That's because Lala can also integrate web songs into your online library with the digital music you already own for streaming. Lala uses music fingerprinting technology to scan your iTunes library and make most or all of its songs available online in a matter of minutes without uploading the actual songs thanks to its licenses with the labels. It will even enable online access to songs protected with DRM such as Apple's Fairplay. This represents the ultimate triumph of the MP3 locker functionality that sank MP3.com years ago. And if you have a free listen to a song on Lala and later decide to obtain the music elsewhere (as a from iTunes or via a ripped CD), Lala will recognize the addition and no longer prompt you to buy the track.
The web song idea fits squarely between the two main models of offering legal music online. It is strange to hear Lala executives talk excitedly both about ownership -- which has been the mantra of the iTunes a la carte sales model -- and access, which has been championed by Rhapsody and other subscription services. Unlike with those services, there's no monthly fee to pay to maintain access to music available online, but if Lala fails, so might access to your songs. Lala asserts accurately that solutions for accessing the Internet from practically anywhere will continue to improve dramatically over the next five years, but it's asking for your money now. So the company is embarking on a variety of efforts to improve access to web songs on the go, such as an iPhone application it's developing.
Lala also shares with Rhapsody and other subscription services the challenge of trying to communicate a new form of music consumption to consumers used to acquiring either CDs or digital music files that reside on their hard drives. A rough equivalent to the web song is Rhapsody's $12.99 Rhapsody Unlimited plan, which provides unlimited listening to music online but does not allow transfer to portable players (that costs $2 more per month). For $12,99, you could buy the equivalent of about 10 albums per month on Lala.
Most consumers would probably spend a lot less and cherry-pick songs the way they do on iTunes. That said, they would lose some of the fluidity of exploration that subscription services provide. Web songs will provide an interesting laboratory to explore whether the challenge with music subscription services has been concern over permanence in accessing music (the terms) versus simple distaste for subscriptions (the business model)
Another open question is whether consumers, if they adopt web songs to any extent, will remain satisfied with online access or use them as a gateway to buying MP3s. A hybrid model is likely to evolve but, if Lala is to penetrate the mainstream, it's better off pitching the web song as a way to sample, aligning itself more with the better-understood iTunes model than the less familiar subscription-based "access" that breeds skepticism. It's certainly a good fallback until Lala's wireless broadband utopia reaches deep into planes, trains and automobiles -- at which point the company can change its tune.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.