All of a sudden, while we weren’t looking, the ringtone jumped the shark.  We should have guessed about the progressive unhippness of the ringtone, not when etiquette mavens worried aloud about public blaring ringtones and the decline of western civilization, but through the Michael Scott character in the hugely popular “The Office”.  What better way to reveal Michael’s out of touch and painfully unrealized social awkwardness than by his use of loud and slightly out of date ringtones.

Five years ago, which trend-wise is a millennium ago, ringtones were the billion dollar a year business that was going to save the declining music industry, which was supposedly fatally wounded by Napster and the general desire to get something for free rather than paying for it. However, in each year since 2008, the decline in sales has been sharp and steady.

What happened?  Do folks no longer want to represent themselves by their own semi-unique ringtone?  Who wouldn’t want to pay one to three dollars for fifteen seconds of music?

First, users have largely figured out how to create their own ringtones from their very own music, and now most carriers don’t block the importation of user-created files.  And users can now express themselves with fancy phone cases or cool mobile phone applications.  So how bad is this decline?  According to Kim Thai April 2010 Fortune magazine online posting, the business will be nonexistent by 2016.

The death of the ringtone also points out another death – the death of the phone call.  Young adults have already rejected the voice mail, and now, increasingly prefer texting to calling.  Frank Dickson, vice president of research at technology analyst group In-Stat is quoted by Thai:

“We’ve become a text-centric society, which takes away from talking, which takes away from ringtones. In the past two years the average number of text messages sent by each U.S. cellphone user has more than doubled, to 584 texts per month from 218 per month. In that same period the average number of calls has decreased almost 15%.”

All that AND ringtones make you seem like you’re stuck in 2005.  One humorous benefactor of this decline has been television and the movies, where the “silent” vibrate mode has now become magically audible to the viewer as a loud repetitious “buzz”.  Now the production company doesn’t have to pay royalties every time a character’s “Funkytown” ringtone blares.

Ringtones’ requiem

You’ve Got Voice Mail, but Do You Care?