By Harry McCracken | Monday, October 20, 2008 at 8:12 pm
For a couple of months now, I’ve been using a music service that’s been in a quiet (but open) beta period. It’s been kind of amazing. That service is the all-new version of Lala, and it’s officially throwing its doors open to the public today.
Among other things, Lala is:
–a service that sells MP3s (DRM-free, natch) for 89 cents apiece and streaming-only versions of songs (“Web songs”) for a dime (which can be applied later to the purchase of an MP3). Entire streaming “Web albums” are typically eighty cents. And most downloadable MP3 albums are aggressively priced–ones that go for $9.99 on iTunes are typically $7.49 on Lala, less than even the price-slashing Amazon.com download store charges. (Any download you buy includes a streaming version at no extra cost.)
–a service that will let you listen to scads of new music without paying even that one thin dime per streaming track, since you can stream any song that Lala has–and it has millions, from the four major labels and 170,000 independents–for free the first time you listen. (New members also get their first fifty Web songs for free, period.)
–a service which scans the music on your computer’s hard drive, identifies the songs, and puts them into your online library at Lala for free, so you can listen to them in any browser on any computer. Yes, this is a modern version of My.MP3.com, the nifty service that was killed by the music industry back in 2000. But this time around, Lala is paying the music companies so it’s all kosher. (I’ve wanted MyMP3 back since the day it went away, so I got kind of emotional when I saw that Lala had essentially replicated it for the moden era of digital music.)
–a social network that lets you discover new music by seeing what other folks are listening to, then listening yourself–again, for free if you’ve never heard a track before, and for a dime if you’ve listened once and haven’t already bought the Web version.
–an iPhone application that lets you stream your entire music to your phone; as long as you’ve got an Internet connection, the effect is a little like having an iPod with infinite capacity. (The iPhone app isn’t available yet, but I saw a preview and liked it; the company says it’ll arrive soon.)
What’s impressive about Lala isn’t just the number of things it does, but how well it does them. I’ve been using it for a while, and it works exceptionally well. The browser-based interface for listening to your music mimics iTunes, and it’s easy to forget it’s Web-based: music starts with little or no delay, and keeps playing even if you browse around Lala or bop over to another browser tab or window.
Integration between Lala’s various features is nicely done–for instance, if you’re browsing albums for sale, Lala knows which songs you already have and doesn’t try to sell them to you again. Which makes it easy to complete albums which you own in partial form. (In the screen below, I already own “Break on Through” and “Alabama Song,” so they don’t have Add links.)
The service’s Music Mover application, which puts songs you already own into your Lala collection, is available in both Windows and Mac versions and performed like a champ in my tests. Of about 16,000 audio tracks on my laptop, it identified roughly half and instantly unlocked them in my Lala collection. The other half–which consisted largely of oddball stuff like a 78-rpm Mickey Mouse Club album that a friend transferred and entire seasons of 1930s radio shows–it had to upload track by track; that took a loooong time. But when it was done, I had all my music and other audio stuff in a form I can listen to on any computer that has a browser–even the songs I’d bought from iTunes that are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM.
Lala has been around for around two and a half years, and it’s kind of hopscotched from one music-related business model to another. It began as a service for swapping CDs by mail. Then it bought Woxy.com, a popular online radio station in Cincinnati. Then it tried free music streaming. So my instinct is to be cautious about the company’s attention span. But this latest incarnation of the service is downright amazing–I can’t imagine anyone who loves music not going gaga for it. A decade into the digital music revolution, its Music Mover and slick interface make it among the very coolest things I’ve ever seen.
The company’s cofounder, Bill Nguyen, tells me that the company can make a comfortable profit selling songs for a dime apiece in streaming form and for less than most of the competition as MP3 downloads; he also says that the company has the deals in place to offer nearly all the music folks will want to listen to in both Web and MP3 form. (I haven’t done a methodical analysis of what it has and doesn’t have, but I found seven out of the top ten albums in the Billboard 200 in Web form, and eight out of ten as downloads; most, but not all, of the music I’ve tried to listen to has been available.)
Lala’s business strategy, Nguyen says, is to making finding and listening to music so incredibly easy that buying it is irresistible. We’ll see how it turns out–like I say, it’s also possible to get a heck of a lot out of Lala without ever buying anything. I’m rooting for the company–the new Lala is just plain terrific, and I’d like to see it stick around for a long time to come.