Michael is editor-at-large for DDJ. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
It's not really all Francisco Tarrega's fault. Tarrega, a 19th-Century Spanish classical guitarist known as the father of the modern classical guitar, died in 1909, but he became, posthumously and for a time, the father of the world's most annoying ringtoneat least according to Britain's Daily Mirror.
Tarrega earned that honor a few years back when everybody finally got fed up with a composition of his called "Gran Vals." It wasn't such an annoying tune in itself, but in 1991 the Finnish cell phone maker Nokia pulled 13 notes out of the middle of "Gran Vals" to create one of the first cell phone ringtones. Other annoying ringtones followed, but this one was pretty clearly the most annoying ringtone of them all.
Of course, there was less competition back then.
"Gran Vals" was not intended to be annoying; it got that way after so many people were forced to listen to those 13 notes endlessly repeated in theaters and subways and during meals and meetings. That's a recipe that can turn any tune from great to grating. But some modern ringtones were actually designed to be annoying.
The Annoying Thing
According to Wikipedia, the ultimate source of the current champion ringtone annoyance is Swede Daniel Malmedahl, a teen-aged internal combustion engine impressionist (I'm just reporting), who was trying to nail the sound of a two-stroke moped engine and came up with a screwy vocal sound effect that enjoyed a certain vogue on the Internet before capturing the attention of Erik Wernquist, who in turn, came up with The Annoying Thing, an animation featuring an anatomically correct anthropomorphic frog in goggles and a helmet and not much else who performs hand movements simulating the twisting of the handgrips on a motorcycle while making appropriate noises appropriated from Malmedahl's moped engine impression.
And the rest is what passes for history in an ADD world: Wernquist's Annoying Thing begat the annoying ringtone, now called "Crazy Frog" and on its way to taking over the world. In short order, Crazy Frog earned 14-million pounds for Jamba, its publisher ("ringtone publisher": Add that to the list of lucrative job categories that didn't exist when you were choosing a major), making it the most commercially successful ringtone ever.
To say that Jamba promoted Crazy Frog heavily would be putting it lightly. Crazy Frog pretty much took over British ITV in May, and the resident of the United Kingdom who hadn't been exposed to Crazy Frog probably hadn't been exposed to the common cold, either.
Then it became a hit single: A Crazy Frog dance single based on Malmedahl's dopey moped impression outsold the nearest competitor by four to one and rocketed to the top ten in many European markets. There's a Crazy Frog album out, there's video game in the works, there's a computer virus that masquerades as Crazy Frog, and at this moment someone is probably optioning the movie rights with one hand while getting Jim Carrey's agent on the cell with the other.
The Ringtone Phenomenon
What the heck is up with this bizarre ringtone phenomenon? You may well ask.
Here's what's up with that. In the U.S., ringtones were a $300-million business last year and will be double that this year. In Chicago, you can buy ringtones in McDonald's.
But the U.S. trails many other countries in cell phone adoption, and therefore, in ringtone mania. The worldwide market is at least ten times the size of the U.S. market, and is already about a tenth of the total global music market. In Britain last year, ringtone sales surpassed CD sales. That's in pounds, not just units.
The ringtone market has attracted talents as diverse as Boy George and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Last year, Dutch R&B singer/songwriter Alain Clark released "Ringtone," a song commemorating the phenomenon.
Naturally, I Googled ringtones. The word scored 11,200,000 hits; for comparison, Harry Potter got me 26,200,000 and Karl Rove got 5,700,000. So in salience, ringtones fall geometrically halfway between a warlock and a popular fictional character.
I looked for an explanation from some of the bloggers who are following the ringtone phenomenon.
"I cannot for the life of me explain the ringtone phenomenon," one said. Another: "I'm a bit flabbergasted by wireless consumers' attraction to ringtones." And another: "It's OK to say you don't understand the ringtones business."
It is okay, because the phenomenon defies economics, self-interest, and arithmetic. People are paying more for snippets of music than they pay for full songs. There are sources of free ringtones just as there are sources of free songs, but the average price paid for ringtones these days is a buck, which is the going price for a full song from Apple's iTunes Music Store, and you'll pay Nokia several times that for a high-quality True Tones ringtone. Not to mention the fact that the ringtone phenomenon is built on one of the most socially obnoxious aspects of the cell phone: its invasion of others' auditory space. I won't even get into what the cacophony of ringtones is doing to the sex lives of songbirds.
