The Ringtone Dialectic

The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form

Sumanth Gopinath
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Ringtone Dialectic
    Book Description:

    A decade ago, the customizable ringtone was ubiquitous. Almost any crowd of cell phone owners could produce a carillon of tinkly, beeping, synthy, musicalized ringer signals. Ringtones quickly became a multi-billion-dollar global industry and almost as quickly faded away. InThe Ringtone Dialectic, Sumanth Gopinath charts the rise and fall of the ringtone economy and assesses its effect on cultural production.Gopinath describes the technical and economic structure of the ringtone industry, considering the transformation of ringtones from monophonic, single-line synthesizer files to polyphonic MIDI files to digital sound files and the concomitant change in the nature of capital and rent accumulation within the industry. He discusses sociocultural practices that seemed to wane as a result of these shifts, including ringtone labor, certain forms of musical notation and representation, and the creation of musical and artistic works quoting ringtones. Gopinath examines "declines," "reversals," and "revivals" of cultural forms associated with the ringtone and its changes, including the Crazy Frog fad, the use of ringtones in political movements (as in the Philippine "Gloriagate" scandal), the ringtone's narrative function in film and television (including its striking use in the films of the Chinese director Jia Zhangke), and the ringtone's relation to pop music (including possible race and class aspects of ringtone consumption). Finally, Gopinath considers the attempt to rebrand ringtones as "mobile music" and the emergence of cloud computing.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31508-1
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    The task of this book is, to cite Blake, to see a world in a grain of sand. Its eccentric, even perverse ambition is to examine the ringtone—the customizable, often musicalized ringer signal on mobile phones, typically several seconds long and first popularized in the late 1990s—as a means of understanding a spatial and temporal totality, a world-system and a global conjuncture. The relationship between part and whole, however, is not exactly one of microcosm and macrocosm, in which the minuscule element expresses and reflects the vast system in all its features; nor is the exercise to divine...

  5. I The Rise and Fall of the Ringtone Economy
    • 1 This Business of Ringtones: The Unstable Value Chain and Accumulation of Capital by Rent in the Global Ringtone Industry
      (pp. 3-52)

      “Let me be the first to say that the iPhone is [a] huge problem for the ringtone industry. In many ways it makes the ringtone industry completely obsolete…. In 3–5 years just about all of the newest phones will have easy syncing with your music library and the paid ringtone market will shrivel up and die.”¹ This statement, made by the businessman blogger Blackbeard SEO, was picked up by ABC World News on January 10, 2007 and elicited more than 200 Web-posted responses within a few days. Several respondents countered that many mobile phones already allow the use of...

  6. II Ramifications of the Ringtoneʹs Identity Crisis:: The Social and Cultural Fallout of Technological Transformation
    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 53-56)

      In an excellent treatment dating from 2005, Sasha Frere-Jones underscored the ephemeral and transitional nature of the polyphonic ringtone:

      Next time you hear your favorite song playing in full verisimilitude from someone’s pants, give a moment’s thought to the lowly, twinkling polyphonic. Transitional stages of technology often have their own imperfect charms, memorable in ways that no one could have predicted. Polyphonic-ringtone nostalgia is approximately six months away.¹

      The “imperfect charms” of the ringtone’s earlier phases and potential nostalgia for its loss point to some of the ramifications of the ringtone’s rapid history of technological development from monophonic to polyphonic...

    • 2 Ringtones and the Deskilling of Mobile-Musical Labor: A Preliminary Investigation
      (pp. 57-80)

      On January 19, 2009, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau inaugurated a week-long foray into the world of ringtones. In a series ofDoonesburystrips depicting a radio interview between a central character, the NPR DJ Mark Slackmeyer, and a minor character, the genre-switching rock star Jimmy Thudpucker, now working as a self-described “ringtone artist,” Trudeau treats the scene as a pretext for humorous commentary on the ringtone phenomenon. As might be expected, the familiar marketing discourse of ringtones acting as a means of personalization looms large, with ringtones being “about self-expression.” According to Jimmy, jerks are known to download Kanye West...

    • 3 Left Behind: Case Studies of Decline and Recapitulation in the Ringtone as Representation
      (pp. 81-100)

      In mid October 2002, a Welsh man and woman in their thirties who lived near the town of Aberdare waited at the Green Street Methodist Church with their respective families in tow. It was 3 p.m., and the organist had failed to turn up for the couple’s wedding service. The groom’s close friend, a 35-year-old roofer by the name of Darren Medd, had just purchased a new Samsung T300 mobile phone equipped with 16-voice polyphony and the ability to download ringtones; he knew the phone had a ringtone version of “Here Comes the Bride,” probably as a preset already on...

    • 4 The Ringtone and Its Aesthetic Subgenres in Contemporary Classical Music and Media Performance/Installation Art
      (pp. 101-128)

      Two privileged sites for witnessing the diminishing relevance of the ringtone in the 2000s are those of present-day classical music and the global art market—spheres that include many interrelated, semi-autonomous, and complex subdivisions, such as those between the modern orchestra and “new music” (itself fractured along aesthetic lines) or those among museums, “new media” art exhibitions, and for-profit galleries. An important distinction within these spaces is that between cultural producers whose artistic media are either extremely isolated from new technologies like cell phones (typically the case with the modern orchestra) or uncomfortably close to them (such as “new media”...

