An iTunes bug, not Apple Music, may be to blame for disappearing music libraries

iMac (Image credit: iMore)

After an article went live last week accusing Apple Music of deleting your local music and replacing it with Apple Music DRM-protected copies, we put out an explainer detailing how Apple Music works — TL;DR: It's not designed to remove anyone's local library.

We weren't ruling out a bug, however; after a very helpful chat with designer Robert Etropolsky, whose library had also seemingly disappeared, along with several other reports, we kept digging. And after enough digging, we may have discovered what happened here.

  • Update: Apple has confirmed that an extremely small number of users have lost files; the company is currently investigating and plans to release an iTunes update next week to help safeguard against potential user error.

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.

Based on several Apple Support threads (opens in new tab), it appears that the most recent version of iTunes 12.3.3 contains a database error that affects a small number of users, and can potentially wipe out their music collection after the update. The error has been mentioned a few times, primarily on the Windows side (opens in new tab), in the weeks since the 12.3.3 update, but appears to be rare enough that it hasn't previously received major press. Apple did put out a support document (opens in new tab) shortly after the 12.3.3 update that walks you through some fixes if you find that your local copies of music are missing.

I can't state for certain that Etropolsky and Pinkstone fell victim to this bug, but based on their descriptions and screenshots, it seems likely that the following happened:

  • They subscribed to Apple Music.
  • At some point after March 21, they updated to iTunes 12.3.3. Etropolsky sent iMore screenshots from his Time Machine backup that show his tracks disappearing between April 7 and 12th.
  • The update appears to have wiped parts their music library due to a database error; however, because Apple Music had already uploaded and matched their collection to iCloud, it still presented to the user as a complete library — one that was now cloud-based, as you would see if you were on a secondary Mac.
  • When the user tried to play a track, the track would present as missing, and prompt to either locate the track, or download a copy from iCloud.
  • Because both Pinkstone and Etropolsky only subscribed to Apple Music, any re-downloaded matched tracks would download from the Apple Music catalog — even if the match was incorrect, and connected to the wrong file.

As a result, it appeared to both users as if their library had been automatically replaced by Apple Music-sourced files. Unfortunately for Apple Music, the service's prior problems with metadata-based matching and DRM-encumbered files made it an easy target for blame.

I don't want to incite mass panic, here: This bug appears to have affected a very small number of users, and if you didn't have local files disappear after updating to iTunes 12.3.3, your library is likely just fine. You can check to see if your library is locally-stored by turning on the iCloud Status and iCloud Download icons; if you've been affected, I suggest restoring from a backup or following Apple's Support document (opens in new tab).

But these kinds of bugs — however few people they affect — emphasize just how important it is to keep physical backups of your content. Both Pinkstone and Etropolsky were lucky enough to have full backups of their iTunes Library, but there may be users out there who weren't so lucky. Digital software can always fail, and if it's managing something as precious as your music, it's vital that you back up your information before upgrading that software, turning on music subscription services, or anything that affects your data.

Regardless, it doesn't reflect well on either of Apple's music properties for the company to stay radio silent about potential bugs. Even if it's a one-off aberration that affects as few as five people, the amount of potential panic inherent in "Apple Music deleted my library" is dangerous; it scares current users and gives the service a terrible reputation — even if, as in this circumstance, Apple Music wasn't to blame: It interpreted the missing library as a secondary cloud-based library and delivered tracks accordingly.

Unfortunately, Apple Music is intrinsically tied to its container applications: If there's a bug with iTunes, confidence in Apple Music is adversely affected. When the Music app on your iPhone automatically cache clears your saved tracks to try and make storage space, 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. Now is the time for the company to recognize that without stable base applications, Apple Music will always be plagued with accusations and problems — even if it doesn't always rightly deserve them.

