When iOS Devices Replace Artwork for Some of Your Albums

I’ve been irked recently by an annoying problem with music on my iPhone. Certain albums display with incorrect album art. Instead of the iOS Music app showing me the artwork that is embedded in my files, it shows different artwork. What it displays is artwork from “digital box sets,” rather than from individual albums. It took a lot of work to figure out why this was happening, but the results surprised me.

This article is quite long, because I want to lay out every aspect of what I’ve discovered. What I have seen may be also one of the causes of some of the sync problems users are seeing.

Note that, for now, I don’t think what I explain below is the cause of artwork getting shuffled on iOS devices; when artwork for one album displays on tracks of another album.

The Problem

I admit it, I’m a bit OCD about my iTunes library. I have lots of music, buy lots of CDs, and I painstakingly tag my files and add album artwork. In some cases, it’s easy to find artwork on the web; in others, I scan CD inserts or covers.

So when I navigate the Music app in iOS to listen to music, I expect to see the artwork I’ve added to my files. However, there are cases where I see different artwork. Below you can see how Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde displays. On the left is what I see on my iPhone; on the right is the way it should display.

Blonde on blonde   Blonde on blonde orig

This began recently, some time after the iOS 8.1 update. I got a first reader email about it on January 16, but I only started seeing it myself in the past couple of weeks.

The Blonde on Blonde album I own was purchased from the iTunes Store; I bought at as part of the Bob Dylan: The Collection digital box set, back in 2006. The digital box sets the iTunes Store sells have their own artwork; this makes sense, in one way, so you can spot the tracks that are part of these box sets. There have been others: music by The Beatles, U2, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. I have two others: the sets by Pink Floyd and U2.

After I bought the box set, I changed all the artwork, to that of the original album (as one should do). For years, I never saw that digital box set artwork again.

But, for some – not all – albums from my Dylan collection, I started seeing that digital box set artwork again. Yet that artwork is nowhere in my iTunes library.

After all, that artwork can make it nearly impossible to select albums. If you use the iOS Music app in landscape mode (I wonder if anyone does), here’s what you’d see with the same album art for all the Dylan albums:

Music app landscape

While each of the albums is tagged with an album number within the collection, it makes little sense for them to be tagged with the same name – as they are; Bob Dylan: The Collection – and the same artwork.

So, I set out to find out why this was happening. I honed up my geek skills and delved into the question.

Digging Deep

As you know, it’s not easy to access “files” on an iOS device. But, using iExplorer, I started browsing through my iPhone’s file system. I found a file named MediaLibrary.sqlitedb, which I exported. This is an SQLite database file, which turns out to be the iOS equivalent of an iTunes library file. Using the free DB Browser for SQLite, I was able to look inside that file. I found a lot of interesting things, but what applies to my problem is this. Several Bob Dylan albums show that their Sort Album is Bob Dylan: The Collection. Elsewhere in the database, these albums have links to a local artwork file, which is the artwork for that box set.

Sqlite dylan

Once again, that artwork is not in my iTunes library.

I deleted iTunes artwork caches, deleted all my music and re-synced, yet that artwork still displayed.

I then realized that the artwork must be coming from the iTunes Store. In order to test this, I deleted all the music from my iPod touch, and then put it in airplane mode. I then synced my Bob Dylan collection, and, lo and behold, all the music displayed the correct artwork.

Curious about this “phoning home,” I looked at my iPhone’s Console log while the sync was progressing. (You can view the Console log in Xcode for any connected device.) I saw a number of messages mentioning a process called itunesstored.

Feb 15 15:51:12 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708272.188114]: __WiFiManagerSetEnableState: state TRUE, manager->enable.setting TRUE, manager->unlockedSinceBoot TRUE
Feb 15 15:51:12 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708272.192314]: BG Application: Not Present, BG Daemon: Present. Daemons: assistantd apsd itunesstored
Feb 15 15:51:12 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708272.209974]: Auto association attempt canceled because device is not powered.
Feb 15 15:51:13 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708273.033123]: Client itunesstored set type to normal application
Feb 15 15:51:13 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708273.033810]: __WiFiManagerSetEnableState: state TRUE, manager->enable.setting TRUE, manager->unlockedSinceBoot TRUE
Feb 15 15:51:13 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708273.034848]: BG Application: Not Present, BG Daemon: Present. Daemons: assistantd apsd
Feb 15 15:51:13 Hamlet wifid[68] <Notice>: WiFi:[445708273.454818]: Client itunesstored set type to background application

Apparently, since the device was in airplane mode, it couldn’t contact the iTunes Store, and itunestored was unhappy. However, after syncing the device, only my artwork displayed.

