FROM the bottom of handbags, deep inside coat pockets and those specially-developed holders stitched on to combat trousers, snatches of music ring out to break the silence. For those who thought nothing could be more annoying than a simple ringing sound from a mobile phone to disturb the peace no matter where, the news is . . . you ain’t heard nothing yet.
Ringtones have become big business - be they Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, the latest reggae by Sean Paul or even bars of Beethoven’s ninth symphony - so big in fact that it’s been revealed they have overtaken single CD sales.
Last year 65 million worth of singles were sold in the UK, compared to 75m in ringtones for mobile phones - that’s up from 40m in 2002. And this year’s growth of about 60 per cent is expected to continue in 2004, creating a 100m industry.
The European ringtone market alone is worth an estimated 1 billionn euros annually and growing. If further proof were needed, Woolworths has created a top-10 chart for ringtones, displaying it alongside the singles chart in the hope that customers will buy the single and the ringtone at the same time.
So just why are people prepared to pay around 3 a time to change the tune their phone makes when it rings - and why do they change them so often?
According to Kevin Gilmartin of Kirkintilloch-based ringtone company 3business - which produces Ringtone Magazine which is more of less pages of ringtones available to buy and download to your mobile - it’s because the mobile, and the ringtone, expresses people’s personalities. "On the one hand the ringtones reflect people’s taste in music - so if they’re an R&B fan they’ll go for that, or a pop fan, they’ll get the latest number one on their phone. However it is mostly younger people and students who will chop and change a lot so as to keep up with the charts or to have something unique, such as a cult TV series theme tune.
"I think people who stick to just a normal ringing tone either don’t care much about their phone and the technology it offers, or have to present themselves in a professional manner at all times. Other tunes could be too risky for them."
At one time ringtones could only be downloaded from the internet. Now all you have to do is dial a number advertised in magazines, newspapers or on television and the ringtone is sent to the buyer’s handset in the form of a text message at a cost of between 1 and 3.50.
BT has also made it easier to buy them through its public internet kiosks, which offer more than 4000 ringtones, including some 2000 polyphonic tones, starting at 2 each. Once at a kiosk, consumers can use the touch screen to select, buy and download the items they want. They can pay by inserting cash directly into the machine or with a credit card, text or by calling a premium rate phone number.
The popularity of ringtones has been further increased by record companies, which now add downloadable ringtones to some of their releases. A few labels have even released the ringtone version of a single before the CD, such as Mandy by Westlife.
Another reason for increased demand is the fact that the variety of ringtones has increased by about 1000 per cent in the past year. As well as pop, classical, jazz, national anthems, and film and TV theme tunes, there are also animal noises made available by the British Library, courtesy of its vast sound archive, which include colobus monkey calls, a desert cobra attack, loons yodelling and cattle lowing.
However Ian Vaughan, sales manager and co-founder of 3business, adds: "There are people in their early 20s who are technically savvy and who are interested in more grown-up content for their mobile phones. It is a similar market to people in that age group who started playing computer games as children, and who become very serious about them. They don’t just want the latest pop hit as their ringtone, but sophisticated graphics and java games."
The quality of sound has also vastly improved. Many phones are now polyphonic, capable of playing multiple tracks, rather than a series of single notes. An increasing number have the capacity to play CD-quality "true tones".
Sadly, however, true tones may well turn out to be the most irritating rings of all time. Nokia’s, for example, include snoring, screams, a toilet flushing, glass breaking and, in particularly dubious taste, the sound of a car screeching and crashing.
So what does your ringtone say about you?
lThe normal ring: you’re either playing it safe because you have serious reputation to uphold and can’t be caught out with a tune which could be looked upon as unprofessional if your phone goes off during a meeting, or you’re extremely uptight and can’t bear anyone to know anything about you.
• Grand Valse: The Dom Joly of ringtones - the one that gets everyone’s teeth on edge. This is still being played on your phone because you’re just too lazy to change it - or worse, don’t know how to change it. Same goes for the Mosquito, Samba, or Orient.
• Anything by Mozart, Beethoven or Rossini’s William Tell overture. This ringtone is trying to alert people to your instinctive good taste, love of classical music, and highbrow pursuits. Unfortunately with the sound quality of most mobiles, it comes over as tinny and annoying. And remember true intellectuals wouldn’t even know how to use a mobile never mind download a tune as their minds are on higher things.
