T-Pain takes crown as king of ringtones

DENVER (Billboard) - Enter most any dance club and odds are you’ll soon hear “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” by R&B sensation T-Pain before the night is through.

But the hit single gets most of its spins as a 30-second clip.

“Buy U a Drank” is the best-selling mastertone of 2007, according to Nielsen RingScan, moving more than 2.3 million units year to date. That figure nearly doubles the very respectable 1.6 million digital downloads the same track has sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and completely dwarfs the 686,000 CDs that the album it supports -- “Epiphany” -- has moved since its debut June 23.

For the Jive Records artist, this is a familiar story. His first album, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” sold 597,000 copies on the strength of the hit single “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper).” According to the label, the song sold more than 5 million ringtones, 4 million of them in less than five months -- making it the fastest-selling ringtone in Sony BMG history and earning it a 2006 BMI Urban Music Award as ringtone of the year.

It’s something T-Pain himself can’t explain.

“I don’t concentrate on it,” he said. “When I’m in the studio, I don’t finish the song and say, ‘That’s going to be a big ringtone.’ I don’t know if a song is going to be a hit or it’s going to flop. I never know. I just do the music and if people like it, they like it.”


The Southern soulster does give credit to ringtones -- in addition to a close relationship with hip-hop/R&B hitmaker Akon -- as a significant factor behind his success. In a May Billboard interview, T-Pain said it was his ringtone sales that forced his label to support his first album.

“I had people at Jive tell me they didn’t believe in my product and let me know that they didn’t too much care,” he said at the time. “But selling 6.7 million ringtones (for “Stripper” and another single, “I’m Sprung,” combined) changed their minds.”

Since then, T-Pain has charted 12 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which were in the top 10, and sophomore effort “Epiphany” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Yet T-Pain was still surprised when lightning struck twice, with “Drank” moving similar ringtone sales.

“I didn’t know any song could generate ringtone sales like that,” he said. “I didn’t think the ringtone game could be so essential to the industry.”

T-Pain’s success in the mobile field is the result of a delicate balance of science and opportunity that involves an army of promotions, A&R, mobile marketing and other executives at Jive Records and parent company Sony BMG, who help drive these sales to their impressive totals.

Whether it’s T-Pain or any artist in the label catalog, every element of a ringtone is closely studied -- from which portion of the song is used, to when it is released to wireless operators, to how many subsequent remixes of the track are created to maintain sales momentum.


Making up 40 percent or more of major labels’ digital revenue, ringtones are far too “vitally important,” according to Jeff Dodes, senior vice president of Jive Records’ digital business unit, to simply leave up to chance. Examining T-Pain’s record ringtone run illustrates exactly how it all breaks down.

When Jive executives first heard “Buy U a Drank,” they immediately narrowed in on it as the key hit single off the “Epiphany” album and from the very beginning decided on a ringtone-centric campaign.

Labels tend to look at their artists as one of three types -- those who sell CDs, those who sell digital downloads and those who sell ringtones.

“We kind of map out the artist,” Dodes said. “We create a pie chart and (determine) where the artist fits and then move our planning accordingly ... a hip-hop or urban artist is generally going to lean more mobile when you break it down, or maybe mobile with physical, and digital will be the big gap.”

T-Pain is a ringtone artist. As well as “Stripper” did as a ringtone, it sold less than 1 million digital downloads. Meanwhile, female pop artists like Britney Spears or Pink sell fewer ringtones but do very well with digital downloads. Country acts skew lower in ringtones and downloads but have the best physical sales.

“Buy U a Drank” had all the elements of a hit ringtone. First, the song has a catchy hook that Jive felt could do well in various formats.

“When you get a track that hits urban, R&B and then goes to pop, potentially, that’s an explosive sales situation from a ringtone standpoint,” Dodes said.


The relationship between radio and ringtones is critical, Dodes said. Ringtones are a way for fans to identify themselves with something popular, similar to a concert T-shirt. It’s no accident that the most successful ringtones are generally radio hits as well.

It’s the reason why few artists create songs only as ringtones, despite some early interest. Certainly an outtake or unused beat from a recording session could be included as an exclusive ringtone for fans who buy the CD or as some other sort of incentive, but Dodes said those unique ringtones will never achieve the kind of sales that “Drank” or “Stripper” did.

While it’s possible to sell ringtones directly to fans via the artist’s Web site or third-party partners, the majority of ringtones sold come through the mobile carrier. All but 3 percent of the sales for “Drank” came through the carrier deck.

But the most important factor to a best-selling ringtone is featured placement on wireless operators’ ringtone menus. Ringtones that have been available for months can suddenly spike as much as 75 percent once they reach the top of the carrier’s “What’s Hot” section.

Ringtone remixes are a common strategy to lengthen the sales cycle for successful singles. The ringtone for “Stripper” has five versions featuring collaborations with Mike Jones and Paul Wall. “Drank” has six versions with help from Kanye West and Yung Joc.

“It’s a personalization product, so you need to give people different versions of the song,” Dodes said.

“They make a person’s phone more exciting, I guess,” T-Pain said of ringtones. “You don’t want to hear that Verizon tone all day. They’ve definitely been a big important part of my whole career.”

Some artists remain conflicted about selling their songs as ringtones, feeling perhaps that the 30-second clips reduce their art to a techno gimmick. But if T-Pain has any reservations being known as a “ringtone artist,” he certainly doesn’t show it.

“As long as someone wants to hear my music,” he said, “I don’t care if it’s a ringtone or the album or whatever.”