The ringback tone, that mobile phone feature that went out of fashion with the flip-phone, is attempting a comeback.
RealNetworks is seeking to revive ringback tones with a new application that lets smartphone users pick the music that friends, family and business associates hear whenever they call. The Listen app launches today on T-Mobile, with music from Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, as well as from independent labels.
“Carriers have lost touch [with] consumers. The business is not growing anymore,” said Max Pellegrini, president of RealNetwork’s Mobile Entertainment Division. “This product has been marketed by carriers with a feature-phone phone mentality.”
Pellegrini said RealNetworks hopes to re-energize a business that has largely flatlined — sales of ringtone and ringback tones amounted to a modest $97.6 million in the U.S. last year, according to the recording industry — with an app that takes advantage of the capabilities of the smartphone.
To say RealNetworks faces an uphill battle would be an understatement of Himalayan proportions. In fact, one room of music executives burst into laughter when asked about the business prospects for ringback tones, according to one of those present.
Consumer market researcher NPD Group stopped tracking data because the U.S. market is so small.
“In the U.S., there is a one in 100 chance of finding somebody who’s buying ringbacks,” said NPD Group industry analyst Russ Crupnick, based on its surveys of Internet users. “That’s how small the market has become since people bought them on flip-phones.”
Pellegrini points to the successful launch of the service last December in the U.K, where he said it has already attracted almost a half-million subscribers. And he cites statistics from MultiMedia Intelligence that peg the global market for ringback tones at $4 billion.
RealNetworks offers a free version of the Listen app, which lets users choose from a list of preselected songs that can be assigned to individual callers. They also can pick from among 200 recorded status messages that alert callers when they’re unable to answer the phone.
The paid version, which sells for $2.99 a month, offers a broad selection of recorded music from such well-known bands as REM and Green Day.