Feasting on the Long Tail

CD trading site Lala.com has deep cuts, immense momentum, and a little bit of soul.

Every few years, recording industry honchos bemoan how “technology” and “economics” are conspiring to ruin them or diminish their bottom line. The newest demons are illegal downloading, CD burning, and even the sale of used CDs. While sales have indeed been dipping in the past few years, plenty of stats affirm that CDs remain the preferred medium for folks to acquire music.

Now, there’s a new player in the game, one that might likely change the way music is heard and the hardcopy possessed. Online trading post Lala.com, based in Palo Alto, has racked up two hundred thousand members with four million albums available and twelve thousand daily trades since its founding last June.

How does it work? Forty-year-old Oakland resident and Cal State East Bay professor Lisa Faulkner is one of its biggest traders, and describes the service as a sort of CD karma. “Lala is where music people list their ‘haves’ — CDs they’d be willing to trade — and their ‘wants,'” she explains.

Lala sees a desired item in a member’s “have” list and notifies its owner, who sends the CD using a prepaid mailer. The sender gets credit for a free trade, while the buyer pays $1.75 to Lala, 20 percent of which goes to the artist.

Does Faulkner rip and then ship? “No, of course not,” she says. “That is both illegal and against Lala policy. If it’s just a song or two I want, I buy it at iTunes or eMusic.”

To date, Faulkner has engaged in almost 600 Lala transactions: “Two hundred and ninety-five CDs sent, and 302 received,” she says. And while there’s no obligation, the more discs members list and send, the more CDs they can receive. There’s protection, too: “For the 302 CDs I’ve received, about twenty have been ‘bad’: unplayable, never received, or wrong.” Lala members get credit for such mishaps. Sellers who send out “bad” discs have their accounts flagged, and if the problem persists, their accounts will be dropped.

Concurrently, all members are covered in the event of a bad buy. Instead of being mad at the artist or yourself for an unliked album, you put it back out there for trade.

Lala has impacted Faulkner’s listening and buying habits. While always a music fan, she admits to becoming more serious about collecting since her involvement with the site. “I’d leaned toward adult contemporary and dance-electronica, but at Lala I’ve acquired many reggae albums as well as classic jazz like Miles Davis and John Coltrane via the recommendations on their blogs,” she says. “Now I’m starting to build a blues collection.” Lala’s services do not hurt small record stores because trading encourages buying: “I’m more willing to buy new CDs, because if I don’t like them, I know [because of demand] they’ll ship soon.”

For one, there is a lot of music out there going unheard; for another, one in five discs purchased in the United States is bought at Wal-Mart, and you know that chain isn’t carrying the latest Merzbow, Jim Campilongo, or Yabby You platters.

Lala is indeed a karma-based business founded by music fans — entrepreneurs Anselm Baird-Smith, Billy Alvarado, Bill Nguyen (his seventh start-up), and John Cogan — who realize the consequences of music industry habits like radio playlists, retail CD pricing, and availability.

Lala.com has a staff of twenty, with no immediate plans to expand, spokesman John Kuch says. Though it began via venture capital, the start-up has generated sufficient cash-flow to cover expenses, according to Kuch, and to reinvest in WOXY, an online radio station. Lala purchased WOXY last year and now streams live shows from studios in Austin, Cincinnati, and other cities nationwide. Thus far, WOXY has archived performances by Gomez, Frank Black, and Neko Case. By arrangement with SF’s Bimbo’s 365 Club, Lala members can stream on demand Aimee Mann’s Christmas show, recorded there late last year.

The site’s online forums takes the place of the chatty interaction at funky local record emporia. Users discover the unexpected indie or import release, make recommendations, share facts and wisdom, or argue about the career highs and lows of a beloved and/or contested performer.

In this latest David vs. Goliath battle for the heart of the cultural-technological nexus, vote your conscience and your wallet and back the small mobile intelligent unit over the lumbering monolithic Man. The bastards can’t win all the time.

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