Update 30-April: It's official: Apple shuts down Lala music service.
So long, Lala, it was nice to know you.
Lala was an indie upstart in April 2009, with 30 employees (all but five of them writing code). They had a unique business model—one insider told me, "We want to be a cloud music app"—and a high-octane software development cycle that had the company releasing new versions of its web-based client every two to three weeks.
Lala's founders cashed out last December, selling the company to Apple for an undisclosed price. And since then? Lala's innovation has stalled. Or, more accurately, it's shifted into reverse. At least one key feature has been removed, the much-anticipated iPhone app has been scuttled, and support has turned sluggish.
Lala's signature feature when I looked at it a year ago was its Music Mover app, which allowed you to build a music collection in the cloud. If the program matched a tune in your collection to one in the Lala catalog, your account was given the right to stream that tune on-demand to any PC using a web browser. If Music Mover couldn't find the file, you were given the option to upload it. Although others have tried this business model in the past, Lala was the first one that did it with signed contracts from all the major labels. (Interestingly, reports I've read suggest that those agreements are not transferable to Apple. If that's true, it means that Lala's streaming rights can't be easily integrated into the iTunes player or store.)
The Lala Help page still touts this feature: "Music Mover will add the music you own to your Lala collection for free if it can be matched against our legally licensed catalog. For music that is not matched you will need to use the Manual Uploader available from your collection view."
But that text is out of date. The upload option vanished in March of this year. I noticed the change by accident, when I needed to install Music Mover on a new PC and saw this notice on Lala's web site:
I asked my contacts at Lala for more details on the "technical issues" that led them to disable this feature and on why and when this decision was made. I also asked if someone was willing to talk to me about he future of Lala. They bounced me to Apple PR, which gave me this crisp response after a couple days of exchanging phone calls and e-mail messages:
We don't have a comment beyond the language that was posted on Lala in January addressing the MusicMover change.
So today, unlike a year ago, Music Mover will credit you with streaming rights only for tracks in your collection that it can match perfectly to its catalog. That matching process takes a long time but seems to work well enough. It succeeded for two albums that I bought recently as downloads from eMusic and the Zune Marketplace and for tracks I ripped from a newly purchased CD. Unfortunately, it failed for some obscure but legally downloaded recordings that aren't in the Lala catalog.
The error message complained about "format or metadata problems." The upshot? Music Mover can no longer faithfully replicate your entire music collection to the cloud.
The pay-to-play option is still available from Lala. For 10 cents a track—a buck or two an album—you can buy the rights to stream that track but not download or burn it; the dime is credited to the purchase price if you decide to buy the track later.
The long-awaited Lala iPhone app has also gone missing. It was previewed in an "exclusive first look" on TechCrunch in March 2009, and when I spoke with Lala in April 2009, I was told the iPhone app was nearly complete. A follow-up story at TechCrunch last October was titled "It's almost here." Some beta testers apparently received access to an iPhone app, but a post from the administrator of Lala's support forums on February 21 confirmed that that program is closed; no one at Lala or Apple has any official comment on its status. From here, it looks like the Apple deal derailed plans to make an iPhone app available.
Meanwhile, even the Music Mover app is having problems. Last month, when I tried to install the Music Mover app on a PC here, I was greeted with an error message. A search of Lala's support forums told me I wasn't alone. I opened a report ticket and sent an e-mail to support. It took four days to get this response:
We changed a setting in your account that should allow you to install the Music Mover. Let us know if you still have problems.
That allowed me to complete the installation, but it didn't fix the long-term problem, as I discovered a few minutes ago when I tried to install Music Mover on a Mac:
That's the exact same error message I received last month on Windows 7. I reopened the support ticket and this time received an immediate response:
Essentially we allow up to 3 computers to be registered with Music Mover per one account. As people change computers or re-install software we sometimes have to reset the profile to make sure you can re-install to a new computer.
None of this is good news for anyone who was counting on Lala to shake up the online music business. In fact, every indication is that Lala is on life support, with development frozen, support cut to the bare minimum, and promotion suspended.
So why did Apple buy Lala? Apple has declined to comment despite repeated requests, so I can only speculate. It might have been because they wanted the developer talent, or because they wanted to slow down Lala's momentum and keep a competitor like Microsoft from buying the company. But given the non-portability of Lala's contracts and the robust growth of the iTunes Store, it's highly unlikely that Apple is going to do anything to discourage iPod/iPhone/iPad owners from purchasing tunes.