Dialing these phones will bring music to your ears

Would you pay for music that you'll never hear? Mobile-phone companies around the world are guessing you will.

For years, customized ringtones on cellphones have revealed to anyone with a 15-foot radius, the owners' taste in music, from pop to classical.

As for people who call a cellphone, they just hear a boring conventional tone. But why not give them a miniconcert as well?

That's just what ringback songs do.

When a "significant other" calls, he or she might hear "I'll Be There for You," "I Got You Babe," or "Calling Dr. Love." Annoyed with someone? Have them listen to "I Hate Everything About You" by Three Days Grace or B.B. King's "Get Off My Back Woman" before you answer their call.

After succeeding in Asia, especially South Korea, ringback songs are invading the American market. Verizon Wireless is test-marketing ringbacks, and earlier this month T-Mobile launched the first nationwide ringback service. Sprint, which recently announced it would acquire rival Nextel, is expected to launch its service in early 2005.

Ringbacks allow any kind of recorded audio - music, spoken words, even sound effects - to play instead of or in addition to a conventional ring when a cellphone is called. The phone owner can customize the ringbacks - authentic high-fidelity recordings, not tinny imitations - according to who is calling and when. Parents might get a Mozart sonata. A buddy could hear a favorite rap song, a girlfriend or boyfriend a love ballad. The ringbacks also can be programmed to change depending on the time of day or day of the week ("Monday, Monday" by The Mommas & The Papas would seem to be a natural for back to work or school).

Customers are charged a small monthly fee, and Verizon and T-Mobile are charging $1.99 per ringback song, which, interestingly, is twice what consumers seem willing to pay to download complete songs (legally) on the Internet.

For this holiday season, T-Mobile is serving up nine versions of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by artists from Frank Sinatra to Christina Aguilera. In "I'm Here To Soothe You," a spoken message from rap artist Ludacris, the caller is asked to chill for a moment because the phone is just ... about ... to be ... answered.

Ringbacks sales in the United States could zoom from essentially zero in 2004 to $300 million in sales by 2008, says Linda Barrabee, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston. In India, the "HelloTunes" ringback song service has just signed its millionth subscriber only five months after its launch.

"Broadly speaking, we're seeing a new channel for delivering music to audiences," says Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC, an information-technology research firm. Ringbacks say "something about you," he says. "If you've got the coolest music out there, it says you're the hippest person."

Many industry observers expect ringbacks eventually to outsell ringtones, which reached a landmark of their own earlier this month when the Billboard Music Awards handed out its first-ever Ringtone of the Year award to "In Da Club," by rapper 50 Cent. Together with other services such as games, text messages, photos, and video, music is a potentially large revenue stream for US mobile phone companies, whose cutthroat competition has forced them to discount the cost of voice minutes. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) just approved a new domain address (such as .com, .org, or .edu) called .mobi. The .mobi domain is targeted at services for wireless phones.

"The technology is opening up new markets that simply didn't exist before," both for wireless companies and for music and entertainment firms, who can license their content, says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research in New York. A ringback might even contain a commercial message someday. "It makes business sense," says Peter Dobrow, a T-Mobile spokesman. The company saw a "significant response" of customers signing up for ringbacks during the first week they were available.

Tracey Davis, a Houston resident who participated in a test of the T-Mobile ringback service, says her family found it fun. She would catch her husband and friends singing along with the song when she answered her phone. She's planning to sign up and pay for the service. Her 13-year-old may be the biggest fan: He's already loaded a number by the heavy-metal band Metallica onto his mother's phone as her ringtone. "We laugh about it," Mrs. Davis says.

Still, hearing something like "What You Gon' Do," by rappers Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz instead of the reassuring ring we're accustomed to may "cause a little bit of confusion," especially for older callers, Mr. Gartenberg says. Some people may think "they misdialed and got a radio station."

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