Local Mexican music boosts ringtone biz

Josh Kun

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: I suppose it's possible to have almost as many cell phone ringtones out there as there are cell phones themselves. Most of 'em, though, probably don't sound much like something you'd want to listen to on the radio.

Series of different ringtones

But mobile phones and how they let us know there's somebody on the line are becoming more musically relevant. Instead of downloading a real song to their iPods or MP3 players, a lot of people are downloading straight to their cell phones. Especially one set of music and ringtone lovers -- fans of traditional Mexican music.

Josh Kun teaches at the University of Southern California. He directs the Popular Music Project at the Lear Center there. Josh, welcome to the program.

Josh Kun: Thanks.

Ryssdal: Mexican bands and ringtones, what's up?

Kun: A lot. In the ringtone market, bands representing the genre known in the U.S. is regional Mexican music. Ringtones are a huge business for regional Mexican bands, or I should say regional Mexican bands are a huge business for ringtone providers and for major labels.

Ryssdal: Why? Where did that come from?

Kun: You know, ringtones are obviously very much mobile, cell-phone based. And for regional Mexican music, the cell phone has really become one of the dominant ways of experiencing regional Mexican music in the United States.

Ryssdal: So a lot of fans of regional Mexican music that we're talking about here, they use their cellphones as the player, not an iPhone or something right?

Kun: Yeah. To be specific here, when we're talking about regional Mexican music, banda music, norteno music, ranchera... This is music that is, for the most part, exclusively listened to by working class, specifically Mexican migrant audiences and their kids.

Ryssdal: Got it.

Kun: Their numbers tend to skew that in the "general market," roughly 80 percent of all digital downloads occur online, and only 20 percent on cell phones. In the regional Mexican market, those numbers are flipped. And a lot of that has to do with really the popularity of the cellphone as a really handy, portable, cheap device. But also, very importantly, that you can buy phone plans as pay-as-you-go cash plans. For an iTunes account, you need a credit card, you need a credit history. And for many -- but not all -- but for many migrant listeners, those things are harder to come by.

Ryssdal: OK. So, you can't do a segment like this without actually playing some of those ringtones. So here's what we're going to do, and I go into this naming of the bands segment with the caveat that I'm a Chinese speaker, not a Spanish speaker. So here we go: This is a band called Los Pikadientes De Caborca, and it's a song called "La Cumbia Del Rio." We're going to play that and then you're going to tell me about it.

"La Cumbia Del Rio" by Los Pikadientes De Caborca

Ryssdal: Alright, so that's kind of a good tune. And it's unbelievably popular.

Kun: Yes. When this tune originally was recorded, it was recorded in Mexico, by this band who basically who did it in their living room. And it's a fairly silly song about dancing a cumbia by the side of the river. They recorded it on their computers at home, and then they then started sharing it with their friends in their town by cell phone. And more and more of their friends started listening to it on their cell phones, and then most importantly, many of them started actually recording themselves on their cell phone cameras doing funny dances to this song. And those videos of those dances ended up on YouTube, and all those YouTube videos became so popular that it ended up getting the band signed to Sony here in the states. And Sony was smart enough to realize that this band's popularity was really all about cellphones and YouTube, that when they filmed the "official" video of the song, all it is is really a mash-up of all of the unofficial videos that started out.

Ryssdal: Regional Mexican is one thing, does this translate into other kinds of music though?

Kun: I mean, the regional Mexican story's been a pretty specific one, because of the nature of the demographics of the immigrant work force. That said, I do think if you look at the way that media is being consumed across the globe, cell phones are the number one site that everyone's trying to figure out how to actually maximize cell phones for all kinds of media content. So I do think it's becoming a kind of new kind of global experience, where the cell phone -- as a mobile tool, a portable tool and an expensive one and kind of a disposable tool -- is now the dominant way that people are experiencing everything from songs to TV shows to webisodes to films.

Ryssdal: Yeah. It's the mobilization of content.

Kun: Absolutely.

Ryssdal: Josh Kun, from the Annenberg School at USC, just down the road. Josh, thanks a lot for coming in.

Kun: Thank you.

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