NEW YORK – Cell phones were once seen as novel gadgets people used to call AAA in case of a flat tire, but now Americans have reached the ultimate in cellular frivolity.
Following in the footsteps of Europe and Asia, Americans are starting to download personalized ring tones, especially song clips, as an alternative to the average ring.
"I have the Pink Panther theme song," said Cornell University student Rachel Wechsler, who has recently been bitten by the ring tone bug. "I used to just have one long pulsating ring, but after I heard my friend's phone play "Lady Marmalade" my ring seemed cheesy."
Replacing standard high-pitched, manic mobile phone rings with a song can be pricey, ranging from $1 to $5 per tune, but experts say the ring tone trend is about to start booming.
"Every day it is getting stronger," said EMI Senior Vice President Jay Samit, in regards to the industry. "By fall it should be huge."
According to the market research firm ARC Group, more than 50 million cell phone users will be downloading ring tones by 2006.
Why would anyone spend money just to hear a certain sound when getting an incoming call? Some say personalized rings are a way to express individuality.
"I heard someone's phone playing the wedding march song once. It was the cutest thing ever," said 24-year-old Andrea Marandino. "I ended up asking her how she got it because my sister is engaged and would die for that."
Sony is just one of the many companies that's jumped on the ring tone bandwagon. Recently, the company acquired Run Tones, a privately based New York tech company that sells tones and enables cell phone users to download images from the internet onto their phones.
"It's also a good opportunity for the promotion of our artists," said Thomas Gewecke, the Senior Vice President of Sony Music Digital Services.
In a similar deal, Warner Music Group joined forces with AT&T Wireless that enables AT&T users to download Warner Music onto their phones.
And teen magazine YM recently introduced YMOBILE for Voicestream, Nokia, AT&T and Cingular phones. For about $1.99, teenyboppers can download their favorite J-Lo jam or heavy metal hit. Bestsellers include "Big Poppa" by Notorious B.I.G. and "Chop Suey" from System of a Down.
But leave it to the music mavens at Sam Goody to take cell phone songs to new heights. At select stores, you can purchase a Virgin Mobile cell phone that not only plays song clips but gives daily news feeds from MTV and VH-1.
And over at yourmobile.com, cell phone users can purchase song clips from countless categories ranging from fight songs to spirituals, including songs like Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" and "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz.
Another gimmick that will help boost usage are graphics and animation, according to Samit.
"Pamela Anderson just cut a deal that when the cell phone rings [an animated graphic of her] will jiggle," he said.
But even with all of these fancy additions, not everyone is enticed by the idea of hearing Mick Jagger sing "Satisfaction" every time the phone rings.
"I only use my cell phone in case of emergencies or if I am running late," said 72-year-old Robert Baraban. "The problem with this generation is that they have become obsessed with talking on these phones. It's not supposed to be a toy."