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In the early to mid-2000s, the ability to play a customized sound for incoming calls — normally a blaring few seconds of a favorite song called a “mastertone” — was a fun novelty for folks buying their first cellphones. Ringtones became an aural fashion accessory, as people scrambled to personalize their phones with all the newest or coolest tunes.

Mastertones mimicked the clarity of the things you could hear on the radio, making the ringtone a fairly easy and addictive approach to hear snippets of one’s favorite music. People also could assign different ringtones to several callers — say, “Take This Task and Shove It” whenever your boss calls, ha ha — being a sonic kind of Caller ID.

Concurrently, much was made of the huge amounts of money ringtone sales delivered to a grateful music industry which had been struggling to adapt to the digital age. “It’s the evolution of the intake of music … I recall looking at forecasts way back in 2005 and 2006 that kind of touted ringtones because the savior in the industry, since it was revenue which had been really growing from nothing,” said David Bakula, senior v . p . of client relations and analytics for Nielsen Entertainment.

“It absolutely was a fantastic barometer of methods individuals were beginning to live around entertainment on their phones,” he explained. “Ringtones were an extremely big element of that.”

Ringtones were popular partly because they were among the first audio products you might access over your mobile phone, said Richard Conlon, senior v . p . of corporate strategy, communications and new media for Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), the tunes-licensing organization.

“There was clearly a massive novelty phase connected with, and our hope is in the ’04, ’05, ’06 period, when things were climbing, we would see (ringtones) be considered a gateway product,” he stated. “We saw the market grow from $68 million retail in the U.S. in ’03 to about $600 million in ’06.”

In 2006, the RIAA instituted the initial awards system for ringtone sales. Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” earned the difference of being the largest-selling ringtone ever during 2009, going five times platinum. Then again the sales dipped. Despite the enormous growth of smartphones, mobile audio products including ringtones and ringbacks (which is actually a song that plays while a caller’s awaiting a response) brought in only $167 million last year.

Two things: The novelty of the musical snippets wore off. And we learned steps to make custom ringtones at no cost. Musical ringtones may be costly. Consumers who wished to both own a song in the entirety and possess the otaqjf play as their ringtone had to make two separate purchases. Costs for ringtones varied, however the 20- to 30-second snippets were often pricier than getting the whole song. Someone who updated their ringtones frequently could easily pay $20 per month or more.

But with the rise of audio-editing software and free Web programs committed to making ringtones, users could easily manipulate sound files to create their particular custom ringtones from songs they already owned. So that as smartphones evolved, making use of their enticing menu of video, games, music and Facebooking, suddenly ringtones didn’t seem so exciting anymore.

“The accessibility of numerous other activities on your own phone takes the main focus a bit from some of what were big before,” said Bakula of Nielsen. “These various ways consumers want instant, on-demand usage of an infinite quantity of titles has truly changed the model in just about any entertainment category that people track. What you see 1 day, a treadmill year, may be completely opposite another year. And this was the one thing with ringtones.”

There’s another factor at play, too. Surveys have demostrated that as text-messaging has grown in popularity, especially among younger users, people don’t make calls as much. So ringtones are a smaller priority.

Cellphone users might not take into consideration them just as much, but the gradual decline in the once-lucrative ringtone continues to be bittersweet for individuals within the music industry.

“Admittedly, it absolutely was just a little sad,” said BMI’s Conlon. “In BMI’s early digital days, we made more income from ringtones than everything else; it accounted for over 50 % of our income stream. And now when you think about it, it’s basically zero.”