• Themes to Rhubarb and Custard, Dr Who, The Muppets, or Star Wars. You might think these tunes say retro cool, however they’re more likely to shout geek, or student.
• Themes to Pulp Fiction, The Italian Job, The Godfather. A real film buff type here - or at least someone who’d like you to think they are. Be prepared for long nights of the soul.
• Anything by Bruce Springsteen. Baby we were born to run - away from whoever has this or any 80s torch songs on their phone. Could be wearing old baseball boots. Eye of the Tiger is possibly even worse: the owner might think it’s motivational, any other listener will only be motivated to clear off.
• Animal noises. A real joker here. After all, who else would have thought of something so witty? Just ask why would anyone except a zoologist want to have a monkey mating call on their phone?
• Fly on the Wings of Love by XTM. One of the most recent top ringtone sellers. Most likely to be on the phone belonging to a Chav.
• Beyonce Knowles, Crazy in Love. Well at least you’re not alone if this is what rings out as it was the top selling ringtone of the last year - and it’s just won her a few Grammy’s. Not the most original though.
• Your own composition. It might sound awful, but at least it’s not the Black Eyed Peas again. Ten out of ten to anyone who knows enough about their phone to actually be able to do it themselves. However, you could find more rewarding things to do with all that time you apparently have on your hands.
How to make a mobile for-tune
IF there is one man who knows just how big ringtones have become then it’s Alexander Amosu. The 28-year-old is the man behind the UK’s number one provider of the phone tunes.
And it’s a real rags-to-riches tale. He was born in Britain, but moved to Nigeria at the age of two with his parents. Ten years later, he returned to Britain to live with his grandmother and younger brother.
They moved into a council house in north London and there was so little room, he had to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room. At school, he couldn’t relate to the other children who wore Nike and Adidas trainers. He didn’t even have enough money for school dinners. "All the kids that everyone liked had the latest gear," he says. "I couldn’t fit in. I had really geeky and ugly clothes. I had two options - I could either go in just these trainers or I could work for them."
He got a paper round and bought himself a pair of Nike trainers. His classmates suddenly started talking to him. "From there I thought if I needed something I would just have to work hard for it. I saved the money and kitted myself out to look pretty and before you knew it I was quite popular in school," he says.
While at college he put on parties and set up a house-cleaning business which eventually made more than 1500 a week.
Then in 2000, when he was just 24, he sent his brother a ringtone he had made on a phone with a composing facility. The tune was Big Pimpin’ by Jay-Z, and he had painstakingly keyed in the notes on the phone’s keypad.
His brother’s phone went off at college and immediately all his friends wanted it. Alexander made them pay 1 for the ringtone. In the first day he made 7. "I thought this is fantastic! What would happen if I made a catalogue of ringtones and advertised it?" he says. He did some research and found only one company in the UK and several in Germany providing ringtones.
He decided to specialise in RnB music and, within six weeks, had come up with a further six ringtones. He installed an extra phone line, with a premium-rate number charging 1.50 a minute, in the council house he was now living in with his parents. He advertised the number on the back of 20,000 fliers he made for his next party. On the first day, RnB Ringtones made 97. He gave up university.
Within four months he moved the firm into offices in Islington and employed 21 staff, selling 1000 ringtones. "We were making the songs as they were coming out," he says. In the first year turnover was 1.2m. In 2002, he was Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Institute of Directors Black Enterprise Awards.
He now lives in a three-storey townhouse and drives a Porsche. He has also bought homes in Alicante and Nigeria.
A year ago he sold 80 per cent of RnB Ringtones. He refuses to say how much for or to whom. Amosu still provides the company with 11,000 monophonic, 7000 polyphonic, and 1000 true tone ringtones. He still owns RnB World - the former parent company of RnB Ringtones - which is now the UK’s number one provider of mobile ringtones and graphics.
THE TOP TEN RINGTONES OF 2003
1 Crazy In Love by Beyonce
2 Fly On The Wings Of Love by XTM
3 Ignition by R Kelly
4 In Da Club by 50 Cent
5 Tubular Bells from The Exorcist
6 Clocks by Coldplay
7 The Simpsons theme
8 Where Is The Love by the Black Eyed Peas
9 Get Busy by Sean Paul
10 Pretty Green Eyes by Ultrabeat
• Supplied by ringtones.co.uk