50 Cent, now appearing on a cell phone near you.

How popular culture gets popular.
June 24 2003 1:01 PM

50 Cent Is Calling

Rap's biggest star is now appearing on cell phones near you.

People are paying up to $1 for a 50 Cent ring tone
People are paying up to $1 for a 50 Cent ring tone

"In Da Club," by rap artist 50 Cent, is a major hit. On the Billboard charts, yes, but also on the ring tone charts. "Ring tones," as you may well know, are the short sound clips that can be downloaded for a fee and used in some cell phones as the thing you hear when you have a call—not just some bland, nonspecific warbling, but the hook from a TV theme or a pop song. At the moment, 50 Cent seems to be the reigning king of rings.

Ring tones usually cost a dollar or two. As others have noted, the famous reticence of music fans to pay for digital download versions of their favorite songs does not seem to apply here. One firm that tracks such things says that in the United States, cell phone owners spent more than $16 million on ring tones last year, and with the trend starting to gain momentum, that figure is expected to rise tenfold or more. This is plausible given what is already being spent on tones in Europe and Asia—an astonishing $1.36 billion in Western Europe alone last year, according to figures cited in the Wall Street Journal.

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It's not hard to understand why a customizable ring is an attractive idea to some: Having a cell phone that blurts out a pop hook is an easy way to stand out and seem a little cooler. And the individualization has the practical effect of making it easier to tell that, yes, in fact, that's your phone going off during a crucial scene in a crowded movie theater. What puzzled me at first was why so many people seemed to want to "stand out" by choosing the same handful of 50 Cent tracks. As of this writing,  Zingy.com  ranks "In Da Club" as the top download and "Wanksta" is in second place. "In Da Club" is also on top at nReach. At RingingPhone.com, the leader is "21 Questions," also by 50 Cent, with "In Da Club" as runner-up. And No. 1 at Yahoo's ring tone download center is "Wanksta" trailed by "Realest Niggaz," by 50 Cent and Notorious B.I.G.

Sure, 50 Cent is hot right now, but troll around on the sites where ring tones are sold, and you can see a dazzling selection from a range of genres. So why the 50 Cent dominance? One reason is probably the ring tone demographic: Young people who either are part of or take their cues from the "urban" market. But there's another reason that becomes clear when you actually start listening to the tones.

Consider, for example, "London Calling," by the Clash. That'd be an impressive thing to have snarling out of your phone, right? Well, take a listen to the ring tone version, via Zingy. Sounds sort of like your little brother performing on a long-discontinued Casio model, doesn't it? Or try "Sweet Child O Mine," the Guns N' Roses song, by way of RingtoneDJ. This is almost acceptable if you answer quickly enough, but after about 15 seconds this rendition sounds like the dance music on a cut-rate cruise ship. Swearing off anything involving guitars, I tried Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," from Zingy—and was reminded of the music at the county fair when I was a kid in Texas. Worst of all was Norah Jones' "Nightingale" (via Yahoo); I'd rather be summoned to the phone by the Emergency Broadcast System.

By comparison, much of the hip-hop stuff I sampled seemed to translate fairly well. (At least in polyphonic versions; monophonic rings are just flat out not worth a dime, as far as I can tell. If you're looking to jump on this bandwagon, check the sites to see if your phone is compatible with ring tones at all, and if so, whether it can handle the polyphonic versions.) "In Da Club" may not sound like the real thing, but it's at least recognizable, and there's something appealing about the frantic bass tones with the sharp melody points jabbing in and out. I also like the ominous-sounding "Rollout (My Business)," by Ludacris. Also popular, it seems, are well-known TV and film themes, which is understandable when you hear them, because they're so familiar that they're hard to screw up. (Here's "Mission Impossible" and "The Godfather.") This kind of thing seems a bit hokey to me, but to each his own.

In a predictable footnote to all of this, the music industry is currently working through the promotional possibilities of ring tones—with mixed results. AT&T Wireless seems to have cut a deal with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, pushing ring tone versions of several tracks. Whether you're attracted to or have a Kausfiles-level of disdain for Yorn's semi-Americana guitar-driven sound, the ring tone version is ridiculous. If this version of "Carlos" is the first Yorn thing you hear, it will also probably be the last.

New cell phone models are on the way that will play short, MP3-style snippets of actual songs and that could change the whole ring dynamic. But for now, the people putting 50 Cent at the top of the ring tone charts are definitely making the right call.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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