After the joy (and surprising popularity) of Spotify the other day, my palm is firmly back on my face thanks to Lala and their launch of "web songs" - cut price music that's locked up tighter than a... actually I probably shouldn't pursue that simile any further.
Lala is offering music for 10 cents a track. "Great!", you cry. But wait a sec. The only way they've got the record labels to agree is to limit you to only listening to that song in your browser. You're essentially paying 10 cents for something that you can get for free on Spotify, Last.FM, MySpace, or even YouTube, for god's sake. As the unnamed head of a digital music service once said, "you want the world's best on-demand music service? Go to YouTube and close your eyes."
Lala started life as a cd-swapping service. That didn't work. Then they tried free streaming. No dice. Now, they're letting you stream any song once, but when you try and play it a second time, you have to pay 10 cents to get access. That's what they're calling a "web song". What a load of rubbish.
For your ten cents, you get access to one song, with iffy sound quality, on Lala's site only. You can only listen to it in the USA, too - they haven't expanded across the pond yet. Oh, and when this venture fails, which it invariably will, and they turn their servers off, your 10 cent investments are wasted because your favourite songs are no longer accessible.
To pile yet more fuel onto the fire, what happens when you're not sat at your computer? Lala have an iPhone app, but that's not much use when you're underground, on a plane, or in another country (with roaming charges as they are currently). Any music lover who travels at all knows the value of the MP3 player. For the privilege of an MP3 download of your "web song", you pay full download price once again.
There are a few nice features on Lala's service. It'll scan your computer for MP3s and give you free, unlimited streaming access to those songs, however you acquired them. That's good, though I do wonder what's to stop you just creating an MP3 of white noise at about the right length, and adding appropriate metadata to fool the service.
In fact I know exactly what would stop you doing that - the fact that going to the Pirate Bay, Skreemr, the Hype Machine, elbo.ws or even a customized Google Search is just so much easier and more convenient.
Until digital music companies create a service that has the catalogue and ease of use of the illegal or questionably legal sites, they'll get nowhere. People need a reason to switch. "Web songs" isn't that reason. Spotify, on the other hand, despite the ads, is convenient, has a big catalogue (which isn't quite perfect yet, sadly) and simply, but crucially, doesn't get in the way of you enjoying music.
Don't bother with Lala. Grab a beta invite to Spotify from our post, and see how great streaming services can be. If there's an album you love, then go buy a physical CD, and rip it to FLAC or 320kbps MP3 on your PC. Then go see that band when they play your town, buy a t-shirt, and play the album to all your friends. That's how bands really grow.