Jukebox in the Sky

Hey, music lovers, have you seen the new iPhone yet? The one that lets you read the New York Times, listen to Mozart, and watch music videos while it makes you a pot of coffee — all at the same time? OK, forget the coffee-making feature. Still, today's cell phones are getting more advanced and versatile by the month, and much of the latest technology revolves around digital music.

You've probably seen the commercials on television or noticed an increasing number of cell phone ads in music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, apparently trying to change the way we consume the latest tunes. Much of this has to do with record companies trying to stop the bleeding, since CD sales are in the toilet. But everyone and his grandmother (no joke... and you can probably add your great-grandmother to the list, too) has a cellphone at the ready. The new cell technology isn't totally making up for shrinking CD purchases; MP3's are too easy to get for free. It still makes sense that the "Big Four" record conglomerates (Sony BMG, Universal, EMI, and Warner) would team up with cell phone companies to try to fill the gap, making sure you've got more than just conversation coming out of your earpiece.

I've been playing with a few phones lately, chiefly the iPhone and the Motorazr from Sprint, testing their features to try to figure out why people would want to make cell phones their preferred method of listening. It seems absurd to me, an old school fool who'll spin vinyl in a minute. But for every one of us dusty-fingered crate diggers who actually care about pointless things like sound quality and aesthetics, there's a kid rocking out on a Verizon right now. And that kid, who's probably never even heard of a cassette, thinks I'm a dinosaur.

Whether you buy in to the technology or not, cell phones are changing the way consumers enjoy music. Particular features aren't available on every model (mine included), but if you purchase the right phone, new songs pop into your digital music store every week. Without having to get off the toilet during your morning constitutional, you can have a mini concert via your cell phone with your pajamas around your ankles. It's similar to traditional MP3 players like iPods, and the original idea was for cell phone companies to cut into some of Apple's revenue and steal customers.

"A lot of folks were hoping that this would finally be the thing to challenge iPods," says Michael Gartenberg of JupiterResearch, a New York-based firm that studies market trends. "Turns out Apple was pretty good at making phones, too, and they've still got the clear advantage. But no matter what, the research shows people want to carry one device. They don't want an MP3 player and a phone... They want one."

It's a foreign idea to some local audiophiles, like Mike Ramirez, store manager of the Fort Lauderdale-based indie music store, Radio-Active Records. "If I want music, I'm gonna buy a record," Ramirez says. "If I want to see a movie, I'm gonna buy a movie. If you fall for this stuff, you're gonna get caught up in the gimmick and forget about the value of the song that you're listening to. It's really just another way for record companies to say, 'Give us your money.'"

Whether you'd want to download a brand new album to your cell phone or not, digital downloads are big business, and they aren't showing any signs of slowing down. Ringtones were the first audible treat available to cell phone users, and their profitability is staggering — to the tune of $5 billion a year worldwide, with $1 billion coming from the U.S. market alone. We're talking about 30-second snippets from songs that play whenever your phone rings. Most ringtones cost an average of $2.50 per download — Apple's is 99 cents, T-Mobile and Sprint are $2.50, and Verizon is $3. They're all overpriced, since you can go on iTunes and download an entire song for 99 cents. Why people would pay more than twice that for a 30-second slice is the question, but it's happening every day.

"Ringtones are about personalization," Gartenberg says. "People are willing to spend more on ringtones because it says something about who they are."

There are still issues like sound quality that can't be denied: Try listening to, say, a Miles Davis album on your phone. There are no highs and lows, no treble or bass. It's all just middles. You've got to have a high tolerance or low understanding for audio quality to want to switch from an iPod player to a cell phone. You can get better sound quality listening to a kid's Fisher-Price record player than you can out of a phone, and it mystifies me that anybody would tolerate the tinny sound of music-by-phone. I guess novelty is everything.

As Ramirez puts it, "If you'd download an entire album into your phone, sound quality is the farthest thing from your mind."

 
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