New Music Online: Part 1: Lala.com

I’m writing about my experiences with lala.com as the first part of a series focusing on music distribution models on the internet. Other posts may cover amiestreet.com, online radio services such as pandora and music networking sites like mog. I’m particularly interested in how these sites serve experimental music and musicians. My definition of experimental music is a broad one, covering 20th and 21st century classical music, avant-flavored jazz, fringe areas of pop and rock, and other non-mainstream varieties.

What is it?

Lala.com is a CD trading service. The site has recently expanded to include an online music player, but its functionality remains limited, so I’ll focus on the CD trading aspect of the service. I have found lala.com to be a low-cost, low-risk way to expand my music library.

How it works

Users post a list of CDs they own and are willing to trade. They also create a list of CDs they want. The lala.com database facilitates trades between users. These trades are not usually direct, one-to-one exchanges (e.g. I send you a CD you want in exchange for a CD from you that I want). More typically, User A sends out a CD to User B and receives a CD from User C. Each CD received costs $1.75 including shipping and handling. There is no charge for sending CDs.

My experience and Drawbacks

Lala has safeguards for common problems with trades such as receiving the wrong disc, a damaged disc, or not receiving the disc at all. In 165 trades I have never received a broken or unplayable disc and I have only had 1 disc go awol.

Other issues result from the way the service is structured. For example, users are unable to prioritize their list of wants. Discs are sent when another user decides to ship, so rare, coveted discs are less likely to be sent. Ideally, you get what you give, and Lala tracks each user’s trading behavior or “karma” to make sure things even out. I have found that it’s easier to receive more popular, better selling discs, in particular, older discs. It’s not impossible to receive a non-blockbuster on your want list; 15 of my 72 received discs are CDs of experimental music and most of the others fall into some more popular ‘alt’ genre. Only a few would be considered blockbusters.

Another drawback is that multi-disc sets are treated separately, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get both discs. Early in my experience with Lala I received the first disc of Golijov’s La Pasion Segun San Marcos (St. Mark Passion), but I have yet to receive the second. Conversely, I received both discs of Bitches Brew within a week or two.

All of this trading activity relies on Lala’s database of CD titles. Most commercially released CDs are in the Lala database but not all. I have found a few discs that were misidentified or had the wrong cover art. Most problems can be avoided if you are careful about requesting the correct disc when more than one version is available (bonus tracks, imports, clean versions of discs, etc.) A more serious drawback for experimental music fans is that not all commercially released CDs are represented. And it’s currently not possible to add CDs to the database, particularly CDr releases or discs that lack bar codes.

Why I love Lala.com

Despite these caveats I have found Lala to be a great way to explore music on the cheap while finding good homes for your discs you don’t listen to anymore. Given patience, a willingness to participate, and a sufficiently large want list you can be surprised with a new disc in the mail on a regular basis. And at $1.75 per disc it’s often worth the wait.

One thought on “New Music Online: Part 1: Lala.com

  1. Update: Lala appears to be shifting its focus away from CD trading. Lala is now offering an iTunes like interface for accessing your digital music collection anywhere. I haven’t used their music player (not sure I see the point…) so I won’t report on it. CD trading is still ongoing, although new members are required to submit a request to have their account activated for trading. So far, there’s no official announcement from Lala regarding the shift on their site or how it fits their business model.

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