Why I'm Breaking Up With iTunes

We had a good thing going, iTunes, but you've changed
We had a good thing going, iTunes, but you've changed

I loved you, iTunes. I loved you, and you betrayed me. You and your evil, malformed henchman, the iCloud, have trashed my 20,000-track music library and I don't know what to do.

I admit, I adopted you reluctantly at first — I was proud of my CD collection, and those early iTunes AAC files sounded tinny to my ears. But I eventually grew to appreciate your organization and convenience. The data geek in me enjoyed sifting through your clean desktop interface, assigning albums to their proper genres and fine-tuning smart playlists to soundtrack road trips and dinner parties. And after years of toting CD cases back and forth between office, apartment and car, having you in my pocket — my entire collection, on something the size of an Altoids tin — felt liberating.

Sure, over the years, you became harder to love. Your software grew buggy and bloated, as your masters at Apple tinkered with various, mostly unsuccessful ways to soup you up: "genius" playlists, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, whatever the hell Ping was supposed to be.

Like most users, I got used to hitting the "Remind Me Later" button when upgrades became available. Occasionally, after hearing from a trusted source that version 11-dot-whatever was relatively stable, I would install your latest incarnation. But apart from a few cosmetic changes — like your logo turning from blue to the bright red of an error alert — I seldom noticed much difference.

That all changed last week, of course, with the rollout of Apple Music, Cupertino's belated attempt to spin its much ballyhooed purchase of Beats into a full-fledged streaming music service that could compete with Pandora, Rdio and Spotify. Like most music fans and fellow journalists, I was intrigued but skeptical, and certainly not in any great rush to install the new service. I like my Spotify Premium account and anyway — sorry, iTunes, but the truth hurts — the first version of Apple Music was likely to be a glitch-fest. I decided to observe from the sidelines.

Then I got invited to comment on Apple Music on a local TV news program. Since, like most Americans, I still instinctively respond to any offer to appear on television with the fluttery enthusiasm of a six-year-old on Christmas morning, I immediately accepted the offer, then remembered that I still hadn't actually used Apple Music.

Though plenty of TV pundits bloviate on topics they clearly know nothing about, I was determined not to be one of them. So I did my due diligence, made the iTunes 12.2 and iOS 8.4 upgrades, and put Apple Music through its paces before delivering my verdict on the morning news.

In hindsight, of course, I realize that I shouldn't have trusted you, iTunes. I should've installed Apple Music on my work computer and not at home. But install it at home I did, and hastily, clicking "Yes" and "Next" and "I Accept" until the new service was up and running.

At first, Apple Music looked fine. It even had a few cool features, like the new Beats 1 radio station and well-conceived playlists curated by the likes of Rolling Stone and Vice. (The Vice playlist for shutting down a party, an obnoxious mix of drone metal and '80s soft rock, is especially delightful.) After playing with it for several hours on both my laptop and my iPhone, I went on KTLA's tech report and said some nice things about it.

It was only later that I noticed a problem: My iPod began playing mislabeled tracks. Just a few at first — then every third track, it seemed, was incorrect. It promised me Queen and played Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, then replaced the Beastie Boys with Gui Boratto. Clearly, something was wrong.

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I went home and looked through my collection of 20,000-plus tracks and realized that hundreds of them — perhaps even thousands — had been lost or mislabeled. Alarmed, I called Apple tech support, who were beyond useless. The poor guy on the other end of the line sounded as if he was looking at iTunes for the first time. He couldn't even tell me how to disable iCloud, which by this point I had identified as the source of the problem. "I think it's under Account Settings ..." he said hesitantly, as I figured it out for myself and explained to him what I was doing so he could be more helpful to future angry callers.

Finally, a friend pointed me to an article on Cult of Mac that seemed to offer a simple solution. I tried it and, miracle of miracles, it worked! Or so I thought until I tried playing seemingly fixed tracks and they reverted back to their old, inaccurate metadata. Apparently, the iCloud had fucked up my metadata at the file level, and restoring a single iTunes database file, as Cult of Mac had suggested, would not resolve the issue.
The problem is still not insurmountable. There are programs like TuneUp that can fix bad metadata with a fairly high degree of accuracy (though it's likely to fall short of 100% success with my collection, which includes many promo copies and obscurities not easily identified by a piece of software). My music library will be restored.

My trust in Apple's music services, however, has been permanently broken. It took me hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hours to amass over 20,000 songs and make sure they were all accurately labeled and categorized. Apple Music undid all that work with the click of an "OK" button. I won't be clicking "OK" on any of their music-related software or apps again.

I get that this is the very definition of a first world problem. I get that, as a collector of digital music, I am locked into a transitional technology that may already be obsolete. Streaming music is clearly the future; anyone who wants to actually own their music library by 2020 would be better served by doing so on vinyl, or even compact disc. Companies like Apple and Spotify have zero interest in helping their customers maintain their digital libraries; they want subscribers, not one-time downloaders. To continue to listen to music in their ecosystems, you will have to put your faith in the cloud.

But because of exactly what happened to me this week with Apple Music, I'm not ready to put my faith there just yet. I like owning my music, even if it is just a collection of zeros and ones on a hard drive. It's a collection I curated. I can throw my iPod on shuffle and know that no matter what it plays, whether it be Billie Holiday or Van Halen, it's something I have a connection to. Behind every track lies a lifetime of listening to music and developing my own, idiosyncratic tastes. That's not something that can replaced by an algorithm, or Zane fucking Lowe.

So I'm breaking up with you, iTunes. We had a good run, but you're no longer the service I loved and trusted when I bought my first iPod.

I'm not sure what I'll replace you with yet — MusicBee appears to be the frontrunner, but there are many good music library management tools out there and this time, unlike my hasty install of iTunes 12.2, I intend to do my research. And in the meantime, maybe I'll start collecting vinyl again — because liner notes, unlike metadata, can't be overwritten by a mouse click.


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