Ringback tones never really blew my skirt up. After the saturation of ringtones, I felt they were just another "me too" application that would just annoy a market already prepping for a backlash against ringtones.
That, coupled with the rather lackluster response by mobile users once they became available, meant I placed them into my cynical "something to watch but not make too big a deal of" file.
But recent developments have upgraded them into my "cautiously optimistic but still not drinking the kool aid" file. BMI says growth in ringback tones will outpace that of ringtones, which are actually in decline. Last month, reaserch firm IDC pegged ringback tones as the likely leading revenue generator for mobile music in several years time. And they are now resonating with consumers: RCA just announced its first single to sell 500,000 ringback tones.
So there is some momentum happening here. But I'm still eying the market a bit sideways. Maybe it's the monthly subscription service that carriers charge to access the application, or maybe it's the frustration I feel when I call somebody who's got some horrible song as their ringback tone -- not sure -- but I get the sense that ringbacks are being propped up only as a result of the slow decline of the ringtone.
The one thing that is clear: It’s time to take a second look here.
For years, as a tech journalist, I've railed against companies who were too in love with their own technology. The argument has always been that the technology really doesn't matter, it's the consumer proposition that counts (i.e., WHAT it does is more important than HOW it works).
But now, certain pockets of the music industry are committing the same offense: being too in love with their own music (or maybe more aptly put – they’re so in love with their music that they’re giving credit where credit isn’t due.).
Now, certainly music is one reason, among many others, that users flock to various Internet sites. But to claim that music is the sole backbone of such services and therefore deserves a cut of any profit, acquisition or otherwise, well, that's stretching it a bit.
Case in point: Billy Bragg's assertion that Bebo should share some of the AOL acquisition cash with the artists whose music lured members to the social networking site in the first place, saying they're "no different from investors in a start-up enterprise," is a perfect example of this delusion. That's like saying NBC should receive a cut of every Panasonic TV sold.
Here's the deal. There are several social networking services out there and the reason users flock to one or another is based on which has the best user interface, best customization tools, best functionality, etc. The music industry had nothing to do with how they built or maintained those systems. In fact, music (and other entertainment content) is the one thing they all have in common.
What sets them apart is HOW they utilize music and other content into a social network of value to its members. That's what AOL bought, that's what draws users, and that's something that Bebo and other social networks (or other online services for that matter) shouldn't have to share credit with the music industry or anybody else.
If music were truly the all-important factor deciding whether an online service succeeds for fails, then early services like MusicNet (formed by labels hoping to offer their own digital music service) would have been a runaway success.
There's lots of content out there to entertain people, and social networks can easily focus on anything other than music to draw members. The fact is -- the music industry needs them more than they need the music industry.