Apple on Friday confirmed that a very small number of users have seen disappearing music files in their libraries, and the company is currently investigating.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • I'm convinced iTunes needs to be separated on the Mac and more integrated in iOS. Glad that you can go back to editing music added from AM (i.e. change artist info, album name) but I'm sure it'll mess up when they fix this bug. Smh here's to WWDC Sent from the iMore App
  • ITunes just needs to be blasted from orbit and completely redone. It's a complete mess and had been for years. The Apple Music app is not much better. Sent from the iMore App
  • Forget trying exec support or the myth that it doesn't delete content, it does! It didn't even match what it took. But Yosemite at that time burned out the backups I was told to use by a sr adviser so SOL there and exec support doesn't know the control option iTunes trick.
  • More integrated in iOS? No thanks!!
    Look, it's fine for buying movies, music etc (I don't use Apple Music so don't know that bit works), but the last thing Apple should do is combine the Apps, Books, Music, etc apps into one clunky festering pile of santorum like on the desktop. I'd rather live with malaria than have iOS like that.
  • in addition to this potential iTunes bug, I propose another bug that seemed to appear when MATCH was changed to integrate with Apple Music. I only used Match with my large vintage music library on Windows7. About the time when MATCH was modified to integrate with Music, became aware that file DRM attributes were getting set. Turned on the KIND column in iTunes and was surprised with DUPLICATE tracks with DRM set being added to my library even though I have NEVER used Apple-Music and don't knowingly download DRMd music. I then unsubscribed from MATCH and in the long process of removing the duplicate DRMd files from the iTunes folder.
  • D’you know what. I thought exactly this.
    There were tunes that are labelled as purchased that I thought, “I’m sure I own and ripped that from CD”.
  • Lol so much for you guys blamed the user and defended Apple like crazy.
  • Indeed, I still don't understand why a bug wasn't the most obvious idea for everyone. All the "Apple didn't delete your music" was ridiculous commentary in the world of software. Of course it was. Of course it wasn't on purpose - it was a bug and it needs fixing. Simple idea that doesn't require 5 different articles saying how Apple Music can't be blamed because it's magic.
  • When your the only one having the problem it's maddingly frustrating. I've been experiencing a bug for quite a while where my own music, ripped or purchased from iTunes gets labeled "No Longer Available".
    Nobody at Apple, whether it's Genius Baristas or Apple Care Senior advisors, has any clue what to do. A few have even suggested that I'm using the app wrong. Really? I'm the only one in 13 million users with the problem? Tough to be told over and over that you're imagining things.
  • iRube, you are not the only one. It has been going on for years. Apple continues to deny all knowledge. Furthermore, iTunes has deleted songs, entire albums and even sides of LPs (side 3 of Springsteen Essentials for example). I don't use Apple Music at all, never have. I also have an older G5 and can state that this is at least a 3 year old problem. I noticed it 18 months ago and found there were people (DJs specifically) complaining about it 18 months before me. Many other folks have highlighted a very sad fact about Apple lately but I really must reiterate. Their increasingly, very POOR quality (hardware and software) has been going on since June of 2011. I have 10 different Apple devices that have my a music library so I am in the process of using other software to recover my music from an old iPOD that I have not connected to iTunes in the last few years. That iPOD has the content I have noticed was deleted. However, I am not sure if other songs I have legally purchased are gone and I don't remember. Unfortunately, I have come to believe that this is 100% intentional. I believe Apply has code in iTunes that seeks out songs not played often and deletes them. I think that code is better today and checks to see if you purchased it from Apple or not. If not, it removes it and now updates your library too so you don't even see the title and hence cannot select it - therefore avoiding the message you highlight above. Given my setup, I find it difficult for anyone to accuse me of "user error". I have been using iTunes since it was released, my iTunes library is stored on a 27 terabyte Raid10 SAN and I have made back up copies of my library for the last 10 years, and I did a comparison against my backups and older devices too. NOTE: if you open the library in iTunes it deletes songs again even in the backups (does not matter if you think you turned off all the "auto update" preferences. Open it in other software before iTunes and the songs are available :-) Open it in other software after iTunes, the songs are gone. Very cleaver Apple! Nice revenue generating trick, Mr. Cook.
  • LOL. If, in fact, this "super sneaky scheme" is coded into iTunes, how come it's not affecting everyone who's using the software? Get a grip, man. Your conspiracy theory on this one is daft.
  • It's not particularly new that sometimes iTunes trashes the xml files, I used to have that happen on Windows quite a lot. Not seen it in some years (touch wood!) since I moved to running iTunes on a Mac. It wasn't that hard to fix after some googling, but it wasn't a simple fix. I can see how that xml file getting busted, combined with Apple Music then saying - it's OK, I got you some files available for download! - would cause this and maybe confuse matters if it then downloads over existing data. If it's like when the xml broke for me however, you get a tone of error messages about the problem. I would hope those haven't gone away in more recent versions. I still think it's shocking how everyone* was so happy to shout about it being Apple Music or iTunes being so so so terrible. As if there aren't plenty of other software products that have bugs and sometimes cause data loss. It's never good, but it's not the end of the ******* world people. Backups backups backups. Never trust anything with your data. Never trust a single backup. But don't scream, rant, shout and swear that Apple are behind a terrible conspiracy just because you know it'll get clicks.
  • I get the 'not everything is a conspiracy' vibe you're putting down, but just about every one of the 'bugs' or 'mistakes' or 'errors' that Apple makes somehow conveniently puts money in their pocket or the pockets of their associates. Countless times, I've lost the 'downloaded' music on my iPhone only for Music app to happily stream the music instead ($$ data charges). My Music app frequently switches from playing a download-only playlist on shuffle to a stream-only playlist in alphabetical order ($$ data charges). There are many people who will forgo the Apple-induced pain of managing their own music and opt for Apple Music ($$ subscriptions). Managing your own music shouldn't be this hard or risky.
