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Is there no end to the ways people can personalize their cellphones and how much they will pay for the privilege? Apparently not yet. The sounds of a cellphone ringing and cash register chiming might as well be the same these days. An estimated $4 billion of 30-second tones and other melodies for mobile phones was sold last year, according to Consect, the New York-based mobile consulting and analysis company that prepares Billboard's weekly chart. Most of that was in Europe, with $1.5 billion in ring-tone revenue, the company estimated, and only $300 million came from the United States, with most of the rest from Asia. Still, the U.S. figure was double that of 2003. The numbers are high because the price per tone is high, relatively speaking: while you can buy a CD of a dozen or so tracks for under €20, or $26, and a single digital song for your computer costs 99 euro cents, a ring-tone snippet that is a small fraction of the length goes for €2 and up. Meanwhile, an entire song downloaded to your mobile phone only costs about €2. As the target audience for ring tones is the under-25 set, this is bound to give any billpaying parent a case of sticker shock. And indications in the industry are that those prices will stay high or increase, rather than go the other way.
As with other parts of the music world today, it is all about dividing royalty payments among those who had a hand in putting the music together. With a typical ring tone, which is a synthesized rendition of a popular piece of music, the participants are the mobile phone carrier, the owner of the song's publishing rights and perhaps a middleman, like Zingy or Moviso, that brings them together. Now, with the advance of tones that are genuine clips from a commercial hit, performed by the original musicians, there is another party entitled to part of the ring-tone payment: the record label, which owns a song's performance rights.