Monday, 30 May 2016

Touch: Ringtones

"Instead, join us at number two"

Imagine if mobile phones could play music. Imagine if instead of just going beep-beep-beep when you get a call, your mobile phone could speak, or play any sound at all! Imagine if you could check share prices with your mobile phone, or use it as a map. These things might sound incredible to you, but that's because you're a dull, uninteresting person without even the slightest shred of curiosity or vision. Back in 2001 the clever chaps at oh I can't keep this up.

Let's have a look at an intriguing album from 2001. It's called Ringtones, and it's a collection of audio snippets commissioned by Touch Records for The Mobile Phone of Tomorrow. In 2001 people were still getting the hang of texting, and although a few of the most sophisticated mobile phones had colour screens, mobile internet, cameras, perhaps GPS, on the whole those features were flaky and expensive and didn't work very well or at all.

Brian Eno does not appear.

The best-selling phone of 2001 was the Nokia 3310, which had physical buttons and a three-line black-on-green text display. Nokia sold over one hundred and twenty million of them, and every single one still works nowadays because the 3310 was indestructible. It was however limited to voice and text communication. There was no camera, no media jukebox. If you wanted to listen to MP3s in 2001 you needed an MP3 player, if you wanted to take pictures you needed a camera, and if you wanted to check how your shares in Cisco were doing you needed a computer, although by the time Ringtones came out you probably didn't want to be reminded about your shares in Cisco. It was a simpler age when people multi-tasked with monofunctional devices.

Touch Records imagined that in a few years mobile phones would be able to use any old audio as a ringtone, and the concept seems to have intrigued a lot of people because Ringtones has a diverse set of contributors and it attracted a fair amount of press (including The Financial Times). There are 99 tracks, ranging from joke novelties to genuinely intriguing sound miniatures. Do people still care about ringtones? They were massive in the early-mid 2000s, but nowadays people's phones are constantly active, continually browsing Facebook and Reddit. The idea of taking a call - of waiting for the phone to ring and ignoring it at other times - feels old-fashioned in an age when people have mobile phones glued to their faces, almost literally so if you have a VR headset. There are no longer any empty spaces.

Ringtones came out in early 2002, although the liner notes are dated November 2001, and presumably it took several months to assemble the CD. By the time it came out the boom had peaked and of course a bunch of Saudi nationals had demonstrated in spectacular fashion that jet fuel can melt weakened steel beams, so I imagine that the record seemed like a frippery at the time. Whatever coverage it attracted didn't stick, and it fell into obscurity, where it remains today as a curiosity of the period.

What about the music, eh? There are 99 tracks, some of which have more than one sonic event. For example Lary 7's Waveforms 1-8 has eight fascinatingly low-fi buzzing noises, and AER's Conduct Endangering the Safety of Information is a little compilation of audio snippets.

It quickly becomes apparent that very few of the pieces would actually work as ringtones. They're either too low-key or they would blend into the background. Chris Watson's recording of an African Fish Eagle, for example, would be useless throughout much of the Okavango Delta because it would be hard to distinguish the ringing of your telephone from the cry of an actual Fish Eagle.

Similarly, the speech snippets of art duo Gilbert and George have an obvious flaw - what if you were stuck in a railway carriage filled with chatty posh English art fans? What if you were visiting Gilbert and George at home, and your phone rang? Gilbert's voice would blend in with the background hubbub whereas a beepy rendition of Gran Vals would stand out. Gilbert and George must be really old by now. They won the Turner Prize in the 1980s and that was a long time ago.

SND's ..-.-.. sounds like an outtake from Cassette, which is an album made of tiny repetitive minimalist loops (although ..-.-.. itself doesn't loop). Ryoji Ikeda's Unobtainable appears to be the first couple of seconds of 0º::zero degrees [1], from the album 0oC, e.g:

Pita's Ichiban, DA's Stereocellular, and Farmers Manual's Jar: FNN / Snull 2000: snull_cell all peg the volume, which is jarring but perhaps the artists really did intend for their contributions to be attention-grabbing ringtones instead of sonic miniatures.

Along similar lines, Edvward Lewis' four tracks sound a little too close to Windows system sounds for comfort. Regina Lund's Come, Take Me is rude and generated one-half of the press coverage mentioned up the page. Lund is one of a handful of women on the record; the late-1990s sonic arts scene was full of thin twentysomething men who wore t-shirts and had very wealthy parents. Bigert and Bergstrom contribute the first few seconds of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, thus "offering a predictable if entertaining critique of the classical music industry and its kitsch forms, as well as the processing of time under late capitalism", in the possibly ironic words of Sumanth Gopinath, whose book The Ringtone Dialectic has a short section on Ringtones.

