Lala’s Fire Sale That Wasn’t: What Apple Really Paid

Published on December 7, 2009
by Peter Kafka

lala logoOn Friday, I reported that Apple was buying Lala at a fire-sale price, which meant that investors in the music service wouldn’t get their money back. I was wrong.

Apple ended up paying around $80 million for the company, according to multiple sources. That’s less than half what investors valued the company at in 2008, but it’s more than the $35 million the company raised throughout its life. Which means that some investors could get their money back and more.

But not all of Lala’s investors. Warner Music Group (WMG), for one, ended up getting back about half the $20 million it put into Lala, I’ve confirmed with people familiar the company.

That’s consistent with the $11 million write-down Warner took on its stake back in March. But it’s also confusing. Most venture deals include a clause that gives investors the right to get their money back–often with a premium–before anyone else gets paid following a sale. So any price of $35 million or more should have paid back the music label in full.

I’ve asked Warner for comment, but haven’t heard back. I’ve also reached out to co-investors Bain Capital Ventures and Ignition Capital.¬†Apple (AAPL) spokesman Steve Dowling offered up his now-standard line on the deal: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not comment on our purpose or plans.”

Warner executives can at least say that they did better on Lala than they did with Imeem, a rival digital music service. Warner lost all of the $15 million it put into that one, which is being acquired by News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace.

And the Warner guys can also tell themselves that employees from a company they once backed are now working at Apple, which can’t hurt.

Meanwhile, the Lala team, which should begin reporting to Apple today, gets credit for selling the company at any kind of premium at all. It’s not a home run, but it’s much better than it could have been.

The start-up has gone through multiple iterations, and its most recent was a streaming music service that sold access to songs for 10 cents apiece. But despite a recent promotional deal with Google (GOOG), the company appeared unlikely to succeed on its own.

Silicon Valley chatter is that founder Bill Nguyen, who spent six months in Hawaii this year trying to launch another start-up, and CEO Geoff Ralston had become weary of the same problems that have bedeviled other music start-ups. So they were looking to land Lala at a larger entity.

One thing that helped the company extract a decent price is that it had $10 million cash on hand, say sources who’ve seen the company’s books. That¬† meant it didn’t have to sell immediately.

But Lala’s real asset was its technology team: In the end, Apple bought the company to get its hands on its engineers, who had built a slick streaming service as well as an iPhone app, which Apple has yet to approve.

If you’re feeling glass-half-empty, you can note that Lala’s $80 million price tag is a big comedown from the $200 million investors thought the company was worth a couple of years ago. But if you’re feeling more generous, you can conclude that any kind of return is worth noting.

The last big exit for a digital music company happened way back in the spring of 2007, when CBS (CBS) paid $280 million for But no one has gotten anything close to that for digital music since then. Imeem is being sold for spare parts, and News Corp. also bought iLike at a steep discount. Spiralfrog filed for Chapter 11 after burning through its cash.

But people are still trying. Pandora Media raised another $35 million this summer after a royalty deal helped breathe life into the Internet radio company.

Meanwhile, venture-backed MOG, whose investors also include some music labels, has just launched a streaming music service of its own. And Spotify, the European music service, has raised a pile of money and generated much more hype, though it has yet to land in the U.S.

Maybe one of them will get it right.

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