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Lala snips some of the ties that bind Web songs

October 23, 2009 |  6:39 pm

Lala.com's new deal with Facebook and its rumored partnership with Google could introduce millions of music fans to the "Web song," the cheap but, umm, not universally loved format that Lala pioneered. For the uninitiated, Web songs (which sell for 10 cents each or about a buck for an album's worth), can be played from the Lala site but not downloaded, burned onto CD or otherwise moved. (Lala also sells conventional, full-featured MP3s for 89 cents.) Some might consider 10 cents a fair price for online access to a song; for others, it's a ripoff in comparison to free on-demand services such as iMeem, Grooveshark and the much-anticipated Spotify. The critics' biggest complaint is that people who buy Web songs can't listen to them when they're away from a computer or disconnected from the Net. 

Lala may soon fix that problem, however, with a free iPhone app that enables people to play their Web songs on the road. It works even when stuck in an AT&T dead spot (more on that in a bit). The app, which still has to be submitted to and approved by Apple Inc., can also be loaded onto an iPod Touch. I saw a demo this week and it's quite slick. Users can find tracks or albums from Lala's 8-million-song catalog and play them with minimal delay, view their Lala news feeds to see and hear what their friends are listening to, share songs with Facebook friends, and add web songs easily to their Lala lockers. The app also stores up to 200 of songs on the phone -- for now, it's the ones most recently played by that user, but in the future Lala plans to give people more control over how to fill that cache. Those songs can be played even when you're not online or connected to AT&T's network -- such as when you're on a plane. 

Being able to play Web songs with an iPhone dramatically improves the value proposition, at least for iPhone users. (Lala Chief Executive Bill Nguyen said the company was "excited" about the BlackBerry platform but doesn't have an app available for iPhone rivals yet.) Of course, some people will still object to the notion of paying for music that comes with a diminished set of rights. But then, 10 cents a track is a steeply diminished price.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

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