It’s clear that iOS devices contact the iTunes Store during syncs to download information. This is actually obvious when you look at your Artists list in the iOS Music app. Some of the artists have photos that are unrelated to their albums; these are clearly pulled from the iTunes Store. All purchased music files have unique identifiers, for each track, album, and artist (though I haven’t found where these are stored in the files), and even for non-purchased tracks, the device sends artist names to the store to look for photos.

And, for some reason, iOS is changing the Sort Album for some albums to match the digital box sets they came from. The track IDs for each track are different from those on the individual albums (and from those of the same songs on what can be a large number of best of, compilation, and soundtrack albums), clearly identifying them as having been bought as part of a box set.

To sum up, when you sync music files, iOS sends information to the iTunes Store, and downloads album art for them, as well as artist photos (for those artists whose photos the iTunes Store has).

What about that phoning home?

I’ve explained that iOS devices phone home as music is synced; I’ve shown that, if the device is in airplane mode, then the album art is not replaced. This phoning home is not a problem, but I suspect that it is responsible for some sync issues.

When you sync music to an iOS device, you can look at the very bottom of the Songs list and see something interesting.

Downloading songs

I was syncing 1486 songs, and my iPod touch showed that they were “Downloading.” Now, this choice of terminology is clearly not correct; I see the same thing even if the device is in airplane mode. You’d expect to see that when downloading music from iTunes Match, but what’s happening, I suspect, is that this number shows the number of songs for which the iOS device has contacted the iTunes Store and downloaded information.

Even if the device is in airplane mode, I see this, because the device is trying to contact the iTunes Store. In that case, I see the messages that I show above from the device’s Console log, suggesting that itunesstored is not able to get a connection.

This also explains one annoying problem that sometimes occurs during syncs with iTunes. While that Downloading number was incrementing, I tried to start a new sync in iTunes, and got the message Waiting for sync to start. This makes sense; you can’t start a new sync if the previous one hasn’t finished. This explains why you may see that message, and also why you sometimes see the small turning arrows (look at the top of screenshot above) that indicate that a sync is in progress for several minutes after the sync has completed.

I suspect – but have no firm evidence for this theory – that this connection to the iTunes Store is recent, and may be part of the back end for Apple’s soon-to-be-announced streaming music service. (I don’t have any devices that run iOS 7; if anyone does have one, can you check and see if the same message displays below the Songs list?) Also, I suspect that one of the problems with iTunes syncing to iOS devices is somehow related to the fact that the sync is not just local, but that it also involves connecting to Apple’s servers for each and every track you copy.

It’s been shown that some sync issues are caused by purchased tracks. And iOS devices contact Apple’s servers for every track purchased from the iTunes Store (as well as non-purchased tracks). Perhaps the purchased tracks are causing some sort of problem. They are different from non-purchased tracks because they have specific identifiers that link them to the iTunes Store: the have identifiers for the artist, album, and song.

I’ve said it before, sync is hard. Looking at the database on the device, I can see how complex it is. But Apple needs to get this right; it’s too frustrating when you try to sync, and wait, and try again, and end up restoring your device just to be able to copy a new album.


To sum up, I’ve found why the wrong artwork gets displayed for certain purchased tracks. I’ve also found that if the device being synced has no network access, that artwork won’t get added. I haven’t yet seen if the correct artwork stays in place for more than one day. It may be that the iOS device queries the iTunes Store for each track only at the time each track is synced. In other words, if you don’t sync the same tracks after making changes, such as to any of their tags, then the correct artwork will remain visible. I’ve synced other tracks to my device, and still see the correct artwork for those Dylan albums.

I’ve also speculated that this phoning home may be part of the problem behind sync problems with iTunes and iOS devices. Only iOS devices seem to have these problems: syncing to an iPod classic, nano, or shuffle is problem-free. (I can attest that I have absolutely no problems syncing to my iPod classic.)

I have not found whether this artwork issue is related to similar problems when artwork displays for the wrong albums. I need to have this happen on one of my devices to be able to examine it more closely. I have also not found why, for some albums, artwork does not display at all.

Finally, I ask this question: why does Apple think that they should be able to change the tags and metadata on my music? This isn’t the only time they do it. They also change your tags if you have the Show iTunes in the Cloud purchases option checked. I don’t think anyone, especially Apple, should be able to change what I have chosen as the way I want to label my music.