Music In, Music Out: The Garage Band Ethos in a Cellular World

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 26 January 2005

The future of mobile music lies in creating tunes, not just downloading them.

To most wireless industry business forecasters, the future in music revenue means MP3s. Some see cell phones with the memory and audio capacity of an iPod. Others look forward to cell phones as preferred FM receivers, and satellite radio companies are already working on integrating their technology into mobile handsets.

All these developments are possible, even probable. And they represent the most obvious revenue stream for an industry discovering the promise of handheld music. But they also reveal how the people who should be leading the communications business are still longing to get into the content business. We must not look at cell phones as if they were simply the next form of transistor radio or MP3 player, however simple the revenue model of selling MP3s to people seems. While Motorola and others will no doubt make some great money and even greater public relations strides by inking a few deals with the likes of the iTunes Music Store, it’s shortsighted for the wireless phone industry to think of itself as playing catch-up with the entertainment industry.

The real future for music on cell phones is not to turn them into to broadcast receivers or private listening stations. While there’s no reason not to incorporate this functionality into phones as it becomes financially intelligent to do so, the real future of wireless music is not to simply to foster consumption, but to enable production.

After all, everyone already knows that – in spite of a highly competitive and built-out downloadable MP3 universe – ringtone sales still exceed MP3 sales by significant margin, at an estimated $4 billion worldwide. It’s not a short-term trend, either: Billboard will soon start tracking ringtone sales each week, alongside old-fashioned lists like CD sales and radio play, and some estimates say ringtones will make up more than 10% of total music revenues by the year 2008.

People in the phone industry must stop thinking of ringtones as some bastardized, temporary business, an unwanted stepchild of the much more hip recording industry. The ringtone universe, in many ways, is actually much more hip than anything on offer at the Grammys or MTV Awards, and certainly much more consonant with the underlying ethos of the wireless society. How? We’re in a new era, in which personal electronics is more about gaining the ability to express oneself through a device, rather than just consuming the expressions of others.

We must not forget that cell phones, unlike radios, TVs, video game consoles or most of the other home electronics devices we grew up with, are not content players. They are transceivers. Like the rest of the interactive arsenal, from Internet-enabled computers to digital cameras, they empower their users to act as content creators and distributors.

That’s why we can’t treat the cell phone as a music player, but should instead develop it as a music platform. A cell phone, whether ringing, playing music or even broadcasting through someone else’s phone, is a tool for self-expression. Any strategies for getting more music onto these devices must recognize that the users don’t simply want to listen to music; they want to perform and play it. By adjusting yourself to this crucial shift in perspective, you can learn how to serve this emerging new music culture.

A ringtone is about the most basic way of expressing oneself musically. Users who purchase ringtones may have no aspirations to compose or even mix themselves, but the urge to customize a ring has as much to do with what a person wants to tell everyone around her as it does what she likes to hear. A ringtone isn’t a way of listening to a tune – it’s a way of playing a tune for others, of publicly declaring one’s musical taste and cultural allegiance. As basic as wearing a T-shirt or putting a bumper sticker on one’s car? Maybe. But it’s still self-expression, and a very different orientation to music than, say, downloading songs from Napster for private use.

That’s why the next stage in wireless music appreciation is not downloading longer bits of music, but learning how to broadcast ringtones to others. Attracting over one-third of their users already, SK Telecom’s ringback tone service allows users play music for users who call them, replacing the busy signal or rings that the caller would normally hear. Again, the phone’s musical capability is used not to play music for one’s own entertainment, but to send music as an extension of one’s telephonic identity.

Clever though they are, technologies like these represent just the most fundamental baby steps in cell phone music, requiring nothing more than a user’s ability to select some music. Real customization, like hand-sewn insignias on the back of a jeans jacket, must be homemade.

The first versions of software allowing people to create their own ringtones are already here. Ringtone Composer, for example, is a tool that is capable of converting melodies composed by users into ringtones capable of being played on a wide variety of phones (unless, of course, an operator locks users out of their own phones for fear of losing revenue). The composing and converting takes place on the PC, and the fairly intuitive interface isn’t a bad compositional teacher in itself.

Apple has joined the fray with Garageband, an extremely easy but extraordinarily powerful music composition tool that allows Mac users to create advanced loops using banks of high-quality instrument samples. Process these sounds afterwards in a utility like Polyringtone Converter and you’re in business.

For those whose creativity is limited more to selecting an existing riff that may never have been used before, inexpensive programs like Xingtone offer the ability to rip a segment of a CD or MP3 and then save it as a ringtone. Light versions of utilities like Quick Ringtone allow users to do limited ripping of this kind, and slightly less elegantly, for free.

While, at first glance, this ripping of digital music may seem like an end run around the fees the music and mobile industry is hoping to collect from ringtone users, either industry would do a whole lot better to support, rather than resist, their users’ desire to get into the action. As the hackers used to say, this is not a bug, it’s a feature!

Get online and create libraries of digital music from which users are invited to assemble their own ringtones. A shout from Ray Charles followed by a guitar riff off Nirvana’s new collection. Let the site calculate the royalties involved, and take it from a single-use or subscription fee. Hell, let the users put their creations online, where they can be perused and purchased by others. Become a facilitator of music making rather than a simple record store, and you’ll be a lot closer to both the ethos and the revenue stream of an interactive music culture.

I’ll venture that in ten years ringtones are thought of more as something one makes, than something one buys. And like almost everything in an interactive industry, either figure out how to promote and profit off this phenomenon, or get out of its way.