people actually would have no idea that it's an imitation of a two-stroke engine."

Before long, a friend had posted it on the internet where it was seen by a Swedish television researcher who invited Malmedahl to "perform" the sound live, and that is where ordinarily his 15 minutes of fame might have stopped. But the sound was already beginning to strike out on its own. On one internet site, the Insanity Test, the sound was set against a picture of a red Formula One racing car. The joke - if that's what it was - was that anyone who looked at the two together for a minute and started to laugh was insane. (This may say something about the people buying the record this week.)

It took a long time for the sound to attach itself to a body - which is where Erik Wernquist, a 27-year-old designer of 3-D graphics, who had taken the Insanity Test, enters. He decided to draw an animated frog to mouth the sound. "I wanted to make something that made an annoying noise and looked annoying," he says. Why? Just because. Accurately, Wernquist called his new creation The Annoying Thing. Posting his work on the internet, he appealed for the person who created the sounds to come forward. When Malmedahl rang him, he was initially suspicious. Only when he performed the familiar phut-phut tune down the phone did he believe him. Nobody could fake that. One of the strangest things about the whole Crazy Frog story is that the two men who created it haven't even met.

So is Crazy Frog anything more than just another novelty record? After all, Gut Records were the label responsible for Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt". Why should Crazy Frog be any more significant than the Birdy Song, the Ketchup Song or any of the Muppets' contributions to the charts? That depends how you look at it, says Gordon MacMillan of the online media and marketing magazine Brand Republic. "What it's really shown is a clear polarisation in the [music] market. Most of the people who hate it, I think it's fair to say, are adults. But kids love it. It's the latest playground thing. There's a buzz to it. The thing is years ago it would have stayed within the playground.

"In some ways it's very traditional. In my schooldays, it would have been collecting Star Wars cards or stickers of First Division football players that you stick in books. Today it's collecting the Crazy Frog ringtone."

Graham Brown is the chief executive of the consultancy group Wireless World Forum (WWF). Does he like Crazy Frog? "I'd rather not talk about that. They're one of our clients." Well, does he have it on his mobile phone. "Er, no. No, I don't." So can he explain it? "What Crazy Frog tells you," he says, "is that young people have a lot of liquid cash and they're spending it less and less on traditional forms of music." The figures are astonishing. The amount spend globally by young people (that is, under 25s) on mobile phones is $100bn a year. According to Brown, children spend eight times as much on mobile phones as they do on music. Recent research by the WWF shows that this year young people in the UK will spend £150m on ringtones, ring-back tunes and downloading songs directly on to mobile phones. The average British teenager now spends £26 a year on ringtones. The record industry has been slow to catch up," says Brown. "They have to a degree lost control of their standard distribution channels." WH Smith and Walmart (the owner of Asda) have, for example, stopped stocking CD singles. The fragmentation of the media - endless cable channels, digital radio, MP3 downloads - has made the job of promoting songs harder than ever for traditional record companies. Long gone are the days when it was enough to get on the Radio 1 playlist and have done with it. "What this has done is give the people with control of new distribution channels, like the ringtones companies, a certain amount of power. Jamster, which distributes the Crazy Frog ringtone, has a good subscriber list. In the short term you're going to see an irritating spike of novelty singles. In the long term, we are going to see record companies increasingly using mobiles as a medium."

If anyone doubts that they need only look at the sums being spent. The internet company VeriSign spent $152.5m buying Jamster last May and promoting Crazy Frog has cost £14m (a lot of it on clubbing viewers of cable channels over the head repeatedly with the ads); 25 per cent of the advertising money spent on MTV in Germany and the UK has come from Jamster. In Britain, it is not just the frog's nudity that has led to complaints to the ASA but the volume of adverts. The watchdog has shrugged its shoulders and said it does not have the power to legislate.

The future for Crazy Frog haters is grim. Prepare to be bombarded by similar campaigns for a hateful menagerie of unlovable anthropomorphic characters, such as the sickly Sweetie Chick. At least Wernquist has shown a little contrition. "I don't want this to be what I'm remembered for," he says. As for Malmedahl: "I have a lot of sounds," he says. "I always tend to imitate a lot of stuff in my environment, at work, at home, with my friends. It could be anything - even a door opening." Anything? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Where does the money go?

As basic bleeping ringtones evolve into high-quality musical "realtones", the businesses behind them are in turmoil. Here's how the typical £3 cost of a realtone divides up:

Music publishers 32p

Sitting at the top of the content tree, music publishers are in a strong position. Whether a realtone is recorded by a sound-alike band as a cover version or snipped from the genuine chart-topping single, they'll always receive their share. The only problem they have is trusting content aggregators and mobile operators to report accurately how many virtual ringtones have been sold.

Content aggregators and distributors 64p

The past five years have been heaven for these hi-tech entrepreneurs. Spotting the opportunity presented by hi-tech mobile phones, they've driven ringtone sales by targeting the younger, mobile generation. They're feeling the squeeze now from record labels keen to address consumers directly and many are diversifying into wallpaper images, animations, such as Sweety the Chick, and mobile games.

Mobile operators 75p

You might think the big mobile networks were sitting pretty, relying on the premium rate SMS messages that usually deliver ringtones, as well as offering convenient one-stop portals to browse and order content on the move. But mobile phones are becoming ever more connected: to the internet, to home computers and to each other. This could give online music stores and record companies access to consumers without using costly mobile networks at all.

Record labels £1.29

The record labels may have been slow to embrace digital music, but now they're here to stay. Although their overall income from ringtones is small, realtones are by far their most profitable channel - a 15-second ringtone clip can cost up to £4.50, while a CD-quality download of the track from a music store such as iTunes costs just 79p. Source: Generator Solutions Ltd