Can I Podcast an M3U File?

Fred writes, “Can you podcast without giving away the MP3? More specifically, can you podcast in such a way so that listeners can only stream the podcast without actually downloading it – similar to the way .m3u playlist files stream. I want to do more of this – maybe promoting some of our original music, sending out the “featured song of the week”, etc. However, is there a way to podcast without sending the actual .mp3 file? I assume the answer is no, but if offer my music in a podcast, it seems I’m essentially be sending out free mp3s of my music which could hurt CD sales.”
I understand your dilemma. It’s tough to get past the idea that giving away something for free can translate into more sales of the stuff you want people to pay for. There are ways to address that part of the problem; I’ll cover that later. While an M3U playlist file definitely could be added to an RSS feed as an enclosure, it’s not a good idea. The major advantage of podcasting over streaming is your listener isn’t constrained by their Internet connection when listening to your songs. By offering the actual MP3 file, the listener can put it on their portable music player, like a Dell DJ or iPod, and take it with them. They can listen to your audio file on their laptop while cramped in coach at 30,000 feet. Sending the listener an M3U playlist file keeps them constrained to listening on their computer while having an Internet connection.
By including MP3, WMA, AAC or RealAudio files in your podcast feed, you are sending listeners something of value and building a trusting relationship with them. The listener gets the benefit of hearing some of your music, to see if they like or not, without the monetary risk of buying something they’ve never heard before. This builds trust, which will likely translate to more sales over time. You aren’t required to include every song in your podcast. You could even include songs that aren’t currently available on CD and only offer the podcast to customers who already made one purchase, as a way of saying thanks for buying I hope you shop again.
There’s something of a myth to the idea that M3U playlists are a secure way to deliver music to listeners. Ignoring the dozens of software apps designed to record streaming audio to your hard drive, it’s incredibly easy to download the MP3 files referenced by an M3U playlist. M3U playlists are text files with a specific song order. Open any file with a .m3u extension in your favorite text editor (like Notepad, for instance) and it’s easy to find the location of the MP3s and download them instead of streaming. With that kind of easy access to the files, sending an M3U playlist file as your podcast just makes listeners mad because you haven’t done anything to improve their listening experience.
Making it harder for people to listen to your music by complicating the podcast feed with a non-audio file will result in people unsubscribing from your podcast. Better to offer something of value with a clear upgrade path.
If you are certain giving away some of the MP3 files will translate to fewer CD sales, there are a few things you could do. Offer shortened versions of the songs, to give people a taste of what you’re offering. I recommend longer than the 30 seconds Amazon uses to promote CDs, because 30 seconds is never enough to figure out what a song is about, but maybe the first verse and chorus are enough to entice listeners to buy more. Encode the free MP3 tracks at a lower than CD quality bitrate; not so low people won’t be able to enjoy the song, but a lower quality so there’s an obvious advantage to purchasing the CD. Inject custom album art in the free tracks that mentions the song name and place to purchase the CD (i.e. an if you like this, find it here image). Or as suggested above, offer shortened versions of the songs for free.