One expert expects ringtones to be a $1.3 billion-a-year industry by 2009.
By TRICIA DURYEE
To hear the newest Coldplay song right now, don't turn on the radio or flip to MTV. Instead, you'll have to download a 30-second track to your cell phone and set it as your ring.
In another statement of how technology has turned the music industry every which way, Coldplay's single "Speed of Sound" is available for download through Cingular Wireless. That happened almost a week before its radio debut Monday and almost two months before the British alternative rock group's album X & amp;Y is released by Capitol Records on June 7.
The idea of debuting a song as a ringtone and not over the airwaves may signal a big step for the music industry, given how heavily it has relied on radio and television. Its willingness to do so also gives more credibility to the ringtone market, which has returned wallet-bursting revenues.
"It was sacrosanct previously to get it out on radio first because it was perceived to be the biggest," said Roger Entner, a wireless analyst with Ovum. "But now they feel more served by bringing it out with a large [wireless] carrier."
The ringtone is part of a new Cingular service called Cingular Sounds, which allows subscribers first crack at songs -- as ringtones -- before or as they debut elsewhere.
Coldplay is said to be the first to debut a song through a major partner such as Cingular, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S., with 50 million subscribers.
As part of the service, the Atlanta-based company will send users weekly text messages alerting them to a list of artists participating in the program. More artists and musical styles are expected to be added in coming weeks.
"Cingular Sounds gives companies and artists a powerful and profitable channel to reach tens of millions of potential listeners with their music," said Marc Lefar, Cingular's chief marketing officer.
At $1.99 to $2.50 for each song, the ringtone market continues to grow substantially. Entner said he expects the industry to record $340 million in sales in the U.S. this year, racing to $1.3 billion by 2009.
Entner said it's not only cold, hard cash for Coldplay but also a new advertising medium.
"From Coldplay's perspective, they make money on this, not only from the ringtone royalties, but also from album sales -- it's another advertising channel," he said.
Alex Conrad, president and chief operating officer at Seattle-based Dwango, said recording companies can use the ringtone market as a promotional tool.
"I certainly think [Coldplay's ringtone launch] is a harbinger of things to come," said Conrad, whose company operates ringtone services for Rolling Stone magazine and others. "Ringtones are a way for up-and-coming and hit artists to promote and sell music and act as a discovery point."
Andrew Harms, music director and evening DJ at Seattle's KNDD-FM, said the idea has flaws.
"It is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my entire life. It's comical and slightly weird," he said.
Using a 30-second download played on a cell phone to promote a song could distort the quality and give a different impression of what the song is about, he said.
Harms said he didn't get why a record label would introduce a song that wasn't in "the most complete, high-quality form."
"It's an injustice to the artist to hear them on the cell phone," he said. "There must be a good deal of money involved."
Still, Harms found himself caught up in the glory of being the first to play Coldplay's unreleased song "Talk" about a month ago. He played it in an overnight slot, but the record label told him to stop.
The thrill of being first is what this is all about, Dwango's Conrad said.
"Ringtones are as much about style as they are about music," he said. "People are buying ringtones to demonstrate their unique personality: 'This is me and I like this.' When you are buying music for entertainment, it's a little different than buying a ringtone."