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Tuesday, 1 August, 2000, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Tune in, turn off

Q: How do you strip a celebrated pop song of all its dignity and human sentiment?

A: Either get Britney Spears to cover it - have you heard her version of The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction? - or download it on to your mobile phone as a ring tone. By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

As if the conventional trill of a mobile phone were not irritating enough, callers are increasingly customising their handsets to play their favourite chart hits.

Many of us will have heard the results - tinny renditions of Martha and the Muffin's Echo Beach, Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly or the James Bond theme.
David Bowie
Beep-beep: EMI hopes David Bowie tunes will be all the fashion

But while reducing a cherished tune to a vapid sequence of bleeps will chill the heart of discerning music lovers, it is getting to be a novel earner for the music business.

Now one of the world's biggest names in music, EMI, wants to get in on the act.

EMI publishing, which represents composers such as David Bowie, Janet Jackson, Queen, and Phil Collins, is planning to open its back catalogue to the ring tones market.

'Potential profits'

"We are, as a company, making available the well-known tunes we represent to this market," says Steve Hills, systems and licensing manager.

EMI is the world's largest music publisher in terms of copyrights owned, and Mr Hills says there is "enormous potential" for selling its tunes as ring tones.

Ring tone royalties
Retailers pay 10% of the sale price for each tune to MCPS (minimum 10p)
This 10% is divided between MCPS, the publisher and the composers
MCPS take 12.5%; publisher takes approx 20% and the rest is split between the composers
Details of the plan have yet to be finalised, but Mr Hills says the deal will focus on overseas markets. In Britain, its tunes are already licensed as ring tones by the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, which collects royalties on behalf of music publishers.

Although customised ring tones have been around since 1998, the trade was only formalised in January, when MCPS set up a royalty arrangement.

The society has deals with around 30 ring tone retailers in the UK, which make a one-off percentage payment for each tune sold.

Surprise source

"It's an unexpected area of revenue and one that is growing," says David Protheroe, a licensing consultant with MCPS.

A-ha vocalist
A-ha's '80s hit Take On Me is a popular choice for mobile owners
Andy Clarke, who set up Ringtone.net two years ago, says mobile users crave individualism.

"It's just another way of personalising your handset," says Mr Clarke.

"You've got the leather case but what's better than having your mobile phone play your football team's anthem." The West Ham "hymn" I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles is among Ringtone.net's top sellers.

Got the Kit?

An amateur musician, Mr Clarke records all his tunes on an old synthesiser. So far he has sold about 7,000, at a cost of 3 each.

"Some are very complex, like the Knight Rider theme. It has so many notes that it repeats after nine seconds. Others, such as Atomic by Blondie, are quite spread out. It lasts about 35 seconds."

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible
Dum, dum, dum-dum; dum dum dum-dum - Mission: Impossible is a favourite
Current favourites include the theme from Mission: Impossible and The Real Slim Shady, by Eminem.

Mr Clarke says there is a big demand for up-to-the-minute chart stuff.

"I try to get the chart stuff recorded as soon as possible. That's where I'm spending a lot of time."

For the trend to really take off, mobile manufacturers will have to upgrade their handsets to accept SMS - text message - downloads.

Currently, Ringtone.net and several others in the field, only serve Nokia phones because of its Smart Messaging facility, which allows handsets to download basic programs in the same way as text messages.

For those who find owning a mobile already burns a hole in the pocket, the thought of paying for new ringing tones might be a deterrent.

Thankfully, the royalty experts confirm, you won't be charged a performance fee each time it rings.

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