Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you listen to one of those music countdowns this weekend, you would've heard singer/rapper T-Pain four times in the top 10. He's featured with other artists in four of the hottest songs in the country right now. But it's his dominance of another chart - the one for cell phone ringtones - that has particularly peaked to the interest of the music business.

NPR's Nate DiMeo reports on T-Pain's success and how it's helping labels figure out how to make money in the era of music piracy.

NATE DiMEO: After you finished listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, flip your radio dial over to your local hip-hop and R&B station.

(Soundbite of hip-hop and R&B radio station)

Unidentified Man: You are now tuned in…

Unidentified Woman: Power 106.

DiMEO: Mine is Power 106 in L.A.

(Soundbite of song "Low")

T-PAIN (Singer): (Singing) Shorty had them apple bottom jeans, jeans. Boots with the fur, with the fur. The whole club…

DiMEO: Chances are you'll hear the voice of T-Pain.

(Soundbite of song "Low")

T-PAIN: (Singing) She hit the flow, she hit the flow. Next thing u know, Shorty got low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low.

DiMEO: This is not an exaggeration. Billboard Chart manager Raphael George figures that most of the stations have about 18 to 20 songs in the rotation.

Mr. RAPHAEL GEORGE (Manager, Billboard Music Charts): Six songs or so with T-Pain in them.

DiMEO: So do the math.

Mr. GEORGE: What's that? The third of your playlist.

DiMEO: That's a remarkable achievement capping a remarkable year for T-Pain. He released his second album. He had his first number one hit in the pop charts. He produced songs for Britney Spears and Usher. And right now, on every third song you hear on some radio stations, he appears as a guest with another artist.

Mr. GEORGE: Young Joc, Bow Wow, R. Kelly, Plies.

DiMEO: T-Pain has been on so many hit tracks with so many different singers lately that even the Billboard chart manager has trouble keeping track of it all.

Mr. GEORGE: DJ Khaled, Akon. Akon. Yeah. How can I forget Akon?

(Soundbite of song "Buy U a Drank")

T-PAIN: (Singing) Snap ya fingers, do the step…

DiMEO: And once you know what to listen for, you can't miss T-Pain.

(Soundbite of song "Buy U a Drank")

T-PAIN: (Singing) Baby girl, what's your name?

DiMEO: First, because he'll probably tell you it's him somewhere in the song.

(Soundbite of song "Buy U a Drank")

T-PAIN: (Singing) I'm T-Pain you know me convict music nappy boy oh wee.

DiMEO: But it's his signature vocal sound, maybe even more than his actual voice that has become one of the defining sounds in the radio this year.

(Soundbite of song "Buy U a Drank")

T-PAIN: (Singing) I'm a buy you a drank

DiMEO: It's that sound.

(Soundbite of song "Buy U a Drank")

T-PAIN: (Singing) I'm a buy you a drank. Oohh I'm a take you home with me.

DiMEO: That little robot sound when he says he's going to buy you a drink.

Mr. JEFF DODES (Senior Vice President, Digital Business Operations, Zomba Label Group): He's just a vocoder.

DiMEO: Jeff Dodes runs digital music operations for the Zomba label group, the music conglomerate owned by the music conglomerate Sony-BMG that owns the label that puts out T-Pain's music.

The vocoder is the name for that thing that makes the vocal effect he uses on all of his many, many tracks.

Mr. DODES: So he's got this very unique vocal sound that works well for ringtones.

DiMEO: Ringtone sales make up to 40 percent of some major record labels' revenue. T-Pain has made his label a lot of money. Some historians of early radio speculate that one of the reasons that singers like Bing Crosby became so popular was their crooning tone sounded particularly good coming through the primitive speakers people had in their living rooms.

Today, some in the music industry think that T-Pain's signature vocal sound…

(Soundbite of music)

DiMEO: …sounds particularly good through that tiny speaker in your pocket.

(Soundbite of music)

DiMEO: And even to Jeff Dodes and his label, this ringtone success is a little baffling.

Mr. DODES: I'll be the first one to say that I think there are some sort of intangible piece that, you know, none of us can really put our finger on as to why, you know, he's performed so incredibly well, you know, as a ringtone artist.

DiMEO: If you're wondering whether the phrase ringtone artist is an oxymoron, here are a couple of numbers to chew on. T-Pain has sold more than 1.5 million digital downloads of his number one single "Buy U a Drank." But he sold nearly twice as many ringtone versions of the same track. And while the three-minute single costs 99 cents, a 15-second ringtone costs between two-fifty and three bucks. That's the kind of thing that makes the money guys at a record label try really hard to figure out why.

Here's what Jeff Dodes has come up with so far.

Mr. DODES: He writes incredible hooks, little short 30-second hooks that kind of work well as ringtones.

DiMEO: But he says it might be what T-Pain is singing about in those catchy little hooks that does it.

Mr. DODES: People call it a personalization product. The ringtone is sort of making a statement to everyone around you, like, hey, this is what I'm all about.

DiMEO: And T-Pain is singing you about things that a lot of people want to be all about.

Mr. DODES: His biggest tone to date that we've had is "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)." So if you want to make that statement…

DiMEO: For good or for ill, the 5 million-plus downloads that that tone has sold suggests that a lot of people do. Dodes says his label is learning a lot of lessons from T-Pain. They've found that they can keep sales going by releasing different versions of songs featuring different artists. T-Pain has virtually created the ringtone remix market. They've learned how to better time their release of a ringtone to boost album sales and vice versa.

I called T-Pain on his own cell phone and asked about his very good year, and whether he worry that people will get tired of hearing his voice several times an hour.

T-PAIN: I'm already ready for it. People ask me why do I face them like that. They say, like, you're acting like this, I ain't going to be here. It's just not. You know what I'm saying? Everything fades away.

DiMEO: He says if his personal radio success does fade away, he'd be happy behind the scenes, making beats for other people, making those 30-second hooks that will sell ringtones, writing about strip clubs or drinking or drinking at strip clubs or whatever.

As for now, he says, he's going to strike while the iron is hot, while it's outrageously, perhaps inexplicably, hot. Oh, and incidentally, when T-Pain cell phone rings, you hear T-Pain. He says if you're going to put money in someone's pocket, it might as well be your own.

Nate DiMeo, NPR News.

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