Remember When You Called Someone and Heard a Song?

Ringback tones are still a thing.

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Jun 21 2017, 3:43pm

Image: BreakingPic/Pexels

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us.

Liam Paris, a 21-year-old who lives in Brooklyn, NY, was in eighth grade when he bought "Can't Tell Me Nothing" by Kanye West as his first ringback tone—the song that played when someone called him.

If you were youngish in the early 2000s, you probably remember this phenomenon—calling a friend's cell phone, and instead of hearing the the standard ring, you heard a pop song. Called ringback tones, this digital music fad allowed cell phone owners to subject callers to their own musical preference.

Ringback tones were incredibly trendy in the early and mid-2000's, but have since tapered off nearly to oblivion. Though almost nobody is buying ringbacks anymore, plenty of people still have them from back in the day.

The first ringtones debuted in the 1960s on landline phones (remember those?), and became a big money-maker for wireless carriers and the music industry.

Ringback tones piggy-backed on this idea several decades later, and would also come to be a cash cow. A patent for contemporary ringback tone technology was filed in the US in 2001, though earlier ringback technology had been used previously in the US and abroad. Verizon Wireless became the first US national carrier to offer ringback tones in 2004, when ringtones were a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry.

Ringback tone sales grew quickly in the early 2000's, holding strong until 2008, when sales plummeted dramatically as cell phone users began taking advantage of other new products, according to a statement emailed to Motherboard. By 2014, ringback sales got so low that AT&T, the nation's second largest wireless provider, stopped selling ringback tones. Verizon, the largest wireless provider in the US, did not respond to request for comment for this story, but still sells ringback tones for $1.99.

At first, the appeal of ringback tones was obvious: they were another way to customize phones in the pre-smart phone era when cellphone technology and design left little room for personalization. They were also an update to ringtones, allowing users to control how others experienced calling them.

These days, if you do a Twitter search for "ringback tones," you're most likely to see people complaining about just having heard one, which means one thing: ringback tones are still around. In the process of writing this story, I heard from several people that they or someone they knew still had a ringback tone, in large part because they have had it for years, and don't know how to get rid of it.

Paris, the 21-year-old with the Kanye ringback tone, said he does get some flack for his old school audio sometimes. "My brother was also in the hospital once (just broke his arm nothing too crazy)," Paris told me. "And a nurse called to leave me a message and I could hear her laughing in it so I can only assume it was from the ringback." He also says that a woman brought up his ringback tone on a first date, wondering why he hadn't ditched it.

But when I asked why he doesn't just rid it, especially now that it's been a universally loathed "song" for years, he said: "At first because I didn't know how to get rid of it, now it's kind of funny."

"It's just kind of a part of me."

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