The Ringtone Dialectic
A decade ago, the customizable ringtone was ubiquitous. Almost any crowd of cell phone owners could produce a carillon of tinkly, beeping, synthy, musicalized ringer signals. Ringtones quickly became a multi-billion-dollar global industry and almost as quickly faded away. In The Ringtone Dialectic, Sumanth Gopinath charts the rise and fall of the ringtone economy and assesses its effect on cultural production.
Gopinath describes the technical and economic structure of the ringtone industry, considering the transformation of ringtones from monophonic, single-line synthesizer files to polyphonic MIDI files to digital sound files and the concomitant change in the nature of capital and rent accumulation within the industry. He discusses sociocultural practices that seemed to wane as a result of these shifts, including ringtone labor, certain forms of musical notation and representation, and the creation of musical and artistic works quoting ringtones. Gopinath examines “declines,” “reversals,” and “revivals” of cultural forms associated with the ringtone and its changes, including the Crazy Frog fad, the use of ringtones in political movements (as in the Philippine “Gloriagate” scandal), the ringtone’s narrative function in film and television (including its striking use in the films of the Chinese director Jia Zhangke), and the ringtone’s relation to pop music (including possible race and class aspects of ringtone consumption). Finally, Gopinath considers the attempt to rebrand ringtones as “mobile music” and the emergence of cloud computing.
About the Author
Sumanth Gopinath is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Minnesota.
“With a certain dry humour mixed with the arch tones of mild scholarly disdain, reading Gopinath on ‘the degraded pre-adolescent utopias’ of the Crazy Frog tune can be a little like reading Glenn Gould blithely discussing the ‘harmonic primitivism’ of the Beatles. Nonetheless, this unique and often fascinating volume unearths a sufficient number of intriguing artistic responses to suggest that there may have been more to the ringtone as cultural form than Für Elise rendered in coarse FM synthesis and dididing ding bing bing.”—Art Review
“There is no book like this. Politically, theoretically, and sonically engaged, The Ringtone Dialectic takes something of seemingly minor significance—cell phone ringtones— and uses it to explore the structure and dynamics of global capitalism. Gopinath raises the bar in the study of the political economy of sound.”
—David Suisman, author of Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
“Why should we care about ringtones? As The Ringtone Dialectic makes clear, we have good reason to care. In this perceptive and provocative study, Sumanth Gopinath uses the ringtone to offer fresh perspectives on the creation and consumption of music, the evolution of digital technologies, and the global trade of information. Full of fascinating case studies and insightful analysis, The Ringtone Dialectic probes the profound and lasting consequences of the short-lived multi-billion-dollar industry built on 30-second clips of music.”
—Mark Katz, Chair, Department of Music, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ
“Sumanth Gopinath's The Ringtone Dialectic is a theoretically provocative and empirically rich study that should be read in music studies and far beyond.”
—Timothy D. Taylor, author of The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture
“The Ringtone Dialectic ambitiously—and successfully—brings our understanding of the circuit of culture, articulated through a brilliant analysis of ringtones, into the twenty-first century. If you want to understand the global workings of a multi-billion-dollar digital culture on the move, then read this book.”
—Michael Bull, University of Sussex