No, Napster hasn't risen from the dead, but the company that resurrected WOXY.com has hit another home run with their new "Lala player." And not only is it legal, but it's also backed by the Warner Music Group, one of the last of the old-time "major labels."
The concept is confusing at first, but all is explained at www.lala.com -- Lala's tabs for managing and sharing your music and discovering new music and artists, combined with a platform trading and buying music are the whole story. The Lala Player is easy to find and a cinch to install. And once set up, it uploads your music to Lala.com, where you and the rest of the world can access it. My huge uncompressed library made this somewhat painful, but once completed I no longer need my iPod to listen to it, regardless of where I go. It will always be there on Lala, which is pretty handy and very cool.
And that's "The Big Idea": helping people discover new music and artists, directly (via WOXY and Lala.com) and obliquely (through friends and contacts already on your computer). When you visit, a link to our beloved WOXY tops the page. Below it is a bigger surprise: What looks like free music, from the current playlist, clickable by the song.
Don't get too excited -- when you click, it leads to a 30-second clip just like iTunes (these clips don't work on Macs, so I can't comment on the quality, but hopefully Lala got the memo: Listenable 128K clips, like Apple's, are the norm today).
But wait, there's more! You can link to "friends" on Yahoo, Gmail and MySpace directly from your Lala page and, if they're Lala users too, share your respective libraries. While you can skip through their libraries and playlists as you stream, you can't easily play individual tracks. That's fine, though, especially when you're mostly interested in finding new music.
Not surprisingly, the WOXY connection pays big dividends to Lala. A link to free MP3s takes you directly to WOXY's Studio Sessions, where you can snag all sorts of tracks from great artists, including many local bands (it pays to have the best radio station in the world in our backyard).
It's all very new, so some features are hard to grasp simply because there's nothing else like it. Trading music on a commercial Web site is unheard of. Yet Lala users can exchange CDs with each other all day long, which was the original intent of the service.
While I'd rather go to Shake It and scour the bins, it's hard to beat Lala for selection, price and simplicity. After you discover what you want, you trade your used CDs (physical, not downloads) for new stuff. Every song has "want" and "have" tags, so as you listen you can click "want" to generate a wish list while you enter discs you own for trade as "haves."
Lala matches up wanters with havers, provides mailers, handles the billing and creates a shipping label for you. A $1 fee goes to Lala, and you ship off your old discs for some fresh new music.
Lala explains it as being like renting DVDs over the Web, but you get to keep the discs. Simple and pretty radical, especially considering the major label connection! And miles beyond eBay, Amazon and other "used music" outlets online by any measure.
As to buying music, Lala is an alternative to both iTunes and CD stores. Their pricing varies more than iTunes, but they sell actual CDs, so it's more like CD Baby with major artists.
So what's not to like? Generally speaking, the Lala Player lacks the elegance of iTunes, so it's not the attention/time magnet Apple's player is. This is intentional, since Lala isn't really a player at all but more of a linking/tagging tool masquerading as a player.
But at the core of the Lala concept lays an open question: Do we really want a Web-browser to manage and control our personal music library?
Next to terrific standalone applications like iTunes and WinAmp and combined with the bad taste left by prior tethered strategies (RealPlayer acts more like a virus than a tool), Lala has a tough row to hoe. This is apparent when you try to add new libraries. The tools are "PC-centric," requiring cryptic paths and directories to make the Lala player aware of all of your music. No big deal for people used to c: prompts and d: drives, but for Mac users it's pretty Neanderthal.
Quality is another issue. I prefer to store my library encoded losslessly rather than as MP3s. I'm unwilling to give up quality to use Lala regularly. Apple recently began offering higher quality (though still lossy) downloads, and many artists and even a few labels are selling lossless files directly. For serious music fans, quality matters, so the Web-based "locker" concept has limits.
But give Lala credit. They've talked a major label into trying something new and radically different, namely trusting fans enough to let us share again. Warner Music Group has realized that music must be heard to be sold!
This is a real breakthrough and a giant step beyond the iTunes Music Store and the old Napster. Lala has rethought the conventional retail model and re-integrated listening with the discovery process.
DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.