Giving away music is a timeless promotional strategy. But when you give away a song, shouldn't you get something in return? This article will show you how to transform a free audio file into an effective online promotional tool. It's easy to do and doesn't require fancy programming skills. You just need a little-known feature of Microsoft's Windows Media Encoder (WME): the ability to insert URL scripts into an audio file.
When an audio file contains URL scripts, a browser window opens and a specified Web page appears anytime the song is played on a computer connected to the Internet. That gives you the power to show photographs, lyrics, band information, and even advertisements each time your song plays. It turns a free song into an effective marketing tool, helping build traffic at your Web site, increasing sales at your e-commerce pages, and forging a direct connection with your listening audience.
WME is cool free software, but it's not the most intuitive or user-friendly concoction ever to come out of Redmond. Therefore, I'll cover in detail the steps required to insert URL scripts into your music. I'll also provide a quick look at some ways of measuring your audience and converting traffic into sales. (If you don't have WME, you can get the latest version at Microsoft's Web site. See the sidebar “Online Resources.”)
To insert URL scripts into your audio files using WME, you must have a Pentium II/200 MHz with Windows 98 SE, 2000, ME, or NT 4; an Internet connection; one or more songs that you want to (and have the right to) distribute; and a Web site where you would like to increase traffic or build revenue. That could be your own Web site or your pages at an aggregate site such as MP3.com or Vitaminic. With those pieces in place, you are ready to proceed.
Download and install WME and then select the song you wish to encode. (WME accepts WAV, ASF, WMA, and MP3 audio-file formats.) You may need to extract the track from a CD or record it through your sound card and save it as a WAV file. You'll get the best results if you use WAV files as source material; working with previously compressed (ASF, WMA, or MP3) audio files causes a further loss of sound quality.
Choose the Web pages that you want to show your listeners. For your own ease of use, open each target page in a Web browser, click in the browser address field to highlight the URL and then copy (Control + C) and paste (Control + V) each URL into a text document. Save the URL list in a convenient place because you'll need it when you begin encoding.
Take some time when selecting your URLs; you are creating a form of packaging that is as salient as any album cover. Pick pages that won't detract from your music. Band photos, bios, lyrics, news, or commerce pages are naturals (see Fig. 1). Any page that pays you for traffic or listeners is also a good candidate — members of affiliate referral programs or MP3.com's Payback for Playback take note. Don't choose pages that automatically play sound, because they'll interfere with the listening experience.
Once you have finished the preparation work, load WME. Unfortunately, WME is not preconfigured for inserting URLs into audio files, so you must create a new encoding Session and Profile.
CREATING A SESSION
When you launch WME, a Welcome dialog appears. Select Create a Custom Encoding Session by clicking on the second radio button from the top. Click on OK or press the Enter key to exit the Welcome dialog.
The New Session dialog now appears. That dialog includes several tabs; the Sources tab is displayed by default. In the Sources tab at the bottom of the dialog are the “Source types for this session.” Deselect Video and then choose Script.
Just above the Source types, click on the New button to open the New Source Group dialog. In the middle of the New Source Group dialog, click on the Audio menu. At the bottom of the Audio menu list, click on “Browse for file.” Use the resulting Open-file dialog to locate and select the song you plan to encode. That dialog will close once you select a file, and you will return to the New Source Group dialog.
In the New Source Group dialog, click on OK or press the Enter key to confirm your audio-file choice; then, exit the dialog. You will now be back at the New Session dialog (See Fig. 2). Click on the Display Information tab at the top of the dialog. Type information about your song — title, author, and copyright, for example — in the fields provided. The information will be displayed in the Windows Media Player as your song plays.
Next, click on the Profile tab at the top of the New Session dialog. Click on the Manage button on the right side of the box. You will now see the Manage Profiles dialog, which specifies the output-file attributes. Because none of the factory preset Profiles support Scripts, you must make a custom Profile.
CREATING A PROFILE
Click on the New button on the right side of the Manage Profiles dialog. You now will be in the New Profile dialog. Type a unique name, such as “my custom profile,” in the Name of Profile text field.
Choose your source types by deselecting Video and then choosing Script. Compressed is the default Output setting; leave that as is, or you'll end up making a WAV instead of a WMA file.
