The Rip-Off Industry Of Customized Ringtones

In today’s Circuits column, tech columnist David Pogue asks an important question about the $5 billion ringtone industry for mobile phones: why does it exist at all? Apple’s latest moneymaker for itself and the labels is the ability for you to re-purchase certain songs you’ve already purchased, so that you can load them onto your phone as ringtones. But before you marvel at Apple’s chutzpah, they’re actually charging less per ringtone than major carriers like T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon.

Even worse, you don’t “own” the ringtones you buy from carriers—they disappear after a period of time, and you have to pay another $2-3 for new ones.

As Pogue points out, there are several ways to sneak around Apple’s iPhone security and put any damned ringtone you like on your phone. We can also happily confirm that the last two Nokia models we bought had no restrictions on setting mp3 and certain other audio formats as ringtones (On our latest model, we can assign a different mp3 file to every number in our address book. If we were insane. Which we might be, with this whole “royal we” thing.)

The ringtone sham industry is an example of carriers intentionally throttling access to phone features so that they can make money off of what you’re able to do for free with a song you already own and a free audio editing program like Audacity, provided you don’t buy a “subsidized” phone that’s been locked down with specialized software.

If you’re the type of person who loves custom ringtones, you might want to work out how long you plan on owning your phone and how many ringtones you think you’ll buy over its lifespan—it could work out cheaper to just buy an unlocked phone that you actually control.

“A Baffling New Phenomenon: Customized Ringtones” [New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    I don’t know about how it works on the iPhone (probably not at all), but myxertones.com is an amazing ringtone software that lets you create your own ringtones out of your own files, and allows you to store them on your site — all for free!

    Not trying to advertise for them or anything, they’re just really great! :)

    And the industry of ring tones exists because there are a million teeny boppers out there with parents who allow them phones at the age of 9 and 10!

    IMHO, that is…

  2. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    I don’t know about how it works on the iPhone (probably not at all), but myxertones.com is an amazing ringtone software that lets you create your own ringtones out of your own files, and allows you to store them on your site — all for free!

    Not trying to advertise for them or anything, they’re just really great! :)

    And the industry of ring tones exists because there are a million teeny boppers out there with parents who allow them phones at the age of 9 and 10!

  3. Franklin Comes Alive! says:

    The industry exists… because people are dumb.

  4. howie_in_az says:

    My Nokia 6133 from T-Mobile insists on having ringtones infected with DRM. I was unable to set MP3s to ringtones, something I was able to do with my aging Motorola RAZR that’s falling apart (hence the 6133). This disappoints me to no end.

  5. crappedcrusader says:

    I’m absolutely shocked Verizon didn’t cripple my new Blackberry 8830′s ability to set mp3s as ringtones. (sarcasm)They did such a great job of crippling the GPS and bluetooth profiles. Oh, and shame on them! I can actually use the memory card I put in my device for mass storage capabilities in windows. You can tell they’re getting lazy when they’re giving people what they’re expecting from the manufacturer (RIM).(/sarcasm)

  6. jitrobug says:

    It’s such a scam. If the networks were forced to open up to devices which were made by companies that they weren’t in collusion with, it would be a non-issue.

    I still think Apple should get heaps of negative press for it though, because they should be better. Why pay all that money for a device that can do so much only to have them cripple it to squeeze a few extra bucks out of you. It’s just crass and cheap, and you have to wonder if they’re going to take cues from this and start treating the people who buy their computers the same way.

  7. skamikeyp says:

    could apple have opened up the iPhone to add customizable ringtones from scratch? Yes absolutely and they should have.

    But to claim that it is Apple’s fault they are charging .99 per tone is irrational. Ringtones are copyrighted for mass distribution. it is not illegal to make a ringtone from the music you currently own, but if Apple is to distribute ringtones via on online store, it needs to charge, simple as that. They SHOULD have just left it open to load whatever you want, but again, this is far from a “moneymaking scheme” on their part. And besides, even at 1.98 per song/ringtone, it is still about .50 cheaper than any carrier.

