Published: August 18, 2004
ock bands have long prospered by living - and selling - images of hard living and brash poses. But sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are no longer enough. The definition of cool for some acts now includes mobile phone ring tones.
Ring tones, the synthesized melodies that are programmed to play when a cellphone rings, have proved to be such a lucrative side business for cellphone companies that record labels in the United States have decided they want a piece of the revenue. Warner Brothers Records in the last few days began showing commercials on MTV and MTV2 for a set of voice-greeting ring tones recorded by members of the punk band Green Day. Executives in the music and cellular industries said it was the first time a record label had paid to run its own ads for ring tones in the United States market.
The commercials, which are part of a broader advertising campaign to promote the Sept. 21 release of "American Idiot,'' the band's first album in four years, are a milestone for an industry that is looking to products other than compact discs to steady its shaky sales.
To some artists and music executives, the ploy suggests the subversion of music to marketing. "There is a sense among some that it bastardizes the music, takes away the sincerity and the original intent of the artist,'' said Tony Dimitriades, an agent who represents acts like Tom Petty. "With where we are today, there seems to be a notion that anything goes and who cares."
But Tom Whalley, the chairman of the Warner Brothers label, part of the Warner Music Group, said that advertising the phone tones was just one part of his label's shift from mere disc factory to marketer of lifestyle products.
"We're in the culture with each and every one of our artists,'' Mr. Whalley said. "The ring tone can help connect that fan to the artist. If it's done with taste, I don't think it crosses that line where it's commerce over art.''
Taste is not the first notion that springs to mind when sampling the Green Day ring tones, which cost up to $2.49 each. They include the band members belching and cursing, as well as offering witty ripostes. "Pick up the phone!" demands Mike Dirnt, the band's bassist, in one. "It's your mother. I know. She's with me.''
But the ring tones are in keeping with the sneering image of the punk outfit, best known for songs like "Basket Case" and "Brain Stew," both of which are also being sold as ring tones.
Even if ring tones do not represent pure artistic ambition, they are resonating with the public. Last year, cellphone users worldwide spent $3.1 billion on ring tones, according to Consect, a mobile market research and consulting firm, with popular choices including Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love.'' (The global music business is about 1o times as large.)
The United States market, which lags those in Europe and Asia, rose to about $150 million in retail sales, from $45 million the year before. Analysts expect the market to expand even faster now that phone manufacturers are producing more sophisticated phones that can play multichannel audio files with pieces of an actual recording. The sound quality of the new files is far superior to the tinny synthesized versions of songs known as monophonic or polyphonic tones. The phones usually have a screen that can display a list of hundreds of titles, which sell for $1.50 to $2.50 and contain a 30-second clip of the song.
Record executives say the market appeared to hold only limited benefits for them until recently. To produce monophonic or polyphonic tones, mobile companies did not need to license the actual recording of a song. Instead, they licensed the composition from a music publisher, paying a 10 percent to 12 percent royalty on average. (A song's writer or copyright holder and the artist who records it are not always the same person.) But when the real recording is used, as with so-called master tones, record labels typically receive a 50 percent cut.
Record companies and music publishers are still battling over how to divvy up ring tone revenue, which could result in rights to songs being withheld, similar to problems suffered by online music stores. And even as labels forge ahead, there may be holdouts among some artists who did not foresee their music being sliced into snippets for cellphone users.
Complaints about the encroachment of commercial interests into the music world are nothing new, of course. Outrage over the licensing of music for advertisements, like Nike's use of the Beatles' "Revolution" to peddle sneakers in the 1980's, has faded so much that few eyebrows are raised when Jaguar uses the Clash's "London Calling'' to sell cars or Wrangler Jeans borrows Creedence Clearwater Revival's anti-establishment "Fortunate Son" for a feel-good campaign to sell pants.
But more artists are taking up the offer to cash in, sometimes on more than their music. Earlier this month, the rap star 50 Cent said he had signed a deal with Zingy, a ring tone service, to distribute original voice recordings and images. In May, Zingy said it had signed a similar deal with the rap artist Snoop Dogg.
"I think the kids that want them are going to get them and the kids that don't will ignore them,'' Mr. Dirnt of Green Day said. "Nowadays you've got to be a little more creative. MTV doesn't play nearly as many videos as they used to. You move forward with whatever the new medium is." Warner Brothers is also selling packages of blank CD's outfitted with Green Day labels, expecting fans to buy digital downloads of the band's catalog and burn them to the discs.
The business is so promising that the world's largest music company, the
Universal Music Group, created an in-house ring tone division, Universal Music
Mobile, two years ago. The chief executive of that unit, Cedric Ponsot, said a
third of its sales come from nonmusic tones, including sound effects and jokes
from impersonators, like the one who imitates
Mr. Ponsot said he occasionally had trouble persuading artists, including the rock band U2, to approve selling their music in ring tone form, especially before recent improvements in sound quality. He said he has told artists, "If your fans are willing to pay two to three euros for a ring tone, you should respect that.''