  7. III The Ringtoneʹs Dialectical Reversals
    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 129-132)

      In the magisterial final chapter ofMarxism and Form, Fredric Jameson offers an insightful summation of the workings of dialectical thought, one aspect of which is germane to the present discussion:

      The basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialecticalreversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite of which the transformation of quantity into quality is only one of the better known manifestations. It can be described as a kind of leap-frogging affair in time, in which the drawbacks of a given historical situation turn out in reality to...

    • 5 The Annoying Thing: Crazy Frog and the Strange Career of a Sample
      (pp. 133-150)

      In late December 2010, Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate, the News Corporation, ended its involvement in mobile entertainment and sold off the Fox Mobile Group (FMG) to the Jesta Group for an amount not disclosed to the public. The new owner of FMG would command the brands Jamba, Jamster, Mobizzo, and Bitbop. The president of the Jesta Group, Jason Aintabi, claimed, in the face of all existing evidence, to see “a very bright future for the company and its brands.”¹ One suspects that the sale price was far less than the hundreds of millions that News Corp. spent in acquiring the...

    • 6 The Voice of the Politician and the Geographic Dispersion of the Political Ringtone
      (pp. 151-182)

      In November 2004, a new sound was heard from mobile phones in the Indian state of Gujarat. A ringtone featuring a clip from a speech by the popular right-wing chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi, had been produced by an anonymous professor of information technology at Bhavnagar University and was quickly gaining in popularity. The speech sample originated in Modi’s reply to a question by the former chief minister of Gujarat and opposition party leader Amarsinh Chaudhary during the 2003 state parliamentary session. The sample’s text is as follows: “Gujarat’s future should be considered above political calculations. Concern should...

    • 7 A Spectrum of Forms: The Aesthetic Logic of Original Sound-File Ringtone Composition
      (pp. 183-200)

      What does it mean to compose a ringtone? The question is not trivial, for there are few universals associated with mobile phone ringtones themselves now that they are digital sound files (usually MP3s) often of any length. (They are, nonetheless, conventionally around 15–30 seconds long and often subject to length restrictions. Apple’s iPhone formal maximum for ringtones is 40 seconds, but this restriction is easily bypassed.²) Certainly, original monophonic and polyphonic ringtones were composed (semi-) anonymously as part of the labor of ringtone production (as discussed in chapter 2), and labels such as the German company GoFresh produced Original...

  8. IV Revivals and the (Universal) Particularization of the Ringtone
    • [IV Introduction]
      (pp. 201-204)

      The dialectical processes of decline (part II) and reversal (part III) in the sociocultural transformation of the ringtone cannot account for every cultural or national register in which the ringtone appears. Indeed, in some contexts the shifting formats of the ringtone provided a recharging or reviving effect, in which the new modalities of the ringtone fostered new enthusiasm and opportunities for its use. Hence, the contexts to consider below are roughly coterminous with—and sometimes exceed—the ringtone periodization discussed variously throughout this book (roughly, 1998–2010), the decline of the industry either having a delayed effect or becoming downgraded...

    • 8 Personalization and Spectatorship: The Ringtoneʹs Narrative Functions in Cinematic and Televisual Media
      (pp. 205-240)

      If you have attended a Hollywood blockbuster horror film or thriller in the last decade, you probably have witnessed a scene involving a cell phone failing to function at a critical moment during the narrative—often with a character ominously saying “There’s no signal.” The video blogger Rich Juzwiak (of the blog FourFour) noticed this cinematic trend and produced a video sequence titled “No Signal (And Other Cellular Drama),”¹ which captures what has evidently become a marked cliché in the world of cinema today—one that plays on popular perceptions of mobile phones as guarantors of personal safety—and builds...

    • 9 Whatʹs in a Name? Race and the Ringtoneʹs Revival in (Un-)Popular Music
      (pp. 241-268)

      On January 12, 2010, Berin Szoka, a blogger for the Technology Liberation Front—a libertarian media commentary site advocating against Internet regulation—posted a satirical report titled “We Must End the (Reverse) Digital Divide!” The occasion for the post was the recent release of statistics by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showing that African Americans and Latinos had surpassed white Americans in wireless Internet use. Szoka, a Senior Fellow at the market-oriented Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) and director of its Center for Internet Freedom, ended his brief recapitulation of the Pew report’s observations as follows: “Congress must...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 269-280)

    With the decline and the particularization of the ringtone industry’s cultural products, we glimpse the last turn of the dialectic in its final degrees of rotation. There is, of course, a fundamental incompleteness to the story of the ringtone, whose afterlives in the wake of being downgraded from leading to trailing edge will be numerous and, in part, unforeseeable. Nonetheless, the ringtone is said to be over and done with, and the mobile entertainment industry’s attempt to ennoble it with the term “mobile music”—first as the ringtone industry emerged in the late 1990s, then more vigorously with that industry’s...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 281-360)
  11. Index
    (pp. 361-368)