KDDI's MP3 Ringtones
By Justin Hall, Tue Dec 09 03:00:00 GMT 2003

Expanded potential for pop songs and commercial jingles coming from mobile devices in Japan.

chaku utaTwo years ago, the internet was filled with free music and few folks could imagine that paid digital downloading would ever be popular. Today paying for music online still seems like a novelty. Now imagine paying over one dollar just for a song fragment - thirty seconds of a pop hit.

Expensive song chunks might sound like a business built for suckers, but it's all a matter of context. A clip from a real song might just be the coolest thing that ever came out of your cellular speaker. KDDI in Japan has found that their "Chaku-uta" MP3 ringtone service is picking up steam, topping fifteen million downloads this summer.

Originally it was part of a larger ploy to push high speed 3G services. Downloaded videos will be the most popular content, they figured. And maybe GPS, location-based services. Chaku-uta was almost an afterthought, explains Haruhiko Maede, with the KDDI PR office.

Maede shoots a phone pictureWe're sitting in a large conference room, near a theme park in Iidabashi, in downtown Tokyo. Behind Maede is a giant case of all the major mobile phone models from KDDI. Besides the first mobile phone with an inline GPS unit, there's also the incredibly sexy new KDDI design model, the InfoBar. He's let me play with it, and I can't keep from rubbing my thumb over the tile-shaped keypad.

Maede shoots a phone pictureKDDI and their partners were wrong about movies and GPS - short songs turned out to be the most popular 3G offering by far. The faster networks finally allowed people to get real-sounding song bits serving as their ringtones. According to Maede, the most popular download last summer was Japan's leading sentimental melody, Sakura, written by Moriyama Naotaro. It's a song named after the bittersweet cherry blossoms, a song performed by a million flutists and small electronic devices.

This kind of widespread performance of any popular song belies the well-regulated music copyright environment in Japan. The Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (JASRAC) has been negotiating royalties for new media renditions of songs since the early days of karaoke, the sing-along music system invented in Kobe, Japan in 1971. That arrangement ported easily to cover the advent of ringtones: JASRAC readily assumed an intermediary role, charging between five and eights yen for the short melodies. JASRAC policed chaku-mero (song melody) sites early on, pushing to shut down unauthorized providers of unlicensed ringtones. Now, KDDI's chaku-uta is becoming popular as Japan has begun to crack-down on media file-sharing. Last week saw the arrest of two users of the P2P file-sharing network, "FreeNet," only the second such prosecution in Japanese history.

A number of large record labels in Japan set up Label Mobile, an umbrella company to sell digital rights to their music catalogs. Label Mobile has been an integral partner for KDDI's chaku-uta, coordinating rights to songs and providing Chaku-uta for downloading. According to Maede, Label Music approved this innovative service only after KDDI guaranteed technological protection from the spread of mobile file sharing. KDDI has encoded the downloaded music files to prevent sharing of music between handsets, and so far their system hasn't been cracked.

But the concept is catching on; KDDI is seeing some fresh "Chaku-uta" competition. Last week, Vodaphone Japan launched a competitor service, and DoCoMo plans to launch something similar early next year. DoCoMo had been offering an "M-Stage" MP3 download service for over two years now, but that hasn't been nearly as popular. Downloading whole songs through M-Stage was slow and took up plenty of space on devices that didn't serve well as phones. By comparison, the chaku-uta service offers immediate gratification; short attention span music.

Familiar Fragments

Ringtones have been fabulously popular for users and a great windfall for carriers and mobile entrepreneurs alike. Acquiring the rights to a melody is easier than acquiring the rights to tracks on a CD. According to analysts with Music Media Watch, record labels are glad to see chaku-uta type technology return control of hit music to their star-making machines. Soon, we should see (and hear) MP3 ringtones appear alongside major media campaigns promoting musicians. It's a brilliant scheme for disseminating hits - ask people to pay for the privilege of playing your song in cafes, in their bedrooms and boardrooms.

David, blurredW. David Marx is a young Tokyo-based musician, the mastermind behind the Shibuya-kei inspired electronic melodic pop duo Young Alive in Love. Over chat, I was pressing him to see the potential of chaku-uta as a tool for indie musicians to stage thousands of small performances of their music. He replied: "It's somewhat of a tool for big musicians, but not on the scale of commercial tie-ups or videos. It's more about creating a personal bond between the artists and the ring-tone bearer." He paused in his typing, and then continued: "Like a rock t-shirt. To show how this band's music represents your individuality." But don't small musicians and indie groups offer even more individuality? "If you aren't big to a certain level, there is no meaning on having your song as a ringtone."

If Marx is right, then we're likely to hear more from the most popular songs. The small number of songs that top the pop charts, and fragments of all time greats will fill restaurants and elevators with actual voices. We're going to hear lyrics, with a nefarious tendency to lodge in our heads even more than simple melodies. Can you imagine if people could download commercial jingles to their phones? Someday people might have handsets sponsored in part by Coca-Cola - "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke downloadable MP3" playing from your neighbors handset.

In the streets of Shibuya in Tokyo, sidewalk soundtracks are commonplace and quiet is an exception. There, it won't seem unusual to add millions of tiny speakers playing individual MP3s. But it won't be long before mobile phones in the rest of the world share rap lyrics and comedy routines - recorded voices for incoming calls. These devices will become individual public address systems, playing musical Tourette's with entertaining opportunities for interruption and implications for general distraction levels.

Justin Hall travels and writes about human-technology integration, coordinated through his web node at Based in a Briggs and Riley suitcase, Hall is currently cancelling travel to spend more time at home with his Treo 600.