When her cellular telephone rings, Elena Trocki, 14, knows who is calling. That's because she programmed her phone with ringtones assigned individually to friends and family. "They are all really set to different people," she says. "Like when my dad or mom call, they have a customized ringtone." A distinctive ring, Elena admits, that she often does not answer.
Her favorite -- a version of The Tide Is High by the rock group, Blondie - is assigned to no caller in particular. "Just everybody that I don't feel like assigning a ringtone to," she says. Elena's interest in ringtones puts her in the company of a large and growing number of other young Americans.
Most schools ask students to leave their cell phones at home, or at least turned off while they are on school grounds. Josh Samors, 15, says anywhere else he wants to know when the call is for him. "Sometimes you may need to distinguish your phone from other people's phones," he says. "A problem that I have a lot is that when I am on the train [and] you hear a phone ring and if your ring isn't different, then you can confuse your phone with the phone of other people." Josh has programmed his phone with about 30 different tones. "I have four categories," he says, "melodies, downloaded tones, single tones and actual ringtones."
Some tones come with the phone. But synthesized, ringtone versions of pop songs are sold separately, and they have become a big hit with consumers. At one dollar per download, they are also priced within reach of most teenagers. In fact, ringtones are outselling downloadable digital music by three to one. Billboard magazine responded to the trend late last year by adding a chart of ringtone best sellers. The market is firmly established in Asia and Europe. But the United States is catching up, with ringtone sales expected to pass the one-billion-dollar-mark by 2008.
Especially among young people, ringtones have become a popular form of self-expression. "People love labeling themselves," says Paul Levinson, professor of communications at Fordham University and author of Cell Phone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything. "If you think about it, the ringtone is really an acoustic kind of dress."
Professor Levinson observes that the choice of a ringtone indicates something about an individual's taste. "People will choose a classic rock ringtone versus a current hip-hop ring tone," he says. "Music was always something that was closely correlated with a person, not only their personalities, but [also] their political viewpoint and cultural attitudes, and ringtones fit right into that."
The Fordham professor predicts that ringtones are here to stay -- a fate that probably won't be shared by Billboard's current ringtone chart leader, Drop it Like it's Hot.