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Fourth time’s a charm for Lala.com

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Lala.com unveiled its latest incarnation late last night, offering more convenient online music lockers in addition to its mixture of free sampling and cheap streaming. My colleague Michelle Quinn writes about it here, focusing on the cheap streaming. I’m more interested in the company’s efforts to get people to buy more music. A lot more.

Lala is trying to carve out a niche between free, ad-supported music services (e.g., iMeem and SpiralFrog) and online music stores (e.g., iTunes). One of its slogans is ‘Listen free on Lala,’ but that’s a bit misleading. Only the first listen to any song is on the house -- if you want to hear it again, you have to pay. To entice you to do so, Lala offers the option of 10-cent ‘Web songs,’ which you can stream from any Web browser but not download. In other words, you can’t store them on your iPod, but you can play them via your iPhone (or any other Web-savvy portable device).

The premise here is that music-by-subscription services (now down to the last two, Rhapsody and Napster) haven’t been successful because most people still want to own music, not just hear it. That seems to be a safe assumption, given how Rhapsody and Napster have struggled to win acceptance in the market. But Lala’s executives also believe that music fans are becoming so connected to the Net, they’ll be willing to accept fewer rights to the music they buy in exchange for a significantly lower cost. Those 10-cent Web songs are yours to keep forever, assuming Lala lasts that long. The catch is, they stay in your online locker, not in your home.

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Technically, a Lala Web song isn’t an actual copy of a song. Instead, it’s just an electronic pointer to a master copy in Lala’s central jukebox. Said Geoff Ralston, Lala’s CEO: ‘This is the last format. It’s metadata.’

Is Lala’s music-as-metadata a close enough substitute for CDs or MP3s to be acceptable to a wide audience? I suspect the answer is no, mainly because there aren’t enough WiFi-equipped portable music players. And while its prices are way below iTunes’, Lala may have a hard time competing with the many (legal, illegal and iffy) free sources of music online. Its main advantage is its slick software, which makes it just as easy to play songs from a 6-million-track Lala jukebox as from one’s personal collection. There are multiple ways to browse through the world of music, the most interesting being by examining (and playing tracks from) other people’s collections. It’s the Napster Hot List, but with a cool upgrade: You can choose to ‘follow’ people whose tastes you admire, and Lala will send you links to all the songs they play. (No, it’s not in real time. That would be creepy.) Such social features, which also include the ability to post playlists to blogs and send songs to pals for a (single) free play, are the strongest parts of the service.

Another important element of Lala’s value proposition is its online lockers. In an era where seemingly everybody has an iPod to hold his or her entire music collection, online storage seems like a solution in search of a problem. The reason to do it, though, is to integrate your MP3s with the contents of Lala’s jukebox. That way, you could jump from the songs you own to related ones that you don’t. Your collection supplies the seeds for near-infinite playlists.

The problem is that uploading one’s entire collection to Lala can take hours, even days, depending on how big it is. To its credit, the company cut deals with the labels to allow it to short-circuit the process. A downloadable program from Lala scans your hard drive for music. Any song it can identify will instantly be deposited into your locker (as metadata, but not that you’d notice). Only the songs it can’t identify have to be uploaded. In a nice concession to reality, the labels let Lala users deposit any song on their computer into their locker, regardless of whether it had been purchased from iTunes, ripped from a pal’s CD or downloaded from a stranger via Lime Wire. The identification rates will improve with time, as Lala adds previously unrecognized tracks to its Gracenote-powered database of sonic fingerprints. Still, I was disappointed with the results on my collection -- it found a match for only half of the 14,000 tracks on my PC. (I’ve got obscure tastes, but not that obscure.) It took nine hours to upload 1,436 of the unrecognized ones, at which point I quit for the day.

By my count, this is Lala’s fourth incarnation. It started three years ago as a CD-swapping site, with the company charging $1 per trade. It then obtained licenses from the labels to offer a free music-streaming and online locker service, which it launched in June 2007. That effort was marred by buggy software, which made the painstaking song uploads seem like a waste of time. The company quickly retreated from the free service, opting instead to let people listen to any song once before having to buy an MP3 or, later, a Web song.

Today’s version is the first fully realized one, and it seems strong enough to cause trouble for Rhapsody and Napster. Lala executives say subscription services are like gyms -- the less their members use them, the more money they make. But Lala’s profits grow, they say, the more people use the site to discover new songs. ‘Perhaps the key metric that we’re going to be looking at early on is this thing we call buys per thousand -- how many times do people add something to their collection out of 1,000 listens?’ said Lala’s Ralston. ‘We figure we’re going to do pretty well if that’s around 30 or 40. Right now it’s about 12% -- about 120 songs.’ That’s a good start.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.


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