When iTunes 12.2 was released, a number of users found that their music libraries were mangled. Artwork was different, tags had been changed, and, most distressingly, many tracks that were in iTunes Match prior to the update showed as Apple Music tracks, meaning that they would have DRM when downloaded.
Early this week, Apple released iTunes 12.2.1, which claimed to fix some of these issues:
— Fixes an issue for iTunes Match where iTunes incorrectly changed some songs from Matched to Apple Music.
— Provides a way to correct a library problem affecting former iTunes Match subscribers.
I discussed this issue with some knowledgeable people, who helped me understand what happened in my case, and with many other users. Seeing the conditions that caused it made me realize that it was a limited problem. However, there is no solution, and it does raise a couple of questions as to why iTunes and iOS acted the way they did.
The context of my situation is important to understand why iCloud Music Library perturbed my music library so much. I have an iMac which holds my main music library, around 70,000 tracks. This library is too large to use with iTunes Match, so I’ve never turned that service on on the iMac. Instead, I use a smaller, test library on my MacBook Pro to be able to use and test iTunes Match.
The iMac syncs to my iPhone, which is the device I use most to listen to music. I also have an iPod touch, again, used for testing, which used iTunes Match.
When iTunes 12.2 and iOS 8.4 were released, I installed the former on the MacBook Pro, not wanting to risk installing it on my iMac right away. I installed iOS 8.4 on all my devices. On my iPhone, I don’t recall whether iCloud Music Library was on by default, or whether I was asked to turn it on. In any case, I did turn it on, and that’s what caused all the problems.
iCloud Music Library
iCloud Music Library is the umbrella for iTunes Match, iTunes in the Cloud, and the cloud library element of Apple Music. The goal of iCloud Music Library is laudable: to ensure that you have all your music available on all your devices, at all times. Naturally, this comes at a price: you need to have network access to download or stream your music, and if you have bandwidth caps, you may be constrained. But the principle is one of blurring the lines between what is local and what is remote.
As such, iCloud Music Library takes a bit of a sledgehammer approach to your music. When you turn it on, it is supposed to ask if you want to merge your existing music with iCloud Music Library or replace your device’s music, but I did not see this message on my iPhone when I turned it on, and I have never seen it on my Mac. (I have turned iCloud Music Library off and on several times on my MacBook Pro while testing.) I do see it now on my iPod touch, which is running a beta version of iOS 9.
iTunes 12.2 converted my existing iTunes Match library – the one on the MacBook Pro, and synced via the cloud to my iPod Touch – to an iCloud Music Library.
When iCloud Music Library was activated on my iPhone, the music it contained, that was not yet on my MacBook Pro, was added to my iCloud Music Library, and it propagated to the other devices. (But not to the iMac, which I hadn’t yet updated to iTunes 12.2, and which had never had iTunes Match turned on.) It was this mixture of content from two devices – the MacBook Pro’s iTunes Match library, and the music that had been synced to my iPhone – that caused problems.
How iCloud Music Library Matches Files
Your iCloud Music Library can accept files from all your devices. First, your Mac or PC, running iTunes, sends information about the files in its library to Apple’s servers. These files are matched with files in the iTunes Store or Apple Music library using digital fingerprinting (if you have an iTunes Match subscription) which essentially scans the music, not just the tags identifying the tracks. If you don’t have an iTunes Match subscription, this matching is based on tags alone: the song name, artist, and album. If matches are found, they’re added to your iCloud Music Library as such. If they can’t be matched, the files are uploaded.
Files on your iOS devices are also added to your iCloud Music Library; and that’s where things went wrong. When I turned on iCloud Music Library on my iPhone, the device sent information about all its tracks to Apple’s servers, and these tracks were added to my iCloud Music Library. Files aren’t fingerprinted on iOS devices; The iOS device only uses tags to identify songs, which can lead to lots of mismatches when there are multiple versions of tracks.
For example, a playlist of Bill Evans tracks on the iPhone got added to my iCloud Music Library as metadata matches. These were all live recordings of Evans in his final year, from three box sets, but whose “albums” I had named according to the dates they were played.
The tracks were matched, the album names were not changed, and iCloud Music Library “found” artwork that matched albums which contained those tracks. Here’s the original artwork:
Here’s what iCloud Music Library showed me:
iCloud Music Library matched these tracks using metadata – without fingerprinting – finding some albums that had songs with the same names, but simply got it wrong. That also explains why some of my Bob Dylan artwork was incorrect:
Note the artwork for the Dylan album Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; that’s from a best of album. Planet Waves, Shot of Love, and Side Tracks show artwork from the album Biography. And the artwork for Real Live is as wrong as possible. The soundtrack for Silver Linings Playbook does contain a Dylan song, Girl of the North Country, but the original studio version of that track from Nashville Skyline. Why the metadata matching turned up that particular album instead of the many other Dylan albums that contain the song is a mystery to me.
About Those Apple Music Files with DRM
So why were so many of my tracks showing in iCloud Music Library as Apple Music tracks with DRM? The metadata matching that occurred on the iPhone meant that iCloud Music Library could not verify whether the tracks that device contained were my original rips or tracks that I may have downloaded from Apple Music for offline listening. As such, it assumes the latter, adding them to my library as Apple Music files.
If it didn’t do this, you could download a couple thousand songs from Apple Music, turn off iCloud Music Library, and then turn it back on, and those songs would sync to your library as Matched tracks, without DRM. In other words, it would be trivial to get DRM-free copies of anything in the Apple Music library.
What Went Wrong
As you can see above, the problem was not iCloud Music Library in general, but the way it added tracks from my iPhone. I was not alone in having this problem, and, since so many other tech journalists also had these issues, I speculate that many of them are in situations similar to mine. They have multiple devices, and even, perhaps, test libraries, and iCloud Music Library did what it was supposed to do, but that behavior, designed for the “average user,” caused problems for people whose music libraries are complex.
This said, there have been problems with iTunes Match and the way it matches music since that feature was introduced. Sometimes it matches a track on a different album from the one you have in your library, and provides a slightly different version of a song. In some cases, artwork is changed. But this isn’t limited to iTunes Match; iOS devices phone home, and can change your album artwork when you sync music to them.
What should have happened is the following:
- If iCloud Music Library was turned on by default, it should not have been.
- When turning on iCloud Music Library, there should be a dialog asking if you want to merge or replace your library. This is something that I did not see after installing iOS 8.4 on my iPhone, and have never seen on my Mac, even though Apple’s support document claims that you should be asked this.
- There should be a way to recover from this sort of issue. It’s not enough to have a backup; my iCloud Music Library is now a mess, and the only solution is to delete much or all of the music. Fortunately, in my case, this is a test library.
Now that I understand what happened, and why it happened, I can see that the process does make sense. Apple’s goal is to ensure that all your music is accessible from all your devices. Mine is certainly an edge case, but, judging from the number of emails I’ve received, and comments to articles on this website, there are plenty of other people in the same boat as me. (Though that’s an infinitesimal number compared to the total iTunes user base.)
As I’ve said elsewhere, “My music library is sacred. I’ve spent a lot of time ripping CDs, tagging files, and adding artwork.” When something like this does go wrong, the fix can be complicated and time consuming. This is a reminder that if you have a carefully curated music library, you should always have backups.