    Just look at the Apple/NBC wars. NBC wanted more control, and to charge more money per download, and Apple said no, so greedy NBC pulled out. NBC can charge whatever they want for their own intellectual property, but Apple likes to keep it affordable and reasonable. Apple is constantly getting into arguements with big labels about the price of songs, too. They are interested in keeping iTunes a low-cost music/video store. That is pretty consumer-friendly to me, in my opinion.

  8. skamikeyp says:

    could apple have opened up the iPhone to add customizable ringtones from scratch? Yes absolutely and they should have.

    But to claim that it is Apple’s fault they are charging .99 per tone is irrational. Ringtones are copyrighted for mass distribution. it is not illegal to make a ringtone from the music you currently own, but if Apple is to distribute ringtones via on online store, it needs to charge, simple as that. They SHOULD have just left it open to load whatever you want, but again, this is far from a “moneymaking scheme” on their part. And besides, even at 1.98 per song/ringtone, it is still about .50 cheaper than any carrier.

    Just look at the Apple/NBC wars. NBC wanted more control, and to charge more money per download, and Apple said no, so greedy NBC pulled out. NBC can charge whatever they want for their own intellectual property, but Apple likes to keep it affordable and reasonable. Apple is constantly getting into arguements with big labels about the price of songs, too. They are interested in keeping iTunes a low-cost music/video store. That is pretty consumer-friendly to me, in my opinion.

  9. bohemian says:

    I found some forums online that show you how to change most phones to bypass the cell phone company high cost web access and get your own ringtones.

    With a $10 data cable you can change where your WAP points, point it to google and save yourself $9 a month for web access. Then pull free ringtones off the web or make your own. You can also then transfer your mp3′s to your phone.

  10. SimonSwegles says:

    Years ago, when I cared for a few seconds, I wrote a web app that would allow me to upload new custom ringtones to my phone (or anyone’s Sprint PCS phone) for free. I think I used it once or twice before I remembered that one of the reasons I avoided mobile phones in the first place was all the annoying ringing in public places. I have been vibrating ever since. Now … custom vibration patterns … :-)

  11. Steel_Pelican says:

    Did anyone else notice that right around the time that “custom” ringtones became available, it became impossible to find a built-in ringtone that sounded at all like a ringing phone?

  12. MissPinkKate says:

    The whole cell phone industry is a ripoff, starting with the fact that text messages cost extra.

  13. acambras says:

    Already using “the Royal We,” huh, Chris? ;-)

  14. BStu says:

    The whole phone industry is a ripoff. Cell phones are just the latest arm of a much large Rip-Off Industry. I just got bare-bones basic service with Verizon for a land-line. We only needed a land-line and got the cheapest service possible. Its $20 a month once all their fees and taxes are tacked on. Just to have a phone. Any use will cost extra. In comparison with other utilities, these charges are indefensible but thanks to a lack of competition, we’re screwed. Lily Tomlin’s line is as true today as it was 30 years ago. They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

  15. Starfury says:

    Ringtones = stupid thing to market to the young and trendy. Or the older wanting to be trendy.

    My phone only has the default tones; usually it’s on vibrate only.

    I am annoyed that both of the previous phones had games preinstalled like Blackjack and now they want me to pay for them.

  16. nequam says:

    In my opinion, if everybody set their phones to vibrate, the world would be a better place.

  17. dbeahn says:

    I have a Motorola Razr. I have motorola phone tools. I bought it so I’d have the ability to sync my contacts with my PC, and back up my phone info.

    As a bonus, it has an editor that lets me take any mp3, edit the part of the song I want, then convert it into a ringtone. Instant free ringtones. As many as I like, as unique as I like.

  18. amaeder says:

    I’ve used [mobile17.com] with success for my verizon phone. You just end up paying for the cost of a picture message.

  19. I would always stare in shock & awe when I would see those annoying TV commercials for ringtones and wallpapers: “Text Frog1 to 55333 to get the Wacky Frog Wallpaper! Text Candy2 for the Sexy Parrot Ringtone! Text Joke3 to 99696 for the Joke A Day!”

