I was watching the latest Spiderman movie, and when he receives a call from his friends, the sound designers put in the low buzz of a phone on vibrate, not some ringtone. However, Deadpool has a ringtone, if only referenced in the comics. You see it as a lingering gag in movies from the 2010s, the joke being the main character having something horribly inappropriate for the situation as their ringtone.
What happened to ringtones?
Phones becoming available and cheap for everyone was probably a good thing. What wasn’t was adding internet capability to those devices. I got my first phone just after that step, meaning that I had access to the internet on my Razor lookalike. It wasn’t good. While it had a browser and it could load most sites, those sites almost always broke when they fully loaded. Designing for mobile screens just wasn’t a consideration yet! Plus, my flip phone meant I was looking things up on the incredibly tiny Google search bar using T9 typing. I didn’t use it a lot.
Especially because data was also very expensive if you couldn’t get hooked up to local wifi. I recorded my most-used ringtone off of the family computer after getting home from middle school, and it sounded about as good as you’d expect. While you could download stuff off of mp3 websites, other, easier ways to get a novelty ringtone – like recording it – existed.
Ads for ringtones you could buy via texting a number scattered the Disney and MTV channels, usually ads for snippets of songs from their artists, but sometimes characters like Yoda, or the tweeting of birds. Depending on your age, you might remember the ads for Family Guy ringtones asking you to text a number with a tag for each ringtone, linked here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWPNZ_agAZs). Jamster offered numerous ringtones in almost every flavor you could imagine, but it functioned as a subscription service – you paid 9.99 a month after signing up. Jamster is somehow still around, apparently relying on subscribers not checking their next statement too closely to keep running.
Outside of Jamster, which was almost certainly the biggest ringtone and wallpaper bundle retailer out there in the mid-2000s, you could also buy a number of songs off of the AT&T store, one of the few websites to load effectively on tiny flip phone screens. This was better than Jamster in that you still had access to pop songs, but you didn’t have to pay a subscription to get them. It was, however, still pretty pricey, at about 2.50$ a pop for the clip of the song. If you’re thinking “that costs more than the full song on iTunes did and does”, you’d be correct!
Hence recording the ringtone off the family computer, the third option that ate memory instead of money and also didn’t sound very good.
It’s tough to pin down an exact date that ringtones became both uncool and unfunny, but that decline definitely started in the very late 2000s and got exponentially worse from there. Ringtones turned into ordinary beeps and buzzing for professionals, and the iPhone was introduced, crushing Blackberry and changing the market forever with an item that was customizable in other, better ways. Phone cases! Wallpapers on a screen big enough to actually have some detail! Apps. You didn’t need a custom ringtone if you had an iPhone, even though it was one of the best-equipped phones to actually have one. They become punchlines, something that’s funny if Deadpool has one but not so much if your 12-year-old cousin has the same one unironically.
Besides general uncoolness, other factors came into play. Namely, robocallers! Once telemarketers (and scammers) completely disregarded the notion of calling at a good time, they just started calling every number they had with a recorded message instead. Calling people was cheap, now – it would be stupid not to use the shotgun approach. This combined with VOIPs becoming more easily available was a match made in hell. People unlucky enough to somehow end up on these early call lists would get calls every day, at almost any hour, and would be forced to mute their phone. While this is incredibly annoying, and it still happens today, there’s no real way to deal with it on a mass scale, so the people receiving scam calls started muting their phone and stopped picking up the line for numbers they didn’t recognize. The same goes for spam texts, which were less popular when only a handful of people had a smartphone, but have become epidemic now – if you’re getting five spam texts a day, you can’t have something loud and obnoxious letting everyone know at work or school!
Perhaps the reason it was so frequently a joke was because it really was happening. Your phone goes off in the jury box and you have to hastily shut it off, but until you do, an entire courtroom is hearing your phone play a tinny, sped up version of ‘SexyBack’ by Justin Timberlake. Your phone goes off in the movie theater, because you forgot to mute it, and everyone hears an ear-piercing ringing until you can fumble it out of your pocket and decline the call. You get a call while changing your pet’s litterbox, and you don’t want to touch your phone with your dirty hands, so you listen to the first thirty seconds of a Ke$ha song repeat itself until either you wash your hands or the caller stops calling.
As robotic spam calls in the middle of the day became a serious problem, more and more people simply couldn’t justify keeping a ringtone, even though the iPhone was out and it had enough space to play a full song (which is another thing: ringtones only play the catchiest snippet of the song until you get sick of it!). The concept itself seems weird, looking back – you pick a song you like, but you can’t listen to the whole thing because of space limits. Even when you could, you’d have to pick up the call eventually, or get cut off because the call stops trying to connect after six rings. If you want to listen to the songs you like, now you can just go to Youtube of Spotify, because data is so cheap. Ringtones were a fun little blip in the time between cheap data and powerful phones, but without those conditions being met, they’re just sort of annoying.