Why is Apple Killing Lala?

I love Lala, the online music service, and it grieves me that Apple is shutting it down.  I’m not sure how many people love Lala too, but there were three of us in my office.  I get up every morning and put on Lala, and I go to work and put on Lala, and when I come home I put on Lala.  I’m playing Lala as I write this essay.  I’ve been listening to music since the 1950s when my first source of songs was my Dad’s 55 Pontiac’s push button radio, and Lala has been the best system I’ve ever found for playing music.  I’ve been seeking song finding Nirvana for over fifty years.

If you haven’t lived with Lala you won’t know what you’re missing.  Apple is renowned for innovative technology, and when I first heard it bought Lala, I figured it knew a good thing when it saw it, and maybe Apple just wanted to make iTunes the perfect killer app.  But it looks now like iTunes is a different kind of killer app.  The best gossip I can find suggests Apple merely bought Lala for quick access to its cloud music technology.  That’s like killing a person for their kidneys.  Or was Lala music sales model really a threat to iTunes?

Most of the news stories about Apple shutting down Lala didn’t spend any time mourning Lala.  Anything Apple does is big news, but that’s all.  I just don’t think people know how cool Lala really is, and I want praise Lala before its forgotten, and maybe explain why Apple is killing it off.

It’s all about ease of use.  Lala is far easier to use than iTunes, far cheaper, and even more important, it’s far more exciting for finding new music and sharing that excitement with other music lovers.  All is this is much easier on Lala, I kid you not.  On Lala you can play any song or album for free once.  When the new albums come out on Tuesday you can play them all on Lala for free.  (Or could.)  How fantastic is that?  See an album with a neat cover, well give it a try.  See an album with a funny name, give it a play.  Remember flipping through bins of albums wondering what the music was like from looking at the album covers.  Well, with Lala, it was only a matter of taking the time to try them.

But even more important than that, was how cheap it is to buy web songs on Lala.  A dime a song and you can play it forever, or until a giant corporation comes along and stomps Lala.  I’d load up my Lala wallet with $20 and whenever I heard a song I like I hit the Add Song button, and ten cents would disappear from my wallet.  If I really loved the song I’d click another button and add it to a play list.  The year I’ve been a member of Lala meant collecting just the songs I loved and making playlists.  I could play my friends playlists and not spend a cent.  I could play stranger’s playlists for the same great price.  But if I found a song I loved, it was one click, one dime, and it was mine to keep playing.  And I never had to worry about backing my songs up, or finding the song in iTunes, or in Windows Media, or on which computer, or on a shelf, or where I left that CD.  Lala was perfect for keeping my songs organized. 

Like I said, ease of use is the key factor here.  I own about 1,500 CDs, and I have them ripped to 18,000+ songs in my Windows Media library, but it’s far easier to use Lala.  I also subscribe to Rhapsody and have access to millions of songs.  But I’d rather use Lala.  In fact, it was easier to pay Lala ten cents for songs I already owned than play them somewhere else.  Hell, Lala was even willing to give me credit and link my 18,000 songs to my Lala library, but I didn’t want to do that because I loved Lala and I wanted to give it money and I didn’t want my Lala library cluttered up with thousands of songs I didn’t want to play.

Damn you Apple!!!  I’m playing Lala right now and Laura Bell Bundy started singing “Please” and I went to add it to my collection, but the Add Song button is gone.  Luckily I didn’t ditch Rhapsody when it came up for yearly renewal this month.  Now I’ve got to figure out how to configure it to be easier to use.  Having unlimited access to millions of songs sounds great, but it takes work to manage them.  Lala is great at managing my library.  I had already paid Rhapsody and could play the same songs there as I was paying again on Lala for ten cents a song, and I was more than willing to spend my money again on Lala because it was so easy to use, and because Lala is so great at sharing.

Whenever I discover a song I love all I had to do was hit the Share button and send it to my friends.  And they could play it once for free, or add it to their collection for a measly dime.  And that’s a great bonding experience.  By the way, thanks Apple, you are at least letting me replay songs in my month of mourning without taking my dime.  I would add “Please” to my Songs Rated 10 playlist, but that button is gone too.  I’m playing it for the third time in a row.  Steve Jobs, why are you taking this all away from me?  Is it greed?  Must you destroy anything that is better than something you invented?  Do you merely want to crush the competition?  Do you even know the beauty you destroy?

The rumor mill says Apple is killing Lala for its cloud technology that allows users to add their songs to their online library.  This will be great for iTunes users.  One of the HUGE negatives of iTunes is if you lose computer you lose your music.  Web streaming is so freeing because you don’t have to worry about maintaining your music files.  I’m guessing Apple won’t offer web streaming, but they will sell you a song, and they will validate any songs you own, and then let you play those songs from the cloud.  I bet Apple plans to combine the purchase model with the streaming model, so you won’t be renting music, but you’ll get the advantage of streaming once you paid for the song.