It's worth pointing out that one motivation for using ringtones really is to annoy people. Crazy Frog is evidence of this, but then there are the ringtones from RudeTones, featuring farts, burps, and sneezes.
And ringtones themselves are the tip of a larger iceberg of annoyance.
There are also ringbacks, which analysts expect to be bigger than ringtones. Ringback tones are heard by the person calling you, rather than by you and those unfortunate to be in your immediate vicinity when you get a call. Two reasons why ringbacks might indeed surpass ringtones are that they are operator owned, so there's an opportunity for the operators to make money, and businesses can put pitches (sales, not musical) in their ringbacks, for a new advertising channel. Now that's annoying.
There are bird calls on ringtone, and the porn industry has spun the ringtone into the moantone. The (sound) quality is improving: You can Google real tones or true tones or polyphonic ringtones for the skinny on that.
You can also download complete songs to your phone. Robbie Williams was the first artist to release an album on a cell phone memory card. This is a different phenomenon from ringtones, but it's clearly on some sort of convergence or collision course with the ringtone phenomenon.
My Ringtone, My Self
There have to be other reasons for the ringtone phenomenon besides the urge to annoy strangers. Many of the people who have thought about this question point to the issue of personalization. A cell phone is a generic consumer product, but it becomes your link to your friends, and therefore, a very personal device. The argument is that this strong social aspect of the device creates an equally strong need to personalize it, to make it represent you because it is, in some sense, your avatar in your social world.
There is an apparent contradiction in this, because ringtones are very much about being part of the crowd, fitting in. The more popular a ringtone is, the less useful it is in defining your particular quirky uniqueness.
I think maybe the way to cut through the apparent contradiction is to think about the audience.
Musical taste is an individualizing property: You can assert your individuality by flaunting your musical taste. But teenagers, who are the prime market for cell phones and ringtones, are in the process of discovering or creating their identities and their tastes, as opposed to demonstrating it. So their strategy is: "Try out what others like to see what you might like."
So I do think that the idea is correct that ringtones and ringback tones are about making this very personal device, the cell phone, a more accurate projection of yourself.
Let's assume that's right. What are the implications? What's the opportunity? What if, beyond the early stage of exploration and trying on other people's tastes, the ultimate goal is to have your own personal ringtone or ringback tone, unique to you and reflecting your taste, designed by you without requiring you to be a composer. How would you produce that? Who would produce it? How would anybody make money off it?
Enter Stephen Wolfram
Maybe Stephen Wolfram and his colleagues know.
Wolfram is the genius behind the massive mathematics program and language Mathematica. For many years, he has been concentrating on the complex structures that can be generated using the kinds of simple rules found in Cellular Automata (CA). If you know all about CAs, you can skip ahead, but for those who aren't up to speed on this fascinating realm of programming, here's a quick glimpse.
A CA operates in a Cartesian digital world of n spatial and one temporal dimensions; n=1 is complicated enough for the current discussion. A particular CA requires two things: an initial state and a transformation rule.
The initial state specifies the values of all cells in the CA's one-dimensional row of cells. These cells may be defined to be a single bit in depth, or they may be deeper. A CA with 1-bit cells can be represented as a row of black and white boxes (ON and OFF), and a CA whose cells are deeper can be represented as a row of colored boxes. Often, the initial state of a CA will be a single ON cell, all others OFF.
The rule specifies how you get to the next state from the current state. Subsequent states are also called "generations," and the rule specifies how the CA evolves from generation to generation. CA rules often embody a principle of locality, so that cells are only influenced by adjacent or nearby cells. An example of a simple rule for a CA with binary cells might be:
A cell will be ON in the next generation if, and only if, exactly one of [the cell, its left neighbor, and its right neighbor] is ON in the current generation, or if the cell and its right neighbor, but not its left neighbor, are ON in the current generation.
This is the so-called Rule 30, one of the 256 possible rules for this variety of CA, with one spatial dimension, binary cells, and nearest-neighbor locality. When you run it out for a few generations, you begin to see something curious. The sequence of cells expands and seems to get increasingly more complex. It doesn't just get more ornate, it seems to really increase in complexity. It is, apparently, chaotic. The central 1-bit-wide slice of the expansion of Rule 30 gives a series of bits that are, for practical purposes, random; in fact, Mathematica uses Rule 30 as a random-number generator.
