Like anyone else who writes about music in a public setting, I’m forever being pelted with requests/demands that I listen to someone’s song, album, or EP, be they from friends, publicists, or the artists themselves; on a normal weekday, I can’t step away from my computer for more than 20 minutes without coming back to an inbox piled high with e-mails that promise me the music linked therein will blow my mind, brighten my day, and give me longer-lasting erections. (Wait, wrong type of e-mail.) Much as I love music, and impossible as it is to slake my thirst for new sounds, I’m only one guy, and there’s only so much I can cram in my ears before everything starts to sound like hiss and every review starts boiling down to “It was okay, I guess. When do I get to go home?”
None of which is a complaint, but rather an explanation of why I’ve become a ruthless inbox purger, making snap decisions about what stays and what goes with little more than a glance at the first few words of the message. It’s an imperfect system, to be sure, and I’ve doubtless let plenty of wonderful music slip through my fingers this way, but there’s just so much of it out there. You need a filter. Or several.
One of my filters is my friend Pigeon O’Brien, who is, aside from being my favorite publicist and one of the funniest folks on Twitter, a woman of such impeccable musical taste that I don’t even tense up when she pitches me on one of her artists. So when she sent me a message the other day telling me I needed to hear a song, I didn’t question, I clicked. As it turned out, the song in question was from an artist I like (Steve Poltz) and an album I didn’t know was out (Dreamhouse, buy it now), but the “what” of this story isn’t as important as the “where”: To share the song, Pigeon sent me a direct Twitter message containing a link pointing to the album’s Lala page.
If you’re not familiar with Lala, it’s a music service that started life as a CD-swapping outpost for people with tons of hard drive space and no use for jewel cases. You opened your free account, told your fellow members which albums you were looking for and which ones you were willing to let go of, and for a dollar and change per disc received, you could build a pretty impressive collection of CDs in plastic clamshells (sometimes the album artwork came with the discs, sometimes not). I had quite a bit of fun with Lala for awhile; we got off to kind of a rough start, seeing as how I stuffed my “want” queue with old Bob James releases in what may or may not have been a drunken giggle fit (don’t you dare judge me, and by the way, if anyone wants a Bob James CD, I now own like a hundred of them), but I ended up acquiring some really neat, rare stuff through Lala.
As you can probably imagine, Lala wasn’t terribly popular with some people — anyone who sold used CDs on eBay or Amazon must have sighed and rubbed their eyes when Lala started to take off, and the labels are never exactly thrilled when consumers trade/buy/are aware of the existence of used music. Eventually, for whatever reason, Lala started to change; it gradually phased out the CD-swapping, in favor of an online music store/repository that allowed you to upload your personal collection and listen to it anywhere, as well as buy new music, either in mp3 form or as “web albums” that were a lot cheaper, but that you could only listen to, not buy. It was at this point that I lost interest in Lala.
It wasn’t for any one reason, really; partly, I was just pissed that I was losing the opportunity to avoid paying exorbitant prices for rare albums on the used market, but this was also at the tail end of the era when companies were still openly obsessed with overtaking iTunes, and charging people for music they didn’t really own still seemed like a viable business plan. Lala seemed like a horrible combination of both. I mean, I’ve gradually come to terms with the death of physical music media, but I still miss the days of spending an hour or two poring over an album’s liner notes, and I really have zero interest in being told how and where I can listen to my music. I do a lot of listening on my computer because it’s convenient to listen while I write, but I also like to take music with me in the car, or God forbid, occasionally play it on the stereo. Paying for the privilege of listening to something strictly at my desk is about as appealing as watching a movie or a TV show on my computer. I know a lot of you nutty kids like to do it that way, but as far as I’m concerned, TVs are for television and computers are for porn. Or computing. Whatever.
Except here’s what happened: Instead of being just another online music outlet nobody needed, Lala was really laying out the middle ground between DRM-free, a la carte superstores like iTunes and Amazon’s MP3 store, and idiotic monthly-fee sites like Napster and Rhapsody, all while the music industry was cracking like an egg. Once the shell lay splintered to bits, all that gooey content spread wherever gravity took it — to YouTube, to MTVmusic, to Pandora, and dozens more. And as many times as Edgar Bronfman might have screamed at everyone in the kitchen that the mess on the floor was an omelet, and that goddammit he was going to be paid for it, there was no going back.
Of course, people have been heralding paradigm shifts in people’s relationship with music (and the music industry) for a long time now, and most of the time, they don’t seem to amount to much; a little more than ten years after MP3.com triggered mass insanity with its IPO — closing at $63 a share after its first day! — the URL is good for little more than a reflexive giggle from people who remember its heyday. (Or a sad sigh from people who bought in at $9 and held on a little too long. Ahem.)
MP3.com didn’t end up winning the revolution, but it helped start one, and for every “new model” delivery method that’s flamed out in the last decade, others have stepped in to learn from its mistakes. We’ve had to deal with all kinds of stupid shit in the interim — DRM, labels freaking out over video embeds, Auto-Tune — but steadily, and in spite of the shrieking of entitled clowns like Bronfman, a new model has started to emerge — a shiny blend of downloads and streams, paid and free, all driven by a less-is-more ethic that ties together new technology, social networking, and good old-fashioned love of music. The democratization of recording and distribution has led to a music explosion, but it’s gone hand-in-hand with a commodification of music; I’m not just talking about the ongoing issue of filesharing, torrenting, and illegal downloading in general, but a general tearing away from the intense, personal pleasure human beings have always derived from song. As labels and artists have rushed to cram their wares into everything from ringtones to video games, people have grown sort of numb to the thrill of discovering new music — it’s just more data to absorb, more entertainment in a culture already saturated with it.
