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The Ringtone Dialectic

Economy and Cultural Form

Sumanth Gopinath

Publication Year: 2013

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. In <I>The Ringtone Dialectic</I>, 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.

Published by: The MIT Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Many thanks to Danielle Kuntz, research assistant and copy editor—the project would not have come to completion without her tremendous help; she also did much of the primary research for chapters 8 and 9. Thanks to Brian Schmidt, research assistant and copy editor, who was very helpful during the project’s final stages. ...

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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, ...

I. The Rise and Fall of the Ringtone Economy

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1. This Business of Ringtones: The Unstable Value Chain and Accumulation of Capital by Rent in the Global Ringtone Industry

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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 ...

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II. Ramifications of the Ringtone’s Identity Crisis: The Social and Cultural Fallout of Technological Transformation

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pp. 53-56

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 to sound-file formats, as described in the previous chapter. ...

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2. Ringtones and the Deskilling of Mobile-Musical Labor: A Preliminary Investigation

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pp. 57-80

On January 19, 2009, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau inaugurated a week-long foray into the world of ringtones. In a series of Doonesbury strips 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,” ...

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3. Left Behind: Case Studies of Decline and Recapitulation in the Ringtone as Representation

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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. ...

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4. The Ringtone and Its Aesthetic Subgenres in Contemporary Classical Music and Media Performance/Installation Art

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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” ...

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III. The Ringtone’s Dialectical Reversals

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pp. 129-132

Jameson continues by giving a remarkable capsule history of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in airborne military technologies. In his schema, the United States’ superior atomic weapons led the Soviet Union to devise powerful rockets that could carry their bulkier, inferior nuclear warheads; ...

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5. The Annoying Thing: Crazy Frog and the Strange Career of a Sample

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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. ...

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6. The Voice of the Politician and the Geographic Dispersion of the Political Ringtone

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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. ...

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7. A Spectrum of Forms: The Aesthetic Logic of Original Sound-File Ringtone Composition

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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. ...

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IV. Revivals and the (Universal) Particularization of the Ringtone

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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, ...

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8. Personalization and Spectatorship: The Ringtone’s Narrative Functions in Cinematic and Televisual Media

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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.” ...

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9. What’s in a Name? Race and the Ringtone’s Revival in (Un-)Popular Music

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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 ...

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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. ...


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pp. 281-360


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pp. 361-368

E-ISBN-13: 9780262315081
E-ISBN-10: 0262315084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262019156

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ring tones -- Social aspects.
  • Cell phones -- Social aspects.
  • Cell phone services industry.
  • Mobile games industry.
  • Internet entertainment industry.
  • Digital media -- Social aspects.
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