New Order is the only chart band on the record. Back in 1982 the band recorded a twenty-minute disco mix of 5-8-6, which was played at the Hacienda and released as a cassette single by Touch. The label presumably still had the rights to use it in 2001, and so Ringtones has three short snippets - they seem to be the only loops on Ringtones, everything else is a one-shot, which limits its use as DJ tools.

New Order's track raises the issue of licensing, which is something that The Financial Times' writer pondered in his article. Nokia's default ringtones were either public domain classical works or original chiptunes, but Ringtones envisaged a future in which actual music could be used as a ringtone - not just beepy covers of music, but actual recordings, which raised a host of legal issues. Ringtones itself is muddled about this. The liner notes encourage listeners to sample and reuse the tracks, and of course you have to make copies and broadcast the tracks publicly if you intend to use them as actual ringtones, but Touch 33's Cool in the North, for example, is a sample of a BBC meterologist, and Bigert and Bergstrom presumably didn't hire an orchestra specifically for their rendition of Vivaldi - they sampled a commercial record, and I doubt they obtained a licence. As a consequence of this I have only played Ringtones to myself, on headphones, whilst wearing a special suit, and if for a moment I thought that my neighbours could hear me listening to the record I would encourage them to sue me. I need to be honest with myself - I'm just thinking of excuses to wear my special suit. Why can't I just wear it, and not feel shame? The special suit.

There's something quite melancholic about the contributors. Ringtones is a slice of what was fashionable in 2001. There's The Conet Project, which was a bloke who collected spooky radio numbers stations. There is a homage to Pan Sonic, and a contribution from one of the Pan Sonic men, and some pieces that sound like Pan Sonic. There are numerous Japanese noise musicians who lived in Berlin or Paris, and probably several Berlin-born artists who recorded music in Japan; they are of a type.

Judging by Discogs, most of the artists recorded a few records in the 1990s and early 2000s before stopping. A few continue today but their time has passed. They didn't care about commercial success or anything concrete. They were doing it for themselves and the adulation of their peers. The environment in which they thrived - albeit briefly, and not that the average man in the street would recognise them - belongs to a certain time and place that doesn't exist any more. The artists on Ringtones probably described themselves as belonging to the postmodern tradition, but there is something fundamentally modernist about their work insofar as they actually cared about the progression of art at all. The artists that came after them were truly postmodern, and the likes of Main and Leif Elggren nowadays come across as either very earnest and naïve or as fraudulent poseurs. They really were just well-off kids having fun, which is fine, but that's all they were.

The record has some liner notes, presumably commissioned so that the writers could bulk out their CVs a little bit ("I contributed an essay to Touch Records' groundbreaking 2001 masterpiece Ringtones, which was reviewed in The Financial Times"). I have sent the liner notes to a Korean transcription agency, who have transcribed them. I present them below. Like so much futurism of the 1960s the ideas are generally sound but the timing is off. One strand of thought that emerged during the boom was the notion that mobile internet (via mobile phones and PDAs) and thus mobile shopping and banking etc was just around the corner, and that mobile phone companies needed to leap onto this immediately.

Thus when the British government auctioned off the 3G spectrum in 2000 the five leading mobile phone companies spent on average £4.5bn each for the right to have a slice of a pie that hadn't been baked yet. Even at the time this seemed excessive, and the debt burden left very little money to actually develop the network. 3G never really lived up to the early hype and even today coverage in the UK is spotty. By the time smartphones came about people tended to connect to the internet with wi-fi instead, which is another controversy entirely. The auction for 4G, in 2016, raised only one-tenth the money and nobody in 2016 really loves non-wifi mobile internet because the data charges are horrible.