Click on the Next button or press the Enter key to go to the next page of the New Profile dialog. In the Common Stream Settings page, click on the Audio Format pop-up menu (second from the top) to reveal the format choices. Scroll through the Audio Format menu and select the desired output format (see Fig. 3).
For high-quality music, select one of the 44 or 48 kHz formats. Bit rate (displayed as kbps) determines the sound quality of your output file; higher bit rates sound better than lower rates but result in larger file sizes. If file size is an issue and you don't mind the loss of stereo image, try one of the mono settings that are available at bit rates as fast as 48 kbps.
At the bottom of the Common Stream Settings page, in the Script section, enter a numeric value in the Script Bit Rate field. Microsoft documentation recommends 1,000 bps as the setting for that application. Lower values result in slower Script execution; higher values offer no noticeable benefit.
Click on the Finish button to exit the New Profile dialog. You are now at the Manage Profiles dialog; click on the Close button to exit. You will return to the New Session dialog, and your new Profile should be displayed in the Profile pop-up menu. If you do not see your new Profile and it is not listed in the Profile pop-up menu, you probably forgot to select Script in the New Profile dialog.
DEFINING THE OUTPUT FILE
Click on the Output tab at the top of the New Session dialog. Deselect Broadcast Encoded Output and select Encode to File. Click on the Browse button to open the Browse for Output File dialog. Use that dialog to navigate to the location where you want to store your new file. That could be any folder on your computer or the desktop.
Type an original name, such as “my new file,” in the File Name text-entry field. Check that “Windows Media Audio files (.wma)” is displayed in the Save as Type pop-up menu.
Click on the Save button or press the Enter key to exit the Browse for Output File dialog. Exit the New Session dialog by clicking on the OK button or pressing the Enter key. You'll see a prompt indicating that WME “has been customized to show only the panels you need.” Click on the OK button to exit the prompt.
You have now finished configuring WME and have returned to the main encoder display. You're ready to start encoding!
ENCODING AND INSERTING
Open the text file you created during the preparation stage and position it onscreen so that your list of URLs is visible and accessible without a lot of extra mousing around (see Fig. 4). Locate the Script panel in the lower part of the WME window directly beneath the General, Display Information, and Connections tabs.
Click on the Start button in the lower-right corner of the encoder window. Click on the URL Script command button (the little globe icon with the chain links) in the Script panel. In your text file, click and drag to select the first URL in the list. Copy the selected URL to the Clipboard.
Now go back to the encoder. Click on the Script data text-entry field next to the Insert button. Paste the URL from the Clipboard into the Script data field and click on the Insert button. Your first URL has been inserted into the encoded audio; repeat the process for your other URLs.
In your text file, click and drag with the mouse to select the next URL in the list. Copy the selected URL to the Clipboard. Double-click on the Script data text-entry field to highlight the previous entry and then paste the URL. Click on the Insert button. Continue copying, pasting, and inserting until you reach the end of your URL list.
Observe the File Progress bar in the lower panel; when you reach the end of the song, click on the Stop button. You'll receive a prompt asking, “Are you sure you want to stop encoding?” Click on Yes or press the Enter key.
If you're slow with the mouse, WME continues encoding while waiting for you to confirm the prompt. Fortunately, that warning can be skipped by going into the Tools menu/Options dialog/General tab. Deselect “Warn before stopping encoding.”
Looping is an important feature in WME. When WME reaches the end of the source file, it returns to the beginning of the song and continues writing to the output file until you click on the Stop button. That's nice if you're broadcasting — it lets you turn on the audio and leave it — but it's a drag when encoding to a disk file.
You can't turn off the looping feature, so you must click on the Stop button to end encoding. You'll want to time your stop accurately by watching the File Progress bar. Otherwise you'll cut off the end of your song or append an unwanted bit of the beginning onto the tail end of your output file. Catching a good cutoff point isn't difficult, but it's a bit of a hassle. A few moments of silence at the end of your source file provide a margin for error.
Another minor drawback of WME is that it does not let you listen to the audio when you are doing a file conversion. Therefore, you can't tightly synchronize URL insertions to specific points in the song. Even without tight sync, however, you've just turned your song file into a muscular marketing machine.
