Under The Microscope

New Ideas In Online Music Sales From Lala.com

Several years back, I signed up for a service called Lala.com. At the time, Lala was a CD trading service that enabled members to send and receive physical CDs, and it seemed like a good way to get new music. I soon discovered that trading involved sending just the CD and not the associated liner notes and other artwork, and never wound up using the service. While it appears that Lala still offers this service, their focus is now as an online music store in the vein of iTunes or Amazon.

You probably haven’t heard much, if anything, about Lala. That’s a shame, because their store is really quite impressive. Lala’s store has 6 million tracks, in line with iTunes’ 8 million and Amazon’s 5 million tracks. Further, Lala’s tracks are provided as DRM free MP3s encoded at 256 kbps, the same as Amazon’s MP3 store. Prices are 89 cents for full songs, below iTunes’ prices and equal to Amazon’s. In terms of quality, availability, and price, they’re on par with the market leaders.

If Lala merely matched iTunes and Amazon, however, there’d be little upon which to remark and they’d have little real hope of competing with iTunes’ massive lead. Lala adds three very impressive features, however, which may enable it to compete for dominance.

Feature #1: Full Previews

While other stores offer 30-second previews, on Lala you can listen to any track once in its entirety, free of charge. That’s right – you can hear the entire track, for free. After that first listen, you’ll need to purchase the song to hear any of it, but how many times do you need to preview a song? I’ve never found iTunes’ 30-second previews terribly useful. At best, they enable you to be sure you’re buying the right track.

Feature #2: Web Songs

While most stores either sell individual dowloads or subscription access to all their audio, Lala’s store introduces a new concept called a “web song”. You can purchase any song on their site for just 10 cents, and have it be accessible on their web site for unlimited playback. You can log in to your account from anywhere, meaning these songs are accessible from any computer. You can buy a web song once you’ve used up your free preview (see above), and Lala even provides 50 free web songs when you sign up.

I think this web song concept is great. Purchasing single full songs for around a dollar is relatively inexpensive, but ten cents is so close to zero that I’ll never have any hesitation in pulling the trigger. Best of all, you can turn any web song into a full download for the difference in price, 79 cents. That means that if you like, you can preview a full song once for free, then purchase the web version for 10 cents, and finally purchase the full download for 79 cents. You’ll pay a total of 89 cents for your song and you’ll have two different chances to bail out if you realize you don’t want it.

Feature #3: Online Audio Storage & Playback

The third major feature Lala offers is online audio storage and playback. Using their downloadable software, Lala will match existing files you have with their own library and make them accessible in your web library. Further, any and all MP3 files that Lala can’t match the software will be automatically uploaded from your computer to your account on Lala. Once these files are in your web library, you can access them anywhere via a web browser, just like with the aforementioned web songs.

You can see their player above. It looks a lot like a web-based iTunes. It’s nothing incredible, but it’s certainly decent, and the ability to access your music anywhere is very handy. Some readers may remember the ill-fated My.MP3.com service, which offered much the same functionality. However, while that feature lead to lawsuits against MP3.com culminating in their eventual demise, Lala has the record labels onboard already.

Competing In The Future

I’m not sure what will happen with Lala in the future, but these new features certainly have distinct value over existing offerings. With free full previews, dirt-cheap web songs, and inexpensive full songs that are free of DRM, I’m finding myself more interested in online music purchases than ever before. I’m not sure if Lala can survive in the long run or not; they’ve certainly got an uphill battle against entrenched competitors. Either way, it will be interesting to see if these innovative new features survive, in Lala or in other stores.

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