*UPDATE: Just after this post was published, Apple released OS X 10.11.5 and iTunes 12.4. Apple does not say whether or not iTunes 12.4 has alleviated any issues, but we will continue to update you as we find out more.*
Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of buzz about Apple Music allegedly and mysteriously removing tunes from the iTunes libraries of a small number of people. The Internet being what it is, this got blown up into “Apple Music is deleting iTunes libraries” and unnecessarily concerned a lot of people. It turns out that a) there is a problem, b) it’s not with Apple Music, and c) Apple’s aware of it. So, what do you need to know about Apple Music, iTunes, and the “Case of the Missing Music”?
How This All Got Started
It was about ten days ago on May 6, 2016 that word got out via The Telegraph that an Apple Music user by the name of James Pinkstone had opened up iTunes and found that all of his music had been deleted from his iTunes library and from his hard drive. He still had music; a recent subscriber to Apple Music, Pinkstone found that his music had been replaced by Apple Music versions of the songs. While in many cases and for many users this might not be a big deal, the Apple Music versions weren’t the same as his original recordings, some of which were quite rare.
Pretty scary, huh? Well, fortunately for Pinkstone he had a backup of his iTunes Library and you should, too! One of our goals at the Rocket Yard is to make sure that our readers are practicing safe computing, and that’s why we’re always talking about making backups.
So Was Apple Music The Culprit?
Enter writer Serenity Caldwell from the website iMore, who appears to be one of the few individuals on the planet who really understands how Apple’s complex web of music apps and services works. To quote Caldwell in a May 12, 2016 post, “I will reiterate: Apple Music is not automatically deleting tracks out of your Mac’s library, nor is it trying to force you to stay subscribed to the service. In this instance, it appears that Apple Music is an unfortunate scapegoat: The real problem may be a bug with the subscription service’s container application, iTunes.”
Further research by Caldwell with the help of Pinkstone and another victim, designer Robert Etropolsky, showed that there were common issues. Both users had subscribed to Apple Music, both upgraded to iTunes 12.3.3 after March 21, 2016, and that update seemed to have wiped part of each user’s iTunes Library after the update due to a database error. To these users, it appeared that their music was still there — Apple Music had uploaded and matched their music collections to iCloud, so it seemed that their entire libraries were were cloud-based.
When the issue presented itself was when the users tried to play a track from their library. It would show up as “missing”, and then the befuddled users would be presented with a choice to either locate the track or download a copy from iCloud. When they did the latter, Apple Music downloaded versions from the Apple Music catalog and not necessarily the correct version.
As Caldwell succinctly put it in her post, “Unfortunately, Apple Music is intrinsically tied to its container applications: If there’s a bug with iTunes, confidence in Apple Music is adversely affected… And when iCloud Music Library doesn’t match tracks to their correct versions, confidence in Apple Music is adversely affected.”
What Is Apple Doing About The Problem?
Jim Dalrymple of The Loop received word from a contact at Apple on Friday, May 13 with the official word from the company about the problem. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that Apple can reproduce the problem. To quote, “In an extremely small number of cases users have reported that music files saved on their computer were removed without their permission. We’re taking these reports seriously as we know how important music is to our customers and our teams are focused on identifying the cause. We have not been able to reproduce this issue, however, we’re releasing an update to iTunes early next week which includes additional safeguards. If a user experiences this issue they should contact AppleCare.”
Not very reassuring, is it?
What Can You Do While Apple’s Looking For A Fix?
The best things you as an iTunes and Apple Music customer can do at this time are to a) not panic and b) make sure your music is backed up locally. As Apple and Caldwell both note, the missing music problem is not widespread and seems to be limited to a very small number of users. It may cause more issues for a worried user to cancel his or her Apple Music account or try to rebuild an iTunes Library from downloads.
Other than that, if you are concerned about what version of a song you may have, if the song has been uploaded to iCloud, if it has been matched (correctly or incorrectly) to an iCloud version, if it’s music you have purchased at one point or another, or if it is a Digital Rights Management (DRM)-laden version of a song from Apple Music, you can follow Caldwell’s detailed look into the craziness that is digital music these days.
Now, the Ironic Part…
During the time that I was researching this article and starting to write it, I was blissfully thinking that all of my music was sitting out in iCloud. Over the years, I had ripped (copied from CD) literally hundreds of CDs, all of which I fortunately still have. My purchases of music from iTunes have been rather limited, and I haven’t signed up for Apple Music. This morning, while writing this post, I launched iTunes and guess what? All of the music I had ripped was gone from my iTunes Library.
So, no problem! I have plenty of backups. I first launched Time Machine to go back to the earliest backup I have of my current iMac (purchased in late 2015), only to find that the backup also shows just a handful of music files — obviously, most of the music that I was listening to was iTunes Matched — in other words, at one point all of the tunes that I had ripped over the years had been matched with an iTunes version of the music. But my playlist was gone, so I didn’t even have an idea of what songs or albums I had ripped.
My second try was with an online backup service I use, but it too showed the same tiny iTunes library… At this point, I was starting to panic.
Finally, I decided that I’d grab the final Time Machine backup from my 2012 iMac to see if it had anything for me. Time Machine really didn’t want to look back that far, but I was able to mount the drive, look into the backups.backupdb folder that Time Machine creates and maintains, and found a backup from 2014. I replaced the current iTunes folder with my backed up iTunes folder — the restore took only about 15 minutes — and my music is now back, with the exception of a few classical albums I ripped at the end of 2015.
If you remember our backup mantra, it’s to use many backups, not just one. In this particular case, neither my primary Time Machine backup nor my online backup service were able to bring back my music — but an old archived backup had all of the information I needed.
More Missing Music than Apple Thought?
The iTunes “missing music” issue may be more widespread than originally thought, and Apple’s probably going to hear more from unhappy users from this time forward. The Rocket Yard will keep you updated as we hear more about this issue and its resolution.