Ringtones Are Not Mobile Music, and Vice Versa

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A BusinessWeek article about rap group Public Enemy was in my RSS reader this morning, its description saying “The hip-hop group sees wireless music as a way to air its radical views — and make a little money”. The group’s Chuck D has been involved in digital music for a long time, through the Rapstation site and other efforts, so I thought Public Enemy might be up to something interesting.

If they are, they didn’t share it with BusinessWeek. Apparently they’ve got an album that’s been out for a while, and this week — get this — they’ll sell ringtones from it. Even taking into account BusinessWeek’s generalist focus, passing this off as innovation in mobile music is a bit over the top.

Part of the reason that mobile music has failed to take off quickly has been that people with vested interests blur the definition of what it is. Ringtones may be musical, and they may be played on a mobile device, but ringtones aren’t mobile music. And mobile music isn’t ringtones. It’s more than a question of semantics, it’s an issue of purpose. Music is entertainment; ringtones are expression. Kids don’t buy ringtones just because they like they way they sound, they buy them because of what they say — messages like “look, I’m cool, I’ve got this ringtone like the other kids”, or “look, I’m cool, I’ve got this unique ringtone”.

Blurring the two causes problems: take, for instance, Sprint’s recently launched music store, which delivers full tracks to phones for $2.50 each. Some people justify the price by saying people will pay a premium for being able to download songs anytime, anywhere, then finish it off by saying, well, if they pay $2.50 or more for a 30-second ringtone, $2.50 for a full track is a bargain. It’s hardly a bargain with the standard going rate for PC downloads at 99 cents per song, and $2.50 per track makes $18 CDs look cheap.

But it’s not a bargain when you consider the premium price of a ringtone over a PC download is for the personalization aspect — in essence, it’s more valuable to many people to project an image about themselves than to entertain themselves with a song. Treating mobile music in the same regard as ringtones won’t work, nor will basing the price of one on the other. They’re both musical, yes, but thinking of them as similar media with similar uses and similar goals will result in failure.

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