Here's how it works. You can listen to every song that's available one time, no questions asked. As such, it's similar to Last.fm and Pandora in that it works as a music preview site. Then, each account gets 50 credits to add the track to your listening bin, and you can listen to that song anytime you want -- a slight correlation to MySpace Music. You can buy more credits to add more songs for ten cents each, or buy the MP3 outright (for 79 or 89 cents, depending on the track) and download it to your computer. This ala carte concept is part Rhapsody, part iTunes, and part Microsoft Points -- which is a micro-payment system on Xbox 360 that allows you to buy credits and use the fake money to buy movies and other content. You can also upload your own music to the locker.
I like Lala.com because it is so immediate. It takes about 2 minutes to set up an account, and most popular artists are available -- including the brand new Keane release today. Quality is good, streaming works flawlessly. As with all online streaming services that have an e-commerce component (read -- it's both Rhapsody and iTunes), there are some obvious limitations. One is that you need a compatible browser and broadband, the other is that you have to listen on your computer unless you buy an MP3. For those who want to go portable with their music, iTunes is a better option because it's a known quantity -- the selection is huge.
While the major artists are on Lala.com, the site is still figuring out licensing agreements with indie artists. The new Sea and Cake release today is not on Lala (there's a note about not arranging licensing with the band yet), or the bluegrass debut from Whispertown 2000. Lala.com has previous CDs from the band The Dears, but not their latest. And, there's only two songs from the band Of Montreal on their new release today. Lala is also missing the new release from Building 429. That said, most mainstream music is available, and I imagine they will slowly resolve some of the licensing deals with indie bands.
Honestly, I don't like the name of the site, and I'm not sure the world needs another hybrid music service. However -- you just never know in Web 2.0 (heh). A site like Hulu.com has an even dorkier name than Lala and is yet another video service on the Web, but they seem to be doing just fine. As I mentioned yesterday, the social networking sites are moving in on the media space, so maybe Lal.com has a chance before that firestorm hits. Only time will tell.