Music Goes Cellular

In an era when music as instant entertainment enjoys increasing dominance over music as art, cellular phones have emerged as the latest purveyor of music on demand. Issues of sound quality mean little when the goal is to accumulate more and more files at an ever-accelerating pace and have ever easier access to those files.

On September 7, Apple, Motorola, and Cingular Wireless (currently serving close to 52 million US customers) introduced the first iTunes-equipped mobile phone. The Motorola ROKR enables owners to transfer up to 100 favorite songs from their computer's iTunes jukebox. The phone comes complete with color display for viewing album art, built-in dual-stereo speakers, and stereo headphones that double as a mobile headset with microphone. The ROKR is polite enough to pause automatically when the user takes a call, otherwise playing music as desired while messaging with friends or snapping photos. Scenarios of family photos taken while some rapper screams "mutha..." suggest instantaneous estrangement.

On October 12, Apple introduced its Fifth Generation iPod. The unit features what the press release calls a "gorgeous" 2.5" color screen that can display album artwork and photos and play "stunning" video, music videos, video Podcasts, home movies, and television shows. Among the material available for download from iTunes are over 2,000 music videos, six short films from Pixar Animation Studios, and five TV shows (including Desperate Housewives). All these will undoubtedly become available for cellular download, enabling drivers to navigate the freeway while their favorite artist parts the Commuter Sea with driving guitar riffs.

Even before the Motorola/Cingular launch, Sprint and Samsung introduced Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Services. The Samsung-built Sprint Multimedia Phone MM-A700 offers streaming video and audio content, including CNN, NBC, Fox Sports, The Weather Channel, E! Entertainment, mFlix, Twentieth Century Fox, AccuWeather, and 1KTV. The phone also includes a megapixel camera and digital camcorder.

The question arises, where amidst this morass of major corporate offerings can someone find music from independent artists who eschew the confines of commercial formulas?

Enter Beau Buck, CEO of Ultrashort Media, Inc., a two-year old mobile media development company located in Marina Del Rey that creates commercial-free MobileVoltage mobile music brands accessible from select mobile telephone menus. Ultrashort brands such as "Pirate Mobile Radio," "Underground Mobile," "Kult Kartoons," and "MChick" (in development for women ages 17–25) specialize in content from indie artists.

"The underpinning of our theory," Buck told Stereophile, "is that people consume what they are fed. You don't necessarily see the most talented people on MTV—you don't necessarily hear the best music on commercial radio. We feel it's our duty to present artists who don't otherwise have access to the market.

"We look for people we think are talented. We go by our intuition, and we choose them without regard to selling you the next toy, which is what commercial media is about."

Available in MP3-quality sound, which Buck suggests sounds best through earbuds or headphones connected to mobile phones, Ultrashort Media's brands are available to Sprint customers in the US. In addition, O2 subscribers in the UK, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany and other countries, and T-Mobilites in South Africa can choose from four Ultrashort Media channels: all offer music, animation, and music videos from indie artists. Hip-hop, rock, spoken word, heavy metal, and girl groups receive the most attention.

"Verizon has VCast," says Buck. "It's a big-brand strategy from a big utility. They don't know what people want, so they rely on market research to fill their phone lines with the commercial stuff you see on television. iTunes has led the way by opening a distribution channel for the record labels, but if you want independent content, you have to know the name of the artist first to find it amidst the major artists. We may be the only service that targets indie artists and musicians for mobile."

Buck believes that salvation for indie artists is to have a seat at the table as the market evolves. "Before you know it," he prophesizes, "it will be as hard for an indie artist to get on mobile as it is to get on TV. The name of the game is to be there and write history."

Such a strategy certainly works for Craymo, an indie electronic pop artist based in Orlando. Craymo first learned on the Web that Ultrashort was searching for new artists for their "Pirate Mobile Radio" launch, and submitted his material.

Ultrashort was especially drawn to Craymo's "One Love, One World," a simple electronic reggae song for world peace and tolerance currently featured on the United Nations project website. Thanks to exposure via the Internet and over 1.5 billion cellular handsets, Craymo recently received an invitation to perform at a World Peace Conference in Malaysia, and learned that elementary school teachers are downloading his song and teaching it to students worldwide.

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