This has nothing to do with Ringtones, by the way. The liner notes:
    "The process of transferring made-to-measure ringtones to your mobile phone is, at present, a fixed casino... Chart hits, cod celebrity voices, action heroes, lame keyboard melodies... so the likelihood of hearing one of these on the 07:34 from the suburbs is, at present remote, although new ranges of mobiles are on hand to promise better things. Anticipating this, each of the included has been composed with exactly this eventuality in mind. They are in one way or another intended to be experienced as isolated, personal interventions: low-res loops, creature calls, in low-res environments... In whichever form you find them here, do sample, reformat and employ these humble suggestions... we assume you already agree that the 'cheep cheep' tones of Nokia, Ericsson and the other leave a lot to be desired. [JW]
    The forecasts were promising. In three years, those connecting to the internet from mobile phones would outnumber those connecting from computers. Market research reported that the number of wireless users in the US with access to Internet would increase 728% from 7.4 million in 1999 to 61.5 million by 2003. And in Europe, e-commerce over cell phones was expected to grow from 323 million Euros in 1998 to a massive 23 billion Euros by 2003. All this was supposed to even have a democratising effect - it was predicted that in developing countries, the majority of people would experience internet for the first time on a mobile wireless device.
    Location awareness would give us unprecedented precision with which interaction could take place. This kind of vision is very instantly retranslated and vulgarised by the industry - to them, location sensitive advertising would be a powerful new way to target individual customers and earn revenue. They even thought of a slick name for it all: m-commerce. With this they tried to create a hype for everyone who missed the boat in 1995 with e-commerce could catch the wave and get rich doing an IPO in wireless.
    Demos abound. A cell phone becomes a remote control for a Coke machine. Dial a number, and the Coke machine in front of you delivers a soft drink. No need to have loose change, it'll appear at the end of the month on your phone bill. The kids are onto this - they parse what the adults don't grok, but are yet susceptible. They want to have that cell phone because it's cool and to show off to friends. But they know very well that if their parents were paying for it, it's because it gives parents a way to keep track of the movements of their children. The kids were right. It's cool stuff, but there's a big catch. And the reality check on last year's forecasts indicate that the telecoms spent so much bidding on the 3G frequency spectrums that they don't have the means or the market to launch a profitable useable system this year.
    In the end, it comes down to a question of how much stuff you can pack into such a small form-factor. In the abstract, they would like you to believe that broadband net access straight to the cell phone opens up new frontiers of rich media communication. If it only means more screen real estate for commodity culture to occupy with their idols and hit songs, the supposed new frontier lacks imagination. We can see only so much on a tiny screen and hear so much on Walkman headphones. But putting this and a wireless net into your hand as you cruise through town could have some more interesting results - community based net-remixes, avatars reflecting real-world movement. Let the imagination go for a moment, free of market constraints. We just have to think of what new forms of sound and image live and flourish in this medium. Atau Tanaka, October 2001
    There is a dark side to the plethora of mobile phones; a massive increase in street crime, and the destabilisation of an already extremely volatile and desperate part of the world. A tragedy is unfolding in Central Africa, where Coltan, a mineral used in all computers and cell phones as an extremely efficient electrical conductor, can be found in large, easily collectable quantities. A bucket of the stuff realises about five dollars, more than most folk in the region can earn in a month. The UN report listed on the website condemns Western Government for propagating the war which has, to date, claimed an estimated 2 million lives; it makes chilling reading. The West, of course, rakes in the profits and watches the slaughter, not only of the people who live there, but also much of the wildlife which stands in the way. Gorillas, already a threatened species, face extinction as their natural habitat is systematically destroyed in the hunt for mineral ores.
    Meanwhile, the same forces of order proclaim that GSN phones allow us to pinpoint criminals and reduce crime by catching criminals red-handed. Primal paranoia of losing one's identity, a classic narrative in our daredevil drama, is far easier now that our identities are umbilically linked to data storage. It acts as a metaphor for our society's loss of collective memory; and as Max Frisch said, in 1957, technology "was the knack of arranging the world so that we need not experience it". MSCHarding, November 2001."
Reading the notes I am taken back to the period (and also reminded of A Brief History of Ambient, which has liner notes written in a similarly breathless style). I worked on the periphery of the boom, in the periphery of peripheral London. It felt like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, with lots of young people who weren't interested in their jobs - or anything, really - but liked having important job titles. In this environment the only things that mattered were status and personal connections, and it's easy to understand how the people became detached from the real world of actual business and making profits. They lived in a bubble where they had never been short of anything, never cared for anything, where they had never been forced to confront anything untoward. For all the talk of new business thinking and agile working, they were unable to deal with changing market conditions.

I have always thought that the problem is people. Judging by Ringtones' liner notes, the people of Touch Records wanted the internet to be like a dream of Second Life - a boundless vehicle for the human imagination. But we got Second Life; Second Life existed. And it was immediately turned into a real estate and sex doll e-commerce platform. By people. People were given a boundless vehicle for the human imagination, and they immediately turned it into a real estate and sex doll e-commerce platform, where most of the users spent hours with their avatars standing in one location playing imaginary slot machines in order to build imaginary money in order to buy imaginary clothes. People are the problem, and until people are eliminated they will continue to mess everything up.

I urge you, dear reader, if you see any people today, tell them to stop. Before they ruin everything.