Researching the Mobile Phone Ringtone: Towards and Beyond The Ringtone Dialectic

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It is a somewhat perverse exercise to write a large book about a very small thing. In The Ringtone Dialectic, I did just that: I investigated the cellphone ringtone, the 30-second or shorter sound (typically, a musical one) that alerts you to an incoming call on your phone (Gopinath, 2013, hereafter RD). The ringtone, however, not only acts as a functional signal but also allows you to customize that signal, permitting you to display your musical taste (or clever irony) to passers-by, to provide a little musical or sonic “treat” to yourself to compensate for the fact that you’re perpetually available to your social and employment network (Licoppe, 2008), or to simply differentiate your cellphone from other cellphones crowding the soundscape that you inhabit. As a popular commodity, however, the ringtone collectively became something much bigger than its miniscule constituent components. Common on mobile phones starting in the late 1990s, the customization of ringtones became a novelty fad popular among children and teenagers (among others), and once firms got into the business of selling versions of popular songs the ringtone ballooned into a multibillion dollar industry — at one point allegedly providing as much as 10 percent of total global music industry revenue (roughly $3 billion out of $32 billion in 2003). The ringtone is, of course, yesterday’s news: it began attracting significant attention in Europe and East Asia in the late 1990s and in the US by the early 2000s, and by the second decade of the new millennium it was said to be “dead” (Anonymous, 2010; RD, pp. xiii–xiv, 3).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPop Music, Culture, and Identity
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages13
StatePublished - 2016

Publication series

NamePop Music, Culture, and Identity
VolumePart F1511
ISSN (Print)2634-6613
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6621

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Sumanth Gopinath. 2016.


  • Mobile Phone
  • Phone Owner
  • Popular Song
  • Sound File
  • Speculative Bubble


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