The Ringtone Dialectic by University of Minnesota Professor Sumanth Gopinath enthusiastically tells the history of mobile phone innovation and how the dematerializing of music led to the phenomenon of the ringtone. The Ringtone, as he describes in this book, was created almost by accident and was a fashion/vanity accessory for individuals purchasing their first cellular phones. Though a low-end innovation, the music industry and telecommunication startups took advantage of the rising trend of mobile phone entertainment to charge mobile phone users for individualization of their phone ringers and ring backs played to incoming calls. After reading this book, I think that Gopinath carefully presents the ringtone as a remarkable cultural phenomenon that demonstrated a high degree of popularity and polarity therefore, that makes it (surprisingly) worth historically assessing.
Gopinath starts off the book by talking about the murky yet fabled story of origin for the ringtone. He states that the commodification of the ringtone occurred in several stages. These stages provided the outline of a model for ringtone development, whereby functional tones became: 1) monophonic ringtones or simple melodies; 2) polyphonic tones (MIDI synthesizer music); and, 3) digital sound files (the most associated with the development of MP3 files). Gopinath points out that these developments in the ringtone industry did not take place the same way in different regions around the world. Instead, convergences of national legal systems, consumer preferences, and the interests of local wireless firms and handset manufacturers led to differing rates of acceptance for each type of ringtone, as well as ringtones generally.
Gopinath recounts that sound file ringtones heavily favored the music industry, since legally sound files fall under the more lucrative category of sampling rather than covering or arrangement. For monophonic or polyphonic synthesizer arrangements of tunes, only a small royalty would to the original music’s composer or songwriter via a publishing company. For a sound file ringtone, however, sampling rights allowed the music label that released the original sound recording to claim 40–50 percent of these more lucrative ringtones. Sound file ringtones gave higher returns to their right owners because of their ability to accurately reproduce current radio hits, their higher price, and their relative ease of production.
During the early 2000s, ringtone sales were often outpacing the recording single sales of the same song and music industry officials leveraged ringtone sales to help them recoup their losses from stagnant record sales and budget expenses for various artists. Gopinath points out in Chapter 2 that many major record label executives believed the ringtone could “save the music industry.” With the music industry’s efforts to reclassify sound file ringtones as being record single sales rather than licensed products, the recording industry moved briefly in the direction of equating record sales with ringtone sales and profited handsomely. During this era, the biggest U.S. music trade magazine, Billboard Magazine, even created the Hot Ringtones Top–20 list for polyphonic ringtone sales in North America.
In thinking about our class discussions, Gopinath’s discussions of some of the global cultural implications of the ringtone industry attempt to explain, from different perspectives, a small set of arguments. First, he says he believes the appearance of the ringtone itself helped to create new forms of high–tech production and consumption, demonstrating a broad “continuum” between those employed as ringtone composers and those involved in forms of consuming/using and representing the ringtone, such as professional artists, songwriters, and composers on the one hand and average mobile phone users encoding their own ringtones on the other. Second, he uses his historical analysis to state that the shift from preset monophonic ringtones to sound file ringtones resulted in numerous disturbances in the ringtone industry, the music industry and broader society. Gopinath believes that although these disturbances were very subtle, they were taken for granted as part of the general instability of the high–tech and entertainment industries, ignored and deserve recognition. Finally, Gopinath believes that the ringtone can be understood as the intersectionality of social conflicts, in which age, national, ethnic and gender divisions are present.
Before reading this book, I never even thought about the idea that the ringtone industry had some ethnic implications as well. As noted on page 28, Gopinath smartly noted that during the “ringtone movement,” African Americans that rarely bought digital music downloads or had access to personal computers now had the option to purchase their favorite music through personalization their mobile phones. Gopinath backs up this point by showing that the top musical recordings of the ringtone charts frequently looked like a replication of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Charts of that era. I suppose one could even argue in retrospect that the ringtone industry demonstrated the future importance cell phone access would have in helping to close the “digital divide.”
Ultimately, the ringtone industry thrived because it made a commodity of personalization. Personalization was what Gopinath referred to as the ringtone industry’s “ideologeme” (unit of ideology) in the Frederic Jameson sense. The “dialectic” of economics and cultural form existed because this personalization of ringtones was something that the music and mobile entertainment industries exploited for profit, something that musicians and composers freely exploited for inventiveness and digital creation and something mobile phone companies used to build databases of information on customers to better customize devices.
Frederic Jameson’s Marxist stance provides a brilliant synthesis Gopinath’s argument, in which the analysis of ideological utterances, class struggle, and modes of production are combined in overlapping temporal frameworks. Gopinath titles the ringtone industry as a “dialectic” by creating two parallel sets of time scales devoted to cultural production — in this case, economics and cultural form— the two of which are interwoven together, with the economic taking greater priority as the latter time–scale broadens.
For me as a person who spent over a decade in the music industry and sold ringtones as an artist, I never considered anything about the ringtone industry to be worth re-examining before reading this book. However, after reading this text I realize that there is some validity to the author’s claim that besides bolstering the economy of the music landscape, the ringtone ushered in society’s obsession with mobile content and was the pre-cursor to the mobile application craze of today. Keeping this at the forefront of his examination, Gopinath proposes a framework for analyzing the phenomenon of the ringtone, in which we should consider the ringtone as “a high–tech fad, as a conflict between larger and smaller forms of capital, and the ringtone as indicative of a long–term shift in productive capacity from the United States to all the way to Eastern Asia.” Even still, the Ringtone bubble would ultimately burst in a similar way as the dot com bubble did: with empty promises of sustainability for a redundant micro-industry. Gopinath details the rise and fall of this process very tediously but with great precision and gives an interesting take on what many scholars wouldn’t naturally consider a “historical” moment in the mobile entertainment industry.
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