NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -
Today, most ringtones for cellular phones are snippets of existing songs or compositions, with top-40 and hip-hop hits making up the bulk of the downloaded tones. But a new generation of songwriters sees the mobile phone as an emerging medium for artistic expression, and they are composing original material exclusively for cellphones: the ringtone for ringtone's sake.
It isn't easy. After all, pop and rap artists have three whole minutes to tell a story with their music. Those jazz and classical dudes get even longer. But when you're writing a ringtone, you have about 20 seconds to convey a message of love, heartbreak or hope -- or at least come up with an infectious hook.
"With ringtones, it has to be memorable," says producer Eddie O'Loughlin. "And it's got to have a little bite to it."
A 60-year-old music veteran who discovered such acts as rappers Salt-N- Pepa, O'Loughlin's perfectionism could have a big payday. Ringtones are a shockingly lucrative business, generating more than $2 billion in annual worldwide revenues for the record labels that license their tunes and the retailers and phone companies that sell the tones for about $2 a pop.
Everywhere you look, non-musicians are trying to cash in on the craze: Movie studios want to make bits of film dialogue available -- instead of your phone trilling, perhaps you'd like it to have Jack Nicholson say, "Here's Johnny!" And sports figures are recording shout-outs that fans can buy in lieu of regular rings.
Disco D aka David Shayman, a 25-year-old deejay/producer/composer, first got turned on to the possibilities of ringtones when retailer Best Buy decided to turn some music he'd written for one of its commercials into a ringtone and offer it on the Best Buy Web site. (In fact, composing standalone ringtones is a lot like writing music for commercials or jingles. "It's a very similar concept," says Dee Robert, a singer and songwriter who has worked with O'Loghlin and Disco D on ringtones. "You're trying to push a product in a very short amount of time.")
It is one thing to write a killer ringtone, but then it needs to get airplay, or phone play. That's where companies like Jamster come in. Jamster, a unit of Internet services company VeriSign, formats music for distribution on mobile devices and markets the ringtones on its Web site and through TV ads on MTV, BET, and other music-oriented networks. Jamster even has its own studios, where engineers will take ringtones and replay them on different cellphones to hear how the clips will sound.
O'Loughlin, who owns a production company called Next Plateau Entertainment, has compiled about 20 original ringtones from various artists, which he's pitched to Jamster executives, who will decide which ones to license and market -- and perhaps turn into hits.
Ringtone technology came out of Finland, which may not rule the music world but definitely rocks when it comes to cellphones. A decade or so ago the Finns had a problem. Big-shot executives would be sitting in a conference room, they'd all put their phones on the table, and -- these being important people -- they'd all have the same hot gadget. Then one of the phones would ring and everyone would lunge because there was no way of knowing whether the phone was Pekka's or Osto's.
Around the same time, an engineer for Finnish cellphone maker Nokia figured out a way to change the sounds a phone makes by sending codes over the air -- the same technology used to ship short text messages. Nokia commercialized the service in 1997, and soon it wasn't merely executives using ringtones to personalize their phones (they all have Beatles ringtones, anyway) but hip-hop-loving kids looking for the latest sound and harried soccer moms who program different rings for each of their kids and friends.
Yet only recently have serious music figures like Sir Mix-A-Lot viewed ringtones as a platform for their creativity. (The "Baby Got Back" rapper has produced "MixTones" for an outfit called Versaly Entertainment.) That's largely due to new handsets that play "true tones," or reasonably good versions of recorded music.
Before true tones came along, phones could play only polyphonic or even cruder monophonic tones, which could capture just a song's melody, often in tinny-sounding bleats. Disco D, monitoring the "Love You Tonight" recording to make sure a typical true-tone cellphone could replay the upper and lower notes, says he doesn't compose for older handsets. "I, like, want some control over how my art gets transmitted."
Berry Gordy had his "Hitsville U.S.A." house. Phil Spector had the Brill Building. Eddie O'Loughlin has Disco D's home studio in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, and a couple of other studios just like it.
A songwriter in the 1960s, O'Loughlin realized he had a knack for helping tweak other writers' work. He formed his own production company and in the 1970s helped launch the music careers of Gloria Gaynor and John Travolta. In the 1990s he reinvented himself yet again as an executive for rap label Tommy Boy, then founded Next Plateau, in part to capitalize on the ringtone craze. "The fact that he's still relevant is insane," says Disco D.
O'Loughlin is old-school in at least one way, however. Even though he's producing standalone ringtones, he wouldn't be averse to returning to the studio to expand the most popular rings into full-length tracks. "There's nothing like making a hit record or producing a hit act," O'Loughlin says.
As for musicians who think ringtones aren't real art, O'Loughlin predicts that they'll eventually come around, recalling that when he got his start in the music business there were high-minded performers who wouldn't dream of appearing on television. "There's more income in ringtones, and they are going to be important tools for launching a record, even a career," O'Loughlin says.
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