Slide back in time, if you will, to the year 2007. Musical ringtones resounded on cellphones, marking their owners’ identities in public spaces.
Little more than a decade later, these sonic signifiers are close to disappearing. Recording Industry Association of America sales data shows that ringtone downloads, which peaked in 2007, have taken a 97 percent dive since then.
These days, the iPhone’s standard “marimba” ring is the most popular tone — if a tone is used at all. More often, phones just buzz. The Emily Post Institute, in its advice on mobile phone etiquette, recommends that if a cell “must be on,” then it should make no sound.
Preloaded rings offer a mellower tintinnabulation, but those sounds are often silenced, too. Along with the notion that loud rings equal poor manners, researchers have argued that even lighter beeps and vibrations can disrupt and distract, curtailing one’s productivity.
Granted, there are holdouts like Annie Heckenberger, a vice president at the Digitas Health ad agency, whose phone announces an incoming call by playing “Brass Monkey” by the Beastie Boys.
“It typically is an icebreaker,” said Heckenberger, who usually gets bemused looks from people who are nearby when her phone rings.
Linwood Harris would prefer that his phone stand out in a crowded room. He used to have Al Pacino shouting “Say hello to my little friend,” the iconic salutation from “Scarface,” on a loop as his ringtone, but he got tired of the screaming.
“When you have the right one, it’s kind of soothing,” the retired assistant principal said. Now, when someone’s calling, it’s to Sade’s “Smooth Operator.”
Ten years ago Kevin Wilson sat down and made a spreadsheet for his ringtones. He picked tunes for each of two dozen or so friends, basing his choices on titles with their names in them, or theme songs from shows they loved, or pieces that reminded him of them for some reason.
Things have changed. For his college friends, the Penn State fight song sounds. But most other folks get his default ring, which he changed recently to the theme song from “Magnum P.I.” He can’t get enough of it. Even when he sees that it’s a spam call coming in, “I just let it ring now because it’s a song I like.”
Sumanth Gopinath, author of “The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form,” said 30-second ringtones should be seen as compositions in their own right. There was a time, in the mid-to-late 2000s, when phone rings would influence the digital tonality of beats for rappers like Soulja Boy and J-Kwon, whose songs would then become ringtones themselves. The moment burned brightly with the clacks of flip phones and the snaps of fingertips. But hip-hop moved on; and T-Pain, once called the king of ringtones, grappled with sudden, widespread mockery.
Taking it personally
Those who cling to musical ringtones might be appreciative of not only their sound, but what they say about their chooser. In 2010, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands evaluated ringtones for the cultural power. Cellphones, they wrote, were a vessel for personal identity, from style choices on the hardware to the communication preferences of the user. A ringtone, they argued, could transmit shards of memory or reveal subculture.
Imar de Vries, one of the paper’s authors, revisited the topic in an e-mail.
“Media nostalgia is a common sentiment that can be discerned throughout media history,” de Vries wrote. “And today also an important element in, again, identity branding.” Musical ringtones, so it goes, are another means to announce who you are.
In ringtones, Heckenberger hears humor. “Other people I know have songs as ringtones, but I think it’s more of like a punchline,” she said, singling out a friend whose musical ringtone struck her as funny. She texted the friend to see if she was willing to be interviewed, but the friend wrote back that she no longer uses that song — or any song — as a ringtone.
This made Heckenberger wonder aloud if she was one of the last devotees of a dying art form.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m a creature of habit. Now, if ‘Brass Monkey’ comes on Spotify, I think it’s my phone.”