Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LALA: HOW DOES 10 CENTS A SONG STRIKE YOU?


Steve Jobs decreed the price of digital music to be 99 cents per download over five years ago, but competing with free has been difficult for Apple and others that have followed in its footsteps. Jobs himself admitted that only three percent of the music on iPods was purchased from the iTunes music store.

Could one problem be that the price of digital music is simply too high?

LaLa hopes so. On Tuesday, the company launched a new pricing plan that lets music fans buy songs from all four major labels plus 170,000 indie labels for a mere 10 cents per song, following up on their earlier intention to do just that. The catch? For that 10 cent price, you only get to stream those songs from the LaLa website, or through their online player that boasts an iTunes-like interface and fast response time over a broadband connection. Oh yeah, and there are no ads anywhere on the entire site.

Aside from the dramatically different price point and striking lack of advertising, LaLa's special sauce is its ability to suck your entire music collection into that online player for free so that you can play it "from the cloud," as the saying goes. The site says it is the only one in the world with the labels' blessing to do this. By reading the metadata of the music files on your computer, it generates a mirror collection on its servers. But never fear, rare music aficionado: if LaLa can't find your music in its database, it'll upload your songs the old fashioned way. This hybrid approach allows LaLa to create an online music player that contains all the music on your computer in as little time as possible while avoiding the pitfalls of stream-from-home services such as Orb that require you to leave your home computer on all the time.

After creating a free account, you can listen to any song on the entire site -- once -- for free. (If you stop within 30 seconds it doesn't count as a listen.) If you want to hear the same song again on LaLa, you have two options: pay 10 cents to stream that song as many times as you want from the site in the future or pay 89 cents for a downloadable MP3 that can be played on any digital audio player that also comes with the streaming option.

If you've already paid 10 cents for streaming rights to a song (or $1 or so for an album), the price of the corresponding MP3 download drops to 79 cents. In order to buy these songs you'll need to prepay into an account so that LaLa doesn't have to pay onerous credit card charges each time you spend a dime. But you can try the stream-buying service without paying a cent -- to get you started, the first 50 stream adds are free. As you explore the site, any music you have queued up in the player continues to play.

Everything you buy as a stream or download joins the music that LaLa sucked up from your hard drive into that online iTunes-like interface, so all your music can be accessed from any computer with a web connection. MP3s stream at 128 Kbps. If you pay for the download, the audio quality jumps to 256 Kbps or higher.

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