Just as Internet seemed to be progressing in a bold, logical, forward-thinking direction, Apple's acquisition of Lala sadly puts the business model of online music back to square one.
It was good while it lasted. Maybe too good.
Before Lala, if you read a rave album review of a band you've never listened to, you were pretty much at the mercy of the critic. In a pre-Lala age, the only widely-accepted way you could listen to a buzz-worthy album was visit a site like LastFM or Pandora, type in the band's name and cross your fingers that a song from the album would come up – and hope that track would not be one of those "30 second sampler" tracks. Even as beneficial as these sites are, if you clicked on a band's "radio station," you would probably hear one song from the band, then several songs by similar bands. As a result, listeners wind up waiting up to an hour before hearing another track by the band. So, in short, that left you waiting by the radio for a song to come on, just like how your parents used to listen to music.
But thanks to radio consolidation, the chances of hearing bands like Baroness, the xx or Hot Chip on a radio station are slim. For those who didn't want to feel the guilt of illegally downloading tracks via Limewire (plus those who were leery of downloading a potential virus), but still wanted something other than a critic's word to go by, Lala was a great tool.
For those that didn't use it, Lala gave members and nonmembers one listen to an album, free of charge – the equivalent of giving you an hour at a bookstore to look over a new release before purchase. If there was a track you wanted someone to listen to at work, chances were high that Lala would pass work Internet filters while iTunes and YouTube were on the "no surf" list. And if you were a blogger, you could add a soundtrack to your post by embedding tracks onto your site with a widget.
The site wasn't a free-for-all, however. Warner Music Group put anywhere between $20 and $30 million into its development. Like iTunes, it charged users for downloads. And of course, after that first listen, you either had to buy the album, or find another computer to give it another listen.
Apple's purchase and soon-to-be termination of the Lala website leaves a huge void in music. Many websites – from record labels to the AOL-owned Spinner – wisely offer to stream new releases, but the duration usually lasts only a few days or weeks after a release. For lesser known releases that may take months to catch listeners ears (see the xx), that time limit does struggling artists little good.
iTunes has little reason to change. Its store already brings in a tremendous amount of revenue for Apple. But for those that still think of Steve Jobs as Luke Skywalker to Bill Gates' Darth Vader, it's hard to root for Apple on this acquisition. It's unlikely that you'll see the giant iTunes app broken out into little widgets that will embed themselves into peoples' blogs. Giving listeners a free pass to listen to the first Hold Steady or Beck album is even more unlikely.
But Lala has showed there can be a consensus between record companies and people who simply want to hear the product before shelling out $12. Just as Google found a way to make tremendous profits by giving away apps and products for free and stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders found a way to make money by encouraging people to read books off their shelves, Lala's brief success will hopefully encourage other businesses to put a degree of trust with their customers. If listeners are allowed to sample a product they've never listened to before, they will eventually reward the business with their pocketbooks. Hopefully, another company is already studying Lala's business model and is readying to take its place.