New plan charts cell phone tunes

This week, in a curious new turn for the music biz, the world’s first official top 20 chart for ringtones bows in Blighty.

The chart, recognized by the British Phonographic Industry and collated by accounting firm KPMG, will appear in Music Week magazine. The recognition may actually be overdue, given that ringtones already outsell singles in the U.K.

Advances in mobile phone technology mean cell phone users can now get radio-quality tracks, complete with voices as polyphonic ringtones.

The U.K. is a leading market for ringtones, where they have caught on as a shorthand social identifier for many of the nation’s 45 million mobile phone users. According to Informa Media Group analyst reports, ringtone sales were worth $160 million in 2003, outstripping the 38.5 million units of singles sold.

And now Munich-based electro-pop act Super Smart has taken the mobile music craze to another level: Shunning conventional distribution channels, Super Smart — a four-person band which refuses to reveal its individual identities and whose members appear in giant panda heads at gigs and in publicity shots — is the first band to release an album as a series of ringtones only.

The collection, titled “Panda Babies,” is published by Gofresh Mobile Music and sells for E1.49 a pop for a single ringtone and E 5 for a 10- or 12-track “album.”

For Gofresh managing director AntonioVince Staybl, it’s all about keeping up with fickle tastes, and the label has signed 20 artists specifically to bang out ringtones.

“It is very important for us to offer up-to-date songs that meet the zeitgeist,” Staybl says. “We do not want to convert songs that were recorded in a studio months ago.”

But don’t expect all the top 20 ringtones to be current hits. Themes from TV shows such as “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The A-Team” and “Doctor Who” remain popular with nostalgic downloaders.

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