Wolfram believes that there is something of great profundity in the fact that some of these simple rules with even simpler input can produce output of such great complexity. So complex and unpredictable, in fact, that it may be logically impossible to characterize the output of the nth iteration of such a rule in any way shorter than executing the rule n times and observing the result. In his fat book A New Kind of Science, Wolfram explores some of the implications of this. Along the way, he has something to say about everything from nanotechnology to consciousness.
More to the point, Wolfram is convinced, and I think he's convincing, that these small programs have something to say about all these areas. Some such simple program, he hints, or at least I infer, could even be the engine that runs the universe, that makes the universe of this instant transform into the universe of the next instant.
Wolfram continues to explore the implications of small programs, applying them to many problems in different areas. And now he's applied them to the problem (if you accept that this is a problem requiring a solution) of producing new cell phone ringtones.
In July, I got what looked like a color swatch book in the mail. Art directors and interior decorators know what I mean: 1-3/4×8-inch cards, bolted at one corner to fan out, er, like a fan, with a different color on each card.
But these cards had color patterns: Each displayed a narrow horizontal rectangle broken up into maybe 1500 squares of different colors, with runs of color, repetitions, patterns showing up in the limited palette chosen for each or in other features, but still basically random looking. On the back of the swatch was a URL, a guest username, and a password.
Ah, a mystery.
So I went to the site, WolframTones at http://tones.wolfram.com/. Sheet music for the 21st century, the pitch went. Beginning in October, WolframTones would, for a small fee, let anyone with web access create their own music in a matter of seconds.
This music-creation service is just one aspect of a trend that Wolfram has identified and wants to ride: mass customization. That is, providing made-to-order products and services on a mass-market basis at one-size-fits-all pricing.
Creating your own custom ringtone at WolframTones requires no knowledge of chords or scales or other music theory or practice. You generate a composition by clicking checkboxes and moving sliders to make selections on variables of musical style and tempo and scale, and assigning roles to multiple instruments. You don't have to know what these variables mean, because you can experiment with them to find something you like.
You also specify the parameters of the mathematical rule underlying the composition. The rule is one of several billion different 5-neighbor cellular automata rules and its seed, or input value, plus a couple of other parameters. WolframTones uses the rule to generate a tune by grabbing an n-cell-wide swath down the center of the visual representation of the running rule and then rotating it so that the time axis is horizontal as you'd expect in musical notation. It then maps aspects of the generated pattern to musical properties to produce the melodic sequence. WolframTones produces compositions with multiple instruments, and each instrument can be mapped to different aspects of the pattern.
Some sequences will be repetitive, but some will noodle on in endless variations within tight musical parameters.
Wolfram Science hopes to make money on this (and keep it allno royalties) by charging for downloading ringtones via your carrier. And they intend to charge somewhere around $2. Hmmm. Well, the market has shown that it has no money sense, so the price may not be a problem. But will WolframTones really catch on in Ringtonia?
I Just Called to Feel Your Vibe
I guess I'm skeptical. The technology behind WolframTones is fascinating, and I'd like to see it employed, for example, in online games, where every time you get in a particular situation you hear some mathematical variation on a piece of music. Because the music is different each time, the game seems deep, but because it is recognizable as the same theme, it defines your locus in the game. Something like that. But ringtones?
These WolframTones ringtones meet the individualization requirement brilliantly, because the tone patterns (melodies?) are essentially unique. As for the musicality part, I'm not so sure. Does the marginally musical nature of WolframTones make it more or less annoying than real tunes? More or less memorable? I dunno. But there is still the group cohesion aspect, and on that measure, I'd say that Wolfram's unique ringtones fail precisely because of their uniqueness.
And I suspect that the group cohesion thing is important. This is, after all, a communication device, and we can only communicate about shared experience. But I could be wrong.
Here's something else I could be wrong about: I can't help but think that the whole billion-dollar ringtone edifice might fall if creative minds focused on the vibrating option rather than the sound option. Cell phones that offer a vibrating notification option instead of the noise option raise the possibility of custom vibration patterns. And there's no need to stop with replacing ringtones: How about replacing ringback tones with vibration patterns, too? So, if you got a particularly nice vibeback when you called a particular number, might you call that number more often? And hope that they did not pick up too soon?
I'm just thinking.