Hands On with an Improved Lala Music Service

— -- Music site Lala.com has re-launched itself yet again, this time in partnership with the major music labels offering 10 cent music purchases, social networking, and DRM-free music downloads. The service has struggled in the past to click with users launching at first as a CD swapping service and then a music hub. This time around Lala looks better than ever. But will it be good enough?

I took a look at the new Lala and here is what I found.

Free, Cheap, and DRM-Free Music

As with other services, Lala is set up so you can search for an artist you like. You can browse search results and choose to listen to single or multiple tracks from the same artists. You can also create playlists comprised of multiple artists or create a playlist made up of just one artist. This is a bit different than sites such as Pandora that allow you to stream music from specific artists, but don't allow you to listen to back-to-back consecutive tracks from just one artist. Lala allows you to do this - permitting you to listen to a straight hour or two of just Duffy, The Doors, Amy Winehouse, or whoever.

Now here is the catch. You can only listen to tracks you don't "own" once. After that you are prompted to buy a Web version of the track for 10 cents. Now 10 cents may sound like a good deal for a Web-only track, but it's important to remember the music is only available via streaming through your Web browser. Fork over the dime and you can play the song an unlimited amount of times online.

You also have the option to download DRM-free music ranging in price from 79-99 cents per song that can then be played on any device or burned to a CD. To make downloading purchases easier, Lala has a downloadable program called "Music Mover" to download tracks purchased from Lala to your computer. MusicMover can also upload music from your computer to your online storage locker for playback anywhere you can get online.

Lala Ups and Downs

In my tests "Music Mover" worked fairly well, it took about 40 minutes to scan my library and match 800-plus songs. Then any music tracks that matched what I already owned that Lala had in its own library were automatically added to my online storage locker and I could listen to them for free (no 10 cents-a-track required). However, Music Mover did not put copy-protected music from my iTunes library into my Lala profile.

One negative I experienced was when uploading songs on my PC to Lala for playback through the online storage locker. Almost all the 800 music tracks I owned were unrecognizable to Lala. So in order marry those music tracks with Lala's library I had to upload the entire music tracks. In all, 700 songs had to be uploaded - taking hours even with a fast Internet connection. Lala says it has a 70 percent match rate for identifying songs on my hard drive.

One nice touch was that Lala's Music Mover utility also copied my playlists from iTunes. It should also be noted that Music Mover relies on properly formatted ID-3 tags, and without them your music isn't going anywhere.

Lala says there is no storage limit for the amount of digital music tracks you can upload to Lala. And any unlicensed music (Beatles and AC/DC) that is uploaded is viewable to others but only playable to you.

Surfing for New Songs

Navigation through the site is very easy, you start at your homepage which contains your profile, a "Music Feed" that lets you follow other Lala users and see what they are listening to. The homepage also contains the top songs on Lala, easy access to your library on the right hand side, as well as a section for news, followers, gifts and recommendations.

To purchase music you can either pay per song or add money to your Lala "wallet" which cuts down a little bit on the purchase processing time.

Lala Gives Complete Playlist Control

Lala does a lot of things better than other sites. Unlike with Pandora, Lala gives you complete control over what you listen to and when. Ten cents is also such a nominal fee that I didn't mind forking over $1.40 to be able to listen to the Smashing Pumpkin's "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" in perpetuity (or at least as long as Lala stays afloat).

The downside of course is the fact that you need an Internet connection, which limits your ability to hear the music away from your desktop or notebook. For now, I am going to stick with my iPod, but Lala looks promising and if it can create mobile device applications to overcome its current "iPod gap" Lala just might have a chance at reshaping the current digital music market.

Addendum: Lala says it is working on an iPhone application.