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Coldplay Calling

Coldplay’s exclusive ringtone deal with Cingular Wireless marks the beginning of a new way to sell music – 15 seconds at a time.

Fans of British rock band Coldplay take delight in the group’s lush, full sound and the keening vocals of front man Chris Martin. Fans of mobile smart phones, though, take great pleasure in personalizing their mini-machines.

This week, the two met, thanks to an exclusive deal between the band and Cingular Wireless. Even though it may be hard for music fans of a certain vintage to believe that rich-sounding music can be channeled through the tiny, tinny speaker of a cell phone, the $209 million market – which has nearly doubled since last year – suggests that the mobile masses have few qualms with the sound quality.

When Cingular Wireless launched its new ringtone service this week with the exclusive release of “Speed of Sound”, the first Coldplay single from its upcoming album XY, the response from fans was immediate.

“We’ve been floored,” says Mark Nagel, director for entertainment and downloadable services for Cingular. Fans can plunk down $2.49 to purchase a 15-second song snippet that can be used as their phone’s ringtone.

While mobile carriers have singed various deals with artists – Nokia teamed with Jay Z in 2003 to ship a phone that came loaded with MP3 versions of songs from The Black Album and ringtones, Cingular scored a coup by locking up an exclusive deal with one of the most eagerly anticipated bands of 2005 and offering a listen to its latest before any traditional outlets – radio and MTV. And the company is already locking up other artists. Upcoming exclusives include Ludacris songs and clips from bands appearing on the Vans Warped Tour this summer.

“We’re in an early stage in terms of significant revenues from wireless data services,” says Linda Barrabee, an analyst with The Yankee Group a Boston-based research firm. “But it’s been growing for the last year or so. Messaging is driving the lion’s share of revenues, but ring tones are second.”

It’s a trend that the wireless industry is happy to accommodate: The Yankee Group estimates that the 2004 market for ringtones in the US was $209 million, up from $117 million in 2003.

But why would a famously perfectionist group such as Coldplay – who, in delaying the release of XY earlier this year to tweak it further, caused EMI’s stock to take a hit – allow its carefully crafted songs to be reduced to their trebly essence? Or – worse yet – if the consumer doesn’t have a “music-enabled” Cingular phone, have the song reproduced as a MIDI-like sample?

Aside from the obvious appeal of the filthy lucre, releasing a song as a mobile ringtone “gets a track to an audience in a direct way,” says Andy Volanakis, president and chief operating officer of Zingy.com, a ringtone provider. “On radio you have commercials, clutter, (and) other songs you’re competing with. You could argue this is a more direct way to reach a user.”

 In 2001, Zingy.com scored an exclusive release window for new songs from Wu Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, before they came out on CD.

“Bands are starting to see checks coming in from the mobile deals,” says Mary Stuyvesant, general manager for entertainment marketing at Infospace. “They want to raise themselves above the noise, and ringtones are a great way to do that.”

While none of the major mobile carriers would discuss the financial arrangements with their musical partners, one thing is clear: bands such as Coldplay – and the music labels that represent them – wouldn’t be pursuing ringtones if there wasn’t a growing demand for these deals.

“People like ringtones,” says Barrabee. “The ringtone says something about you. It’s making your phone as personalized as possible.”

Call it Exhibit A in online consumers’ fickle music preference – while millions of people around the world continue to swap music files illicitly, implicitly stating that the 99 cent per song rate for online music is too high, they’ll gladly plunk down $2.49 for a brief snippet of a song that oftentimes sounds like a cheesy synthesizer riff from an old arcade game.

In an era when consumers can get music through more channels than ever before, offering a single to phone carriers may not feel like part of the rock and roll playbook, but for bands, it might just be the call to make.

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