Not surprisingly, Billboard magazine's Ringtone chart - yes, they've tracked the "hottest" cellphone sounds since 2004 - is dominated by the same tarty pop music that fills the airwaves. The Black Eyed Peas's "My Humps," a raunchy rap number that one online magazine called "transcendentally bad," has held a Top 40 slot for 29 weeks. And with nearly a year on the charts, it's possible that fragments of 50 Cent's explicit "Candy Shop" are piercing some darkened movie theater at this moment.
These short bursts of music signaling incoming calls have typically been recycled 20- to 30-second clips of a favorite song, downloaded for a fee. But now the cellphone is being looked to as a medium for original music.
Sometime in the next week, Start Mobile will launch a service that lets customers download what founder John Doffing calls M60s - 60-second original compositions by emerging musicians created specifically for mobile phones. The hundreds of songs at startmobile.net will range in style from hip-hop and reggae to experimental jazz and electronica.
Ringtones continue to be big business in the US. At up to $3 for a 20-second song, they account for 10 percent of the music industry's revenue, according to Roger Entner of Ovum, a consulting company with offices in Boston.
Mr. Doffing hasn't yet settled on a fee structure for the M60s. He says they will be free for the first 60 days following the site's launch. After that, he envisions a monthly subscription service that will buy a set number of songs and let users switch out ringtones to "curate the content" of their phones. It's an apt metaphor for a company originally founded as a way to turn cellphones into mini-mobile art galleries. Start Mobile was formed in December to make original artwork by emerging and underground artists available as phone "wallpaper." The artists earn a percentage of each sale, as will musicians.
Doffing says the cellphone's potential for music really hit him when he saw a kid walking down the street holding a phone pressed to his ear like a transistor radio.
Then there was the realization that "not everyone wants [Gwen Stefani's] 'Hollaback Girl' or 50 Cent's 'Candy Shop' " as a ringtone, says Doffing: "Not every cellphone user is a 14-year-old boy who wants dirty hip-hop."
He points to his mom as a potential Start Mobile customer who might download Zoë Keating for her cellphone ring. A half dozen graceful "avante-classical" compositions by the classically trained cellist are available on the website.
It's improved technology that has made all this possible. Most of today's phones play MP3s, which means they can support actual songs or true tones as opposed to polyphonic tones - those electronic corruptions of the real thing that once screeched mechanically from phones when ringtones first became popular.
For musicians, composing a ringtone presents the unique challenge of developing a complete work that lasts no longer than a minute.
Rapper Wiseproof, who created the first M60 for Start Mobile, is quoted on the site describing the experience as being "like writing a haiku."
"The inherent brevity of this new format was less a limitation than an opportunity to manifest exceptional creativity," he said.