The trickier part is whether or not they can load the song onto your iPod.  That ain’t streaming.  But iPhones, iPads and the iPod touch have WiFi and broadband and they could stream music.  One of the greats features of Audible.com is they remember everything you ever buy, and even if they lose the right to keep selling a digital audio book you still have the right to download it again if something happens to your computer.  iTunes never offered such a wonderful backup feature, but Lala type streaming comes close to that.

If Apple kills Lala and then puts all its features into iTunes 10 then I won’t hate Steve Jobs so bad.  I doubt this will happen.  There is no reason why iTunes couldn’t let users play songs and albums once for free like Lala.  There is no reason why iTunes couldn’t sell web streaming songs for ten cents apiece.  Zune offers streaming on a portable device.  You pay $15 a month and can wireless stream any album to your player.  I have a Zune, but I don’t like playing music through ear buds.  I like hearing music through big speakers.  And I dropped my Zune subscription because their desktop software wasn’t as good as Lala or Rhapsody.

Apple could recreate all the features of the Zune Marketplace with its Lala technology and offer streaming to portable players, but that would be the end of selling songs for $1.29.  I’ve written many blog posts begging my readers to try streaming music and got damn few takers.  People are all hung up on owning songs.  Paying Rhapsody $10 a month is even a bargain compared to stealing music, but people can’t even comprehend it.  The work of stealing and maintaining the songs is so time consuming that only someone with no money would consider a stolen song a bargain.

Does Steve Jobs want to stomp out rental music?  If the music companies were against it, why do they let so many services offer it?  Lala was much cheaper than Rhapsody.  I spent $40 during my year on Lala, and $120 at Rhapsody.  At Rhapsody I could listen to the millions of songs as often as I wanted.  At Lala, I had to pick which songs I wanted to hear again and pay ten cents for unlimited listening to each.  I played more new albums at Lala because it was easier, and I only bought a few hundred songs because that’s all I discovered I really liked enough to want to keep playing.

We’re getting closer to a new paradigm for owning music.  Unless you’re a music nut you might not understand these distinctions, but here’s the evolution of music ownership.

  1. You bought and owned the physical 78, 45, LP, CD, cassette, 8-track
  2. You bought the physical CD, but could rip it to MP3
  3. You could steal MP3s, illegally possessing the file
  4. You could buy MP3s without getting the physical album, legally owning the file
  5. You could rent unlimited access to all music but you didn’t own anything
  6. You could buy the streaming rights to a song, but keep it in the cloud, so you own the right to hear the song as often as you want, and you don’t have to worry about maintaining it
  7. And it looks like you will be able to buy the song for download, but also have unlimited streaming rights.

I thought step #5 was the ultimate, but ended up loving step #6, which is the sales model that Lala used.  I’m guessing Apple will modify #6 and make it #7.   But instead of buying the streaming song for ten cents, you’ll buy the song for $1.29, and I guess either keep it in the cloud or download a copy for your iPod.  I wonder if Apple will make a deal with the music companies to get you the legal rights to be able to download that song as many times as you like.

Model #5 came in a number of flavors.  Rhapsody and Napster started off charging one fee for web streaming and a larger fee for the rights to put rental music on a portable player.  Lala didn’t rent music, but sold it in a two-tier pricing.  Ten cents for unlimited streaming (#6), and 79 cents for a download (#4).  I’m guessing the Apple and the music industry will consider ten cents too cheap for the rights to listen to a song for the rest of your life.

I have to wonder if you subtract all the manufacturing costs of CDs, the shipping costs, the warehouse costs, the distributor’s costs, the retailers costs, how much does a song really cost, that is if you remove all the cost factors that don’t go into a digital download.  I’m guessing a physical song was probably 20-40 cents of your $12-15 you spent for a CD.  People used to complain bitterly over the prices of CDs, so a $1.29 for a song is actually more expensive if you factor in actual costs. 

Rental pricing is different.  If I played a 1,000 songs for my Rhapsody rental of $10, that’s only a penny a song.  But if I only play 100 songs, those songs cost me ten cents each.  But if I play the same 100 songs next month, it’s another ten cents each.  The beauty of Lala was its pricing of ten cents per song for unlimited streaming.  Plus it had the inherent side affect of tracking the songs you love, and this beats two problems of rental.  You only pay for the song once, and Lala’s tracking of ownership also was a kind of tracking.  I can listen to 6 million songs on Rhapsody but I have a hard time keeping up with just the ones I love.

Steve Jobs is no dummy.  He knows the future of computing is the cloud.  He knows people will get tired of “buying” the same songs over and over again.  I have some songs I’ve bought on vinyl twice (they wore out, or I lost them), CDs twice (first release, then remastered release), once on SASD, then again on MP3, and by more than one rental service.  Ownership doesn’t appear to be forever when it comes to music.  That’s why I like the idea of rental music, why pretend otherwise?

This rant about Apple destroying Lala is getting too long.  But I hope you get my drift.  Lala was a great model for finding, playing and sharing music, better I think than any other sales model I’ve discovered.  I can’t but believe Steve Jobs will take a step backwards from this model, but I’m sure he sees a music sales model that will dominate in the future, something beyond what iTunes uses now, and maybe one that might last awhile.

