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Remembering Jamster Ringtones, the Original Digital Music Revolution | US | Translation

Before Spotify and smartphones, we were one nation under a polyphonic groove.
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You remember Jamster, don't you? You remember spending warm summer days indoors, bridging the gaps between wanks and sandwiches with a flip-flopping slalom through the music channels on Sky, don't you? Scuzz slipping into MTV Base which folded into Vintage. You'll remember, then, those adverts for text services that calculated relationship compatibility and spat out a cold hard figure for you to base boyfriend-related decisions on. You'll remember the possibility of buying a message alert that barked "GIRL YOU BETTER CHECK YO' TEXTS" in what I think was meant to be the voice of Missy Elliot. You remember those things because we're a generation damned to remembering the absurd, pointless, depressing flotsam and jetsam of late-capitalism.


For those who weren't able to stuff an iPod Nano into their Cheap Mondays, mobile phones were musical saviours. In much the same way that SIM cards played a vital role in the sharing of music in Saharan Africa, the easily-pingable nature of bluetooth meant that songs became a public possession, a tradable commodity, an almost freely available form of entertainment. All you needed one was one mate gullible enough to sign up to Jamster's monthly ringtone service, and hey presto, now you could ALL listen to the hot new chart topper in rinky-dink ringtone form.

When was the last time you heard a ringtone? A proper ringtone, I mean. Not just the standard purr of an iPhone or the puzzled bleat of one of the other devices available on the market. I'm talking about a polyphonic approximation of a pop hit, pinging it's way out of a battered and bruised handset on the back of a bus. That kind of ringtone. Weeks, months, years ago? The ringtone, as it was, is dead. Most of us sleepwalk through life in the kind of anxious state that means a phone call is about as welcome as a rounders bat to the face. So we keep our phones on silent and miss calls from our mum and PPI payment centres. It didn't use to be like this. It was all so different once.

Life was strange a decade ago. We still left picture comments, Cameron still wanted us to hug a hoodie rather than price him out of his house before throwing him into a beyond-fucked socio-economic climate, and teenagers still downloaded ringtones. In classrooms up and down the country, teachers fought to be heard over bleepy-renditions of "Is This the Way to Amarillo," Oasis' "The Importance of Being Idle," and "It's Now or Never" by Elvis Presley. The nation's McDonalds' were a hormonally charged dens of iniquity that stunk of chip fat and thrummed to the sound of an 8bit rendition of "Thunder in My Heart" by Leo Sayer. Busses from Aberdeen to Anglesey became cacophonous cabins that tore through the provinces powered by petrol and "Put Your Hands Up for Detroit." Essentially what we were living through was one nation under a (polyphonic) groove. And Jamster were to blame.


Think about it: ringtones, as abstract and quaint as they may seem now, were a way of branding one's self before we earnestly started talking about our personal brands. Your ringtone—whether it was a self-composed marimba-heavy proto-moombahton banger, or a snippet of a Gary Barlow interview from This Morning, or "Point of View" by DB Boulevard—was a digital calling card. It was who you were. More importantly than that, the Jamster age was also the heyday of a technology that seems to have vanished, and one that no one's mourning now, but felt like a big deal then—bluetooth.

Invented by Ericsson employees in 1994, bluetooth was the easiest way to transfer files to people on the bus home from school. Provided you were sat close enough—the usual data-reach was around 10m—you could ping songs and videos to one another to your heart's delight. I still have fond memories of a (still shocking) video featuring a very bald man, and a very accommodating vagina doing the rounds. This, presumably, hadn't been why the Swedish boffins created the synchronization tool, but one of the joys of any new technology emerging from the wilderness is seeing how users test boundaries, and push limits. What did bluetooth mean for music? That's simple: freedom.

By the time Jamster had firmly embedded themselves in the collective consciousness—and given that they were spending €90 million on advertising on German television by 2004, it's pretty fair to say that Jamster were a massive deal—most of us had got used to swapping music online. Napster had been ruining careers for a few years now, and Kazaa had been swapped for Limewire, and evenings went by in a blur of incredibly slowly transferred, poorly tagged MP3s pinging from one MSN account to another. That was fine. That was good. That was a system that worked well when you were sat on your arse all night. Sometimes, though, you had to leave the house. And leaving the house meant leaving your virtual life behind. Which meant a lot of things, but in the context of this article, it predominantly meant leaving music behind.

But what of Jamster now? Where did their revolution take them? Well, sadly, Jamster never moved on. They're still hawking the same old wallpaper bundles they were always swizzing us with. Back then it was charming, it was the vanguard, it was an explosion of mobile possibility. Back then our phones weren't quite so smart, and they felt fun and freeing and like the future. We're in the future now and the future is a depressing place. We're permanently affixed to our devices, forever attached to emails and dating apps. The future decided that ringtones weren't necessary. No one told Jamster that the future happened.

Someone, somewhere, is sat, brow furrowed, trying to turn Lemonade into a series of sellable ringtones. Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do. Bluetooth bombed, and wi-fi took its place, and we were suddenly able to steal music in much easier, more fluent ways. The ringtone wasn't needed anymore. Why bother with a paid for approximation when the real thing was there, for free, practically begging to be taken without permission? Revolutions don't always work out. But I'm glad this one happened. Now, I'm off to calculate just how likely my partner is to cheat on me based entirely on our first names.

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