There was a simple time, not long ago, when one's cell phone ring indicated only one thing: Someone was calling you. Yet, as the din of beeps and tones has thickened, and the need for differentiation has grown more urgent, the cell phone owner now faces some daunting choices.
Browse briefly among the latest ring-tone offerings and you can find anything - from popular movie quotes to comedy routines to simulated flatulence.
"It's kind of like car alarms. After a while, you tune them out," says Gail Satler, sociology professor at Hofstra University. "So what can you do to get everyone else's attention?"
Train riders may despair of this trend. And 15-year-olds everywhere can now add another layer of assimilative angst to their fraught psyches.
Meanwhile, the cash rolls in.
Each month about 40 million tones get downloaded in the United States, with customers expected to spend about $600 million this year, says Seamus McAteer of M:Metrics, an industry analyst.
Costs vary, depending on the type of download and your carrier, but an individual clip from the major sites starts at $1.99.
The variety of sounds now available and their evident popularity suggest a culture with an appalling amount of time on its hands. Even so, ring tones are not only amusing in and of themselves, they're a revealing catalog of American zeitgeist.
Quotes from famous movies, for instance, are poised to infest your local subway car as ring tones very soon. Right now, you'll find the best selection restricted to carrier Web sites. Cingular (www.cingularsounds.com) had an exclusive deal with "Star Wars" that enabled its subscribers to download quotes from the likes of Anakin Skywalker and Boba Fett. One also can download a ring tone featuring Bluto in "Animal House," shouting "Toga! Toga!"
Zingy (zingy.com) offers some movie content on its site, like quotes from "War of the Worlds," "Constantine" and "Without a Paddle," as well as an impressive selection of voice tones from the likes of 50 Cent, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
And on Ringtone Jukebox (ringtonejukebox.com), one can find a wide selection of quotes from a small selection of movies, such as "Tommy Boy" ("Somebody call 911!"), "Meet the Fockers" ("I'm a lookin' and I'm a likin"') and "Office Space" ("Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler").
But movie ring tones are not yet widely available, due in part to a somewhat vague and complicated licensing scheme - the aggregators (the companies that license the quotes to the phone carriers) need to clear the movie clip both with the studios that own it and with the individual actors who speak the lines.
Complicating things further, the writers of the films also hope to get paid, although it's still unclear how much they would be entitled to. As a result, says Mary Stuyvesant, a spokeswoman for InfoSpace, a leading ring-tone provider: "The catalog is still fairly limited. It's a pretty complicated process. But we're excited about it."
One way around such complications is to create ring tones that are - strange concept - merely ring tones. "We're quite bullish on original content," says Andy Volanakis, president and chief operating officer of Zingy. "Things like Snoop Dogg telling you to pick up your phone, all that kind of stuff."
Comedy Central (comedycentral.com) offers more than 100 original ring tones, ranging from quotes from shows such as "Crank Yankers" and "Reno 911" to stand-up routines from individual comics.
Xingtone.com walks you through the steps of transforming music you already own (or sounds, like your voice) into ringtones, a process that is actually legal.
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