JWH – 4/30/10

Rhapsody v. Zune v. Lala

I recently discovered Lala from reading Ed Bott’s “6 Music Services Compared:  Who Can Beat the iTunes Monopoly?”  Lala is the slickest way to listen to music on the web yet.  And since it’s free, anyone who loves music would be crazy not to try it out.  Joining Lala gets you 50 free web songs.  Lala offer four ways to listen to music.   First, the free one time only listen.  Second, the ten cents per song to listen via the web for as many plays as you want.   Third, Lala lets you buy a MP3 version of the song, at prices a bit cheaper than other sites, and finally, they help you play songs you already own through the web.

I’m already a subscriber to Rhapsody and Zune and I’ve bought music from iTunes and Amazon.  Digital music continues to blossom while traditional music sales continue to tank.  I never liked buying music from iTunes because I was locked in to its DRM.  In fact I’ve bought so few albums from iTunes that when it came time to upgrade my computer I didn’t bother moving them, it was just more trouble than I wanted to mess with, but I have access to those albums on Rhapsody and Zune.  And although I like Amazon and its unlocked songs, buying songs one at a time and trying to keep up with them is a pain.  I much rather have an unlimited subscription music.

Subscription music is the least amount of hassle.  From thinking of a song to playing it, takes the least amount of time.

I do have 18,000 ripped songs from my CD collection, but even it’s a pain to deal with.  For instance I’m thinking about putting Linux on my second machine but that’s where I keep my music library backup.  Worrying about a 192gb music collection is a real ball and chain.  Also, 18,000 songs is just too limited.  This past couple weeks I’ve been playing all the versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that I can find.  My collection has 5 versions.  Rhapsody has 153 versions, and Lala claims to have over 300, although both Lala and Rhapsody list a lot of repeats.  But I have heard maybe 60+ distinct versions so far.  Damn, I love that song.

Playing musical games like this just isn’t practical with iTunes or Amazon, unless I wanted to buy the songs, say $60.  Lala is free to listen to any song for free once, or 10 cents for unlimited web streaming, and Rhapsody provides all I can listen for $10 a month (I pay by the year, it’s $13 a month if you pay by the month).  Zune is $15 a month.  Spending $28 a month for two subscription services is wasteful because of the overlap, but I used to spend at least that much a week before digital music.

Lala is great to share with friends.  It’s easy to sign up and use, and it’s free to use for playing any song or album once.  I’ve never gotten my friends to join Rhapsody so we can share playlists, and I don’t know any Zune users either.  So Lala is great for sharing.  Lala might even be good for all my listening.  $10 a month means 100 web songs.  On Rhapsody and Zune I never find 100 songs a month I want to replay, so if I wanted to live on $10 a month or less for my music budget, Lala would be the way to go.

Zune is great for throwing albums onto the player and carrying them around.  The trouble is I don’t like playing music on the go, so I will probably cancel my Zune membership in the future.  If you do love playing music on a digital player, Zune is the easiest and cheapest way to go.  Dragging and dropping albums onto the player can’t be simpler.

I’m going to play with Zune for awhile longer.  Like Lala and Rhapsody, it allows me to play music anywhere I have a computer and network access, but so far it’s web interface is my least favorite for playing music online.  Rhapsody and Lala are much faster at queuing up a list of songs to play.  And Rhapsody beats Lala in that I can queue up songs to play on my big stereo through my SoundBridge, although I play 95% of my music while working at the computer at home and work.  But if I do sit down and listen to music on the big stereo, Rhapsody wins against the others, but not against CDs.

I don’t buy many CDs, only ones where I think I want to own them for life and love playing them on the big stereo.  And now that I’ve discovered that Tower.com is a dirt cheap way to get CDs, I’m buying CDs again.  $6.99 and $7.99 CDs are not uncommon, and at those prices I’m much rather buy the physical CD than the download.

If CD prices are low enough to beat the prices of digital music, digital subscription music then becomes the way to discover great music, and you buy the best of the best on CD to keep.  I’m partial to Rhapsody, but if I was uncommitted, I’d go with Lala for discovering music and web playing.  If you have a SoundBridge or Sonos system, or one of the other digital media hubs, you’ll probably want Rhapsody, but that might change.  I bet Lala comes to Sonos soon.

Like I said, you’d be foolish to ignore Lala if you love music.  And if you like to share songs with friends, Lala is great.  I hope Lala succeeds.  It has fantastic potential as a social network.  Lala doesn’t have as many songs as Rhapsody but it’s growing.  If there was a Lala iPhone/touch app, it would be killer.

Give Lala a try, go listen to a dozen versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”

Here is a test to see if I can share Lala.com songs via WordPress. Let me know if you could play the song okay. Lala actually provides Flash code to embed a cute little player, but WordPress strips out that code.

Jefferson Goncalves plays solo harmonica in this version of “All Along The Watchtower.”

JWH – 5/2/9