    I always thought: Who buys these things? Well, if its true that its a $5 billion industry, apparently a lot of really stupid people buy these things. I can’t even imagine the mindset one must be in to say “Yes, I would like to purchase a Retarded Frog Voice to notify me of incoming calls, and while you’re at it sign me up for your $4.99/mo. contract to enable me to purchase up to three of these 15 second sound-clips every month!”

    And don’t even get me started on the mobile providers stripping our phones of features just to they can make a few bucks. That pisses me off, stifling technology because a few bucks from a million subscribers is a hellofalot of money that they don’t deserve.

  20. Mojosan says:

    I bought a $10 piece of software and all my (legally purchased) mp3s on my iPhone can now be ringtones.

    I do not agree with stealing music. But, if I;ve paid for it, don’t tell me where I can and cannot play it.

  21. Lyrai says:

    @howie_in_az:
    Oh wow! I have the same phone, Nokia 6133. It doesn’t like mp3 ringtones, but it has no problem with .wma. Get a microSD card and convert whatever you want to use as a ringtone to .wma and then trasfer it to the phone via the card. It’s what I did, works like a charm.

  22. Lyrai says:

    Since it appears the system ate it the first time, here it is again:

    @howie_in_az:
    I have the exact same phone model, and yes it doesn’t let you set mp3 as ringtones, but it has no problem with .wma. Just take whatever tone you want, convert it to .wma using dbpoweramp or whatnot, and then toss it on the phone via a microSD card.
    Works like a charm.

  23. Buran says:

    Just do it yourself. It’s not that scary. My Razr uses MP3 ringtones if you make them correctly, and I used to have a red-alert siren from Trek TNG as my ringtone on my Treo — loud, attention-getting, just as an alert horn should be. I just haven’t gotten around to doing that on my Razr yet. I’ll do it on an iPhone, too, when I get one when the 3G model comes out.

    Don’t be suckered into overpaying for the service. If you aren’t good with computers, have a friend do it for a slice of pizza.

  24. Buran says:

    @nequam: That’s what I do — the loud alert horn ringtone I described below is only for when the phone is sitting on a dresser charging at home.

  25. ChristopherDavis says:

    I bought an unlocked Sony Ericsson W710. As a “Walkman” phone, it will play MP3s and (non-DRMed) AAC files, and will let you set any of them as a ringtone for either all calls, or specific phone book entries.

    Since it’s unlocked, too, I can take it overseas and get a local prepaid SIM card rather than paying T-Mobile’s international roaming rates.

    Sure, it cost more initially, but a few overseas trips and a half dozen ringtones take some of the pain away. (Having exactly the phone I want without any silly carrier branding on it is also worth something to me.)

  26. This is why people should learn how to use free tools like BitPim (www.bitpim.org), unlock their phones, and load their own ringtones.

    I have done it with my own Samsung SCH-u740 here:

    [www.tian.cc]

  27. Use BitPim to unlock most CDMA phones and load your own ringtones. It only takes about ten minutes.

    I have done it with my Samsung SCH-u740 here:

    [www.tian.cc]

  28. boandmichele says:

    i skirt this issue by avoiding giving cell companies any money at all, and just dont have a cell phone. it can be done, and is quite refreshing.

  29. Bay State Darren says:

    Spending $2-3 bucks to be able hear 10 seconds of a song I like through a 1-inch speaker that’s likely in my pocket. I do not get it. I’m able to tell when my phone is ringing without ringtones. Anybody who’s getting upset with the cost they’re paying really needs to look at how pointless this product is. (Don’t even get me started on text messaging.)

  30. You know why there is a market for this?

    It is because people are willing to pay for crap like this.

  31. D-Bo says:

    Audacity>*

    I’ve always made my own ringtones, I agree it’s foolish to pay for a poor sounding 10 second clip of Will.I.Am. repeating “She get it from her mama”…

  32. Buran says:

    @Bay State Darren: Text messaging is not pointless just because you don’t see the point. Those of us who are hard of hearing love it, for example. Plus it’s great when you’re in a loud environment and need to just say something quick to someone instead of screaming across the room.

