From Beepers to Crazyfrog – A Brief History of Custom Ringtones

Today many of us keep our smartphones silent. But in the 2000s, everyone had ringtones on their calls, some of which they were even proud of. We tell their short story.

Photo idccollage / CC BY-SA

First ringtones

It is believed that the first custom ringtones appeared in Japan in 1996. Then an updated version of the “clamshell” entered the market Digital Mova N103… There were several preset MIDI melodies in her memory, plus the device allowed creating custom compositions using tone dialing. The feature has become so popular that a book with instructions on how to recreate popular songs in a year sold in circulation 3.5 million copies.

The trend for custom calls came to the West only in 1998, when the Finnish engineer Vesa-Matti Paananen, together with the Radiolinja telecom, launched a service for transmitting MIDI files to a Nokia phone using text messages.


First mobile phone ringtones were monophonic… To transfer them between devices, special languages ​​were used – at Nokia it was called RTTTL (RingTone Text Transfer Language). But monophony was quickly replaced by polyphony, and then the so-called realtones – fragments of musical compositions in MP3 or AAC format. This trend has further spurred the development of the ringtone industry.

By 2002, 30% of all forwarded SMS in the world were ringtone download requests. Two more years later, the custom calling industry was valued at $ 4 billion.

In the West, the cost of one ringtone was approximately $ 2.5. The American company Zingy sold over 2.5 million custom incoming call ringtones every month. Cellular operators also made money on this – they took a percentage of each sale. The boom was also observed in Russia – ads with codes for downloading ringtones could be found on TV, in newspapers, teen magazines and even on back of school notebooks… One track got by at about 0.75 USD

Influence on musical culture

Custom calls started to affect music. Some performers – like Soulja Boy, T-Pain and J-Kwon – recorded tracks, taking into account that there will be a version for the ringtone. For labels, ringing tones have become a marketing tool, a way to promote an artist to the masses.

Photo włodi / CC BY-SA

Perhaps one of the most popular and well-known custom calls of the 2000s was the hit “Crazy frog“, Which was released by the Jamba label. The track was presented by the Bass Bumpers, who combined an audio recording of a Swedish teenager imitating the sound of a moped with the track “Axel F”From Harold Faltermeier. The newly-minted composition became a hit – in the UK for six months it collected ten million pounds sterling and surpassed Coldplay sales.

Death of the phenomenon

In 2007, the ringtone industry peaked and shrank 97% over the next ten years. Experts call online one of the reasons for such a colossal drop. People began to communicate on social networks and instant messengers, and calls faded into the background. In 2012, they held only fifth place among the tasks for which phones are used.

In a sense, the arrival of the iPhone has influenced the decline in the ringtone industry. It provided access to the Internet, video and games, and customization of the device is no longer a priority for users. Also a resident of HN in the topic thread notedthat the standard iPhone ringtone could play a role in the death of ringtones – Marimba – it was left on the call by many Apple users.

Today, ringtones are just an artifact of a bygone era. But those who want to feel nostalgic can find on streaming services curated selections of songs that everyone called decades ago.

Additional reading on Hi-Fi World:

Where to listen to the squeak of the ZX Spectrum, PC Iskra-1030 and the sounds of old household appliances
Home Audio History: The Golden Era of Hi-Fi
What sounds have temporarily disappeared from our lives, and whose return should not be expected
Finds of an audiomaniac: where to listen to the music of bygone eras
History of speech synthesizers: the first mechanical installations

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