But maybe not. Maybe illegal downloading, the rush to the ringtone market, and the half-exciting, half-sickening explosion of Guitar Hero-style tie-ins is more a symptom of the hangover that the industry, and its consumers, are suffering after decades of music being pumped into the market at artificially inflated prices. Maybe all that pie-in-the-sky bullhonky about how the Web is going to finally free music (and the people who make it) from the rusty shackles of an outmoded business is really true. And maybe it’s companies like Lala that are going to make it happen.
So here’s what happened when Pigeon sent me that message: I hit the link, saw that Poltz had a new record out, and promptly backed out of Lala and headed to Amazon to see if I could download the album there. Finding that it wasn’t for sale there, I gave up and went back to Lala, where I realized what a dope I’d been for walking away from the site when it stopped doing what I wanted it to do. Because not only was Dreamhouse available below the traditional iTunes/Amazon price point ($7.49 to own), I could listen to the whole thing for free before I bought it.
Did you catch that part? Before downloading the album (or buying the “web” version, playable in my browser, for the ridiculous price of $.99), I could play each track once, at my leisure, for free. This isn’t the kind of (admittedly quite awesome) cruise-control streaming you get at places like Pandora, where you punch in the names of your favorite artists and hope whichever algorithm is DJing gives you something you actually enjoy, and it isn’t the flat-fee listening you get at Rhapsody. You look for music, you listen to it, and if you like it, you buy it. It’s so fucking simple that a baby could have diagrammed it the day DSL started rolling out, but the music industry has thrown up so many knee-jerk legal hurdles that there hasn’t been any point in even trying something like this until now.
What’s even smarter is that Lala has made it dead simple for users to share and recommend their listening choices — either by sending links to your in-site followers, or by plugging your Lala account into Twitter, Facebook, so on and so forth. So follow the chain: After Pigeon sent me the link, I bought Steve Poltz’s Dreamhouse, and because I used Facebook Connect to log into my Lala account, it asked me if I wanted to publish a message to my Facebook wall telling my friends that I’d purchased the album. Shit, you can even scrobble your Lala playlist to your Last.fm account. Clap your hands and sing it with me now, people: Brilliant.
Even though Lala’s various components are all sort of passé, at least for people who are always searching for what’s next, it’s how they’re put together that makes the site special. In spite of the fact that I just used the word “scrobble,” I’m not an early adopter — so if Lala can convince a grumpy old dog like me to spend an entire weekend browsing the virtual racks, they’re doing something right. Admittedly, I’m sort of an ideal customer — I’m a critic in the Internet age, and I still enjoy paying for music — but even if there aren’t enough consumers like me to turn Steve Poltz into Taylor Swift, that’s okay; there doesn’t need to be. As Lala makes clear, the technology of Web distribution is finally catching up with the technology of cheap home recording. Put another way: I started recording music in the early ’90s, when two-inch tape was the rule (and very, very expensive); by the end of the decade, we’d migrated to the much cheaper ADAT and rudimentary Pro Tools. By the time MP3.com exploded, you could record and manufacture a really nice-sounding album for $10,000, but your options for actually distributing it were still rather slim and sort of depressing. Yes, you had MP3.com, CD Baby, and Amazon’s recently launched affiliate program, all of which allowed artists a first step on the bramble-strewn path from studio to marketplace. But once you had your record on one of those sites — then what? How did you stand out from the increasingly crowded pack?
These days, there are a lot of answers to that question, and most of them are dirt cheap, if not free; in the meantime, recording music has only gotten cheaper, and manufacturing is now an option instead of a necessity. If you’re talented, and smart, and willing to work like a dog to earn a living with your art, your odds are better than ever. Even as the marketplace’s endless splintering has made it damn near impossible for an artist to achieve true cultural ubiquity (and to enjoy the astronomical sales that go with it), it’s also made it clear that there are endless niches waiting to be served; hence the 1000 True Fans school of thought — and sites like Lala that make it easier than ever to connect hungry consumers with the artists they’re waiting to hear.
Is the system perfect yet? No. Lala’s catalog still has plenty of holes, and the percentage of listeners proactive enough to share their habits with their social networks (and, in turn, those proactive enough to seek out what their friends are enjoying) is relatively small. And there still isn’t a lot of money in Lala’s business model — hence its acquistion by Apple late last year, which could end up leaving the site a husk of itself by the time everything’s sorted out. But even if Lala dies on the cross, other companies will learn from its mistakes and find smarter, cheaper ways of serving the marketplace. Recommendation engines will get smarter. Artists will grow accustomed to their new options. The bonds between art, commerce, and social media will strengthen. And as the wider music-purchasing public starts to really understand how much control they now have over what they hear, music might even reverse its trend toward thoughtless commodification, bridging the gap between blog-devouring, mp3-hoarding addicts and QVC-shopping Streisand fans. We all know how fashionable it is to complain about whatever’s popular and pine for the good old days, but I humbly submit that if you aren’t excited about music today, then you aren’t listening hard enough.
Now if the Web could only find a way to bring back those liner notes. PDF files just aren’t the same…