IT was an accident waiting to happen: a mobile phone with the distinctive ringtone of a Guns N' Roses song, and the setting of a Scottish court room, that bastion of quiet and decorum.
What nobody expected when Sweet Child O' Mine decisively interrupted proceedings at Dunfermline Sheriff Court this week was that the culprit should be the sheriff himself. In a textbook case of shamefaced apology, Craig McSherry reached for his phone and switched it off. "Sorry," he said.
Oddly enough, it was the same ringtone that interrupted an election count last year. At the West Tyrone vote declaration in Omagh, returning officer Martin Fox realised the mobile that was ringing as he was speaking was his own. "I'll be home later," he joked ruefully.
Ringtones are big business. They were once rather limited in number and range, but the music and mobile-phone industries were not slow to spot that this was a market ripe for exploitation. Music fans became hooked on the idea that for a few pounds they could download snippets of their favourite songs and have them play whenever their mobiles rang.
By 2005, US ringtone sales were in the region of $500 million, increasing to $600m the following year. Global sales were $4.4 billion in 2005, up from $3.7bn in 2004.
Michael Nash, senior vice president of digital strategy and business development at Warner Music Group, said in April 2006 that consumers, and especially teenagers and young adults, saw ringtones as something that helped identify them. "The ringtone is not just a 30-second snippet," he insisted. "It's like a digital T-shirt."
Ringtones became an effective way of alerting people to new music. Madonna's Hung Up existed as a ringtone several weeks before it was available for sale online or in shops.
US sales peaked at $714m in 2007 but ringtones remain hugely popular. Billboard.com continues to track the bestselling "master" ringtones, this week's being Call Me Maybe, by Carly Rae Jepsen. The mobile game, Angry Birds, recently saw its new ringtone becoming a global hit. Endless websites offer every conceivable ringtone, from songs and comedy clips and even the tune whistled by Darryl Hannah in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol 1.
Ringtone interruptions aren't confined, however, to sheriffs or returning officers. Take the luckless iPhone owner whose marimba tone sounded during the New York Philharmonic's moving performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony last January. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, halted the show but the phone kept ringing, prompting infuriated shouts from fellow patrons and, later, internet abuse. The man apologised and admitted the incident had been so devastasting he had two sleepless nights. He should probably avoid Dunfermline Sheriff Court for the time being.
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