  33. edjusted says:

    @Franklin Comes Alive!: hear hear! I don’t know why some people can’t seem to grasp a simple concept: if you think something’s a rip-off: don’t freaking buy it! I can’t think of a more NON-essential thing to pay money for than ringtones. So why do companies “rip people off” with stuff like this? Because they *can*. Simple.

  34. SimonSwegles says:

    @boandmichele: I was against cellphones for years. Until I realized that my wife and I could both have cellphones with huge plans with all the bells and whistles for less than our single land line cost per month.

  35. Bay State Darren says:

    @Buran: I didn’t really mean text messaging is pointless (although I did accidently phrase my statement in a way that this particular noun was being modified by the preceding adjective. My bad.) I meant “Don’t get me started about” in the oft-used sense of implying general disapproval without wanting to go into detail.


    Rules of grammar: 1 ………………….. Me: 0

  36. yg17 says:

    I’ve never paid for a ringtone, and I’ve never used one of my phone’s default ringers. Creating your own FTW!

    Text messages are great, but too damn expensive. Prices have been going up, while they should be going down.

    I always have a ton of minutes. I’d much rather have each text cost me one minute of airtime. yeah, minutes are more like 40 cents a piece, but I always have a ton of unused ones each month and rarely text. Much better than having to pay for the texts

  37. morganlh85 says:

    Ringtones are a total ripoff. Why on earth should I pay $3 for a 30 second poor-quality clip of a song I can purchase for a dollar?

  38. guevera says:

    Ringtones are worthwhile to get something noticable to you that’s not insanely loud — with my phonei pick up on the song from across the room (or just in my pocket) without having the phone set way loud. And texts can be convenient in the right circumstance. The best solution –hack your phone for .mp3 compatibility and to run java apps. Now I just send unlimited email & ims + google maps for $5 month. I could afford to get robbed by the company, but it’s kinda a point of pride.

  39. MercuryPDX says:

    @dbeahn: Ditto. Their full multimedia suite allows you to move pictures and video captured taken with your phone, back and forth. As a bonus, you can type SMS messages on your computer and send them through your USB cable connected) phone.

    A warning though….

    I have a RAZR with AT&T(Cingular). A friend had hers through T-mobile. She wanted me to move some MP3s to be used as ringtones onto her phone. Turns out that since that feature was blocked on her handset, Motorola Phone Tools (MPT) also doesn’t allow it. So keep in mind any services your handset/provider crippled on your phone will not magically become available with MPT.

  40. NightSteel says:

    I used to have a Samsung SGH-S307 (Cingular).

  41. NightSteel says:

    …wtf is wrong with the website today?

    Anyway, I was saying, I had an old Samsung SGH-S307 that had an IR port and a special app that you could use to transfer ringtones, you just had to find the ringtones. I then went to an LG F9100, which I would’ve had to buy a cable to transfer ringtones to, so no go there. Now I’ve got a Nokia 6126, and unlike the 6133, it can use MP3 or AAC ringtones, and using the Nokia application set, I can transfer them via bluetooth. I bought a MicroSD card so I’d have plenty of room, and I haven’t looked back.

    OTOH, my work phone, an LG UX245, has similar hardware capabilities (camera, bluetooth) but those capabilities are all but unusable. There’s no application that I can find to use bluetooth to transfer files, so I can’t add ringtones, can’t retrieve photos, nothing.

    The reasoning here is simple: The grand majority of cell phone users are sheep. They either don’t have any inkling that their phones could have these capabilities, if the carrier didn’t remove them, don’t care about said features, or are so self-important that the money just doesn’t matter to them, they’ll pay anyway.

    If you ask me, the phone manufacturers ought to get together and all refuse to cripple their phones, but it’ll never happen, because there’ll always be someone willing to compromise to get the contract. Without legislation, we’re stuck.

  42. dvddesign says:

    I paid $12 for software to do a self-performed flash on my phone. Infinite free ringtones, infinite free wallpapers, infinite games from any network provider.

    Why would you not do the same yourself?

  43. synergy says:

    That’s strange. I’m with Sprint and I’ve never had a ringtone disappear on me. I keep cellphones for years, too.