Though most are musical, an increasing number of ring tones are adapted from bits of speech, movie sound effects and other unconventional sources, including adult-film actress Jenna Jameson, who has created an R-rated ring tone that is said to be among the best-selling cell phone alerts in Latin America.
While there's little specific data on sales of these new novelties, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting they will emerge as the next big ring-tone trend, said Matt Kleinschmit, vice president of market analyst firm Ipsos Insight, which has been tracking the ring-tone market for several years.
One reason for the growing sales of ring tones and their increasing diversity is the cell phone's ubiquity. Industry projections indicate that one in every three people on the planet will soon own a cell phone. But many of those phones will be sold with the same, limited selection of conventional ring tones preinstalled.
Some traditional ring tones have become so commonplace that birds in Denmark, Germany and Finland are said to be mimicking them in their songs. For many cell phone users, downloading an unusual or unique ring tone, no matter how outrageous, has the practical advantage of making it easier to determine when their phone is ringing.
It also helps that almost every cell phone operator now offers nontraditional ring tones, which often are marketed as silly tones, wacky tones or voice tones. There's also ring-tone specialist ModTone's "dis-tone" selection, composed mostly of insults and profanity-laced greetings.
Ring-tone specialist Jamster offers a novelty ring tone featuring a fragment of the infamous "Bring out your dead" dialog from the 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Movie sound effects are also part of this milieu, as evidenced by Cingular Wireless' exclusive deal to sell ring tones composed of nonmusical snippets from "Star Wars" characters including Chewbacca's roar and the electronic gurglings of the droid C-3PO.
Then there's the theme from the game Super Mario Brothers, which sits at No. 9 on Billboard's ring-tone best-seller list, besting a snippet from the song "Grind With Me," by Pretty Ricky. The Mario Brothers theme has been on the top 10 chart for 43 straight weeks, and rose as high as No. 4, Billboard noted. While musical at its core, the theme is something of a throwback to the 1970s, with digital "beeps" and "boops" that are a far cry from the polished musical offerings typically found on today's ring-tone menus.
And in the U.K., a ring tone called the Crazy Frog has topped ring-tone charts with its nonsensical, high-pitched assortment of frog-like sounds.
Market researcher Jupiter Research estimates that annual ring-tone revenues will total $417 million in the United States this year, and then grow to $724 million by 2009. Many of these ring tones will be unconventional, and increasingly outrageous.
But get used to it. "These novelty ring tones are catching on," Kleinschmit said. "As we see, folks are clearly experimenting with them. Having a song as a ring tone is no longer a novelty, and people are branching out."