DISTRIBUTING YOUR FILE
Most file-sharing networks, such as Audiogalaxy, support sharing of WMA files. Because of the huge amount of traffic and high level of interest in music on those networks, they are excellent places to distribute files and find new fans. My little unfamous band sees as many as 100 downloads per day from such services.
WMA files are also perfect for e-mailing because they are smaller than similar-sounding MP3s. Just make sure your contacts want and expect to receive such an attachment before you send it, or hostility may result.
Naturally, you can place links to your WMA files on any page of your Web site so visitors can download or even stream the audio (see the sidebar “Easy Streaming”). WMA files with URL inserts are not appropriate for embedded play in Web pages, however; the page flips when the URL script is executed, thus interrupting playback.
METERING AND MONIES
Make sure you keep track of your hits when you start pushing listeners to your Web site. Utterly corny old-fashioned visible Web counters (“You are visitor number 00014 since January 1, 2000”) may actually work to your disadvantage.
A hip metric solution is offered by WebTrends Live. The site's free Personal Edition service counts an unlimited number of pages. No real programming and no log files are required. When you sign up, you get a chunk of HTML code. Paste the code onto the bottom of your Web pages. The HTML adds a little button, and you're set to go. Periodically check into the WebTrends Live reporting area, view its easily understood charts and graphs, and watch your traffic grow.
However, what good does all that traffic do if you can't make money from it? One route is to get into the CD business.
If you don't already have a disc to sell, MP3.com offers the DAM CD program. You incur no risk or investment, the company presses discs on demand and handles order processing and fulfillment, and you split the money with MP3.com. Unfortunately, the sound quality is not pristine; to make the discs, MP3.com takes MP3 files and converts them to WAV files. Because MP3.com doesn't work with uncompressed files, DAM CDs never sound as good as CDs that you burn yourself (from WAV or AIFF files) or discs that are professionally replicated.
If you have a CD-R drive or if you already have a CD, you can set up your own sales area. That used to be expensive and cumbersome, but now poor musicians can take secure credit-card transactions just like the big shots. CCNow offers a turnkey e-commerce system that is perfect for independent artists. It handles the merchant account, credit-card authorization, and customer service; it even provides the shopping cart. You just link to the cart from your sales pages; then, ship and confirm the orders as they arrive in your e-mail. Even cooler, there's no setup fee and no maintenance charge; CCNow simply takes a 9 percent cut of each sale.
A wise person once said, “If we did this just because we loved music, we'd call it the music art instead of the music business.” Even if you are a music lover, you deserve to make money from your efforts. If you've put the time and energy into building a Web site, make sure you're getting some hits. Experiment with these techniques. They can help cultivate your Web traffic, increase your sales, and enhance your connection with your listeners.
Todd Souvignier is president and cofounder of Exploit Systems (www.exploitsystems.com), a firm that enables e-commerce through peer-to-peer file sharing. He also plays bass with the group War in America (www.warinamerica.com).
Check out Audiogalaxy Satellite for setting up file sharing on your computer.
This site offers turnkey e-commerce systems for small online businesses.
The 500-pound gorilla of band sites is now a creature of Vivendi Universal.
Vitaminic is the European equivalent of MP3.com.
War in America
See URL scripts in action. Download or stream at this site.
Visit this site to find tools for measuring Web-site traffic.
Windows Media Encoder
Free downloads and documentation are available at this site.
Windows Media Player
Free Windows and Macintosh versions are available at this site.
Streaming is a snap. You'll need to make an ASX file, or metafile, that points to a WMA file. First, upload your WMA file to any convenient place on your Web site. Then, create a text file in Notepad or another text editor. The file must contain the following text:
Save the text file under any name (with no spaces) with the extension ASX after it (for example: mysong.asx). Next, upload the ASX text file to your Web site. Finally, create a link on any Web page to the ASX file. For example, if you named your ASX file mysong.asx, link to: http://www.yourwebsite.com/mysong.asx.
When visitors click on this link, Windows Media Player will launch, the file will be streamed to them from your Web site, and if you have embedded any URL scripts, those Web pages will open for the listener.