  • Messing with the .itl file and removing the contents of the Music folder are two different things. We still haven't seen an explanation of the missing files.
  • Been having bugs like this for years now (on a Mac). Missing cover art, missing playlists, the iPhone only copying music that has been bought in iTunes, iTunes making up to five copies of every playlist and copying them to the iPhone alltough not selected (and having to delete them one by one, time and time again). Yes, I've got a good back up, but restoring the iPhone or the music library (of 320 GB) takes ages. I would pay good money for a simple and solid alternative.
  • Missing cover art, playlists, etc. are still db problems. I'm still waiting for the explanation as to how files disappeared.
  • I can understand how a bug, or corrupted .itl database file, can remove references to files... but I'm still not seeing how this bug could've also resulted in actual files being deleted from the Finder in ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Music. I guess with bugs, anything's possible? That said, I have long felt that a lot of this confusion would go away if Apple simply included the full functionality of iTunes Match, with the subscription price of Apple Music. Neither Pinkstone nor Etropolsky would be experiencing this issue if iTunes Match let them download their .M4A (non-FairPlay) matched tracks, or their uploads. Raise the price to $11.99/month if you have to, or throw us a bone and leave it at $9.99. But do something, please, because lots of people are needlessly confused and lots of people are (now) paranoid about "losing their music."
  • Unfortunately, what will probably happen is that Apple will get rid of the whole "matching" attempt/step (no more iTunes Match, no more matching via Apple Music) and instead will just "upload" our eligible files instead. Anything we add via Apple Music will simply be added with DRM to our existing libraries, alongside our original/uploaded files. Voila - no "wrong" matches to complain about, no DRM to get added, no customers disappointed by variable results. And no "laundering" of pirated tracks, either. Of course, this would mean Apple would need all the storage space for everyone's music file uploads. Good thing they have the cash for that...
  • My guess is that while it may be iTunes' fault, it was its association with Apple Music that removed the original files. Here's my scenario: 1. iTunes bug mangles some references to files in its locally stored database.
    2. Original files are still on hard drive, just not listed in iTunes... until...
    3. iTunes syncs with Apple Music - iTunes tells AM that a bunch of files aren't there.
    4. Apple Music responds with the user's full list of synchronized songs, including the "missing" files.
    5. iTunes notices what it thinks are "new" iCloud Music Library tracks.
    6. One of two things then happens: a) iTunes looks at the "new" iCloud stored files, looks locally, and removes what it has assuming AM is the one who has it right, or b) it downloads the iCloud files, again assuming iCloud has the "official" versions, removing whatever it may be replacing.
  • I cant believe people even use iTunes. Sad. You would think with billions of dollars, Apple would know better This is what happens when you go Apple. Their way or the highway. Ofcourse, why change, when all your customers keep sucking it up.
  • Do you even use a Mac?
  • Well he is living up to his user id.
  • He always does, he's always coming on and making stupid comments with no basis
  • I'm moving away from Apple products. They have no appeal anymore. My new Smartphone is a Samsung Galaxy 7. A Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 will replace my iPad next. And then a windows desktop will replace my aging Power Mac tower. I don't trust Apple anymore. They have nothing unique to offer anymore (and their products are unreliable—software wise, and their once "intuitive" interface is now very complex and everchanging, requiring constant relearning).
  • So it wasn't Apple Music. It was iTunes. Which is far worse IMO.
  • @Serenity--There are references in your article to "Pinkstone." Who is that? Robert Etropolsky is mentioned in the second paragraph but in the fifth paragraph, Etropolsky and Pinkstone are mentioned together.
  • Thats the author of the original blog post, that started this whole conversation:
  • iTunes strikes again! I love all Apple products, software and hardware, except iTunes. It must be completely redone and soon. This article comes on the heels of me just beginning to get comfortable with the idea of converting to Apple music subscription, what do you think I'm going to do now?… Exactly.
  • ... also, photos. I have people at work who are Windows users always asking me for help on how to manage their photos using Apple's photo management infrastructures, I have no clue and it's so totally counterintuitive I can't even begin to go there, even for my own personal use. This is incredibly sad . well, maybe these were the hooks that got us into our Apple hardware but they certainly are a very low priority, by now, for Apple. Fewer new things and better working old things, please!
  • What is confusing about photo management? Sign in to iCloud on a device and enable the photo library. You take pictures, they go to your cloud photo library. If you sign into iCloud on another Mac or iOS device, all the photos are there.
  • So after reading this and several other articles, this looks like it is different than the similar issue that was present with AM launch.
  • A couple of years ago, I experienced the disappearance of hundreds of gigs of my uploaded music. It occurred during the re-install of the OS of my old computer. I can't prove that iTunes was at fault but I still have no idea where the music went or why it disappeared from iTunes. It is a confusing mess when it happens and there is no way to get the music back or prove you weren't at fault. What's baffling is that some of the music was unaffected. Sadly, I don't have the source recordings anymore so they are lost to history. I just gave up and learned a painful lesson not to trust iTunes.
  • ITunes was fine before this apple music bs and apple trying to tie half their services into it. Apple is the knot platform still using a music app for its app store, device backups and updates, etc. Everyone else has apps to play/stream media, but the store and backup/device management duties are separate. If apple waters down any Lee kg bits software I'll probably go back to WI does full time. It's not like they don't already do enough to keep any of us beholden to their Competitors even if we use their devices.
  • This has happened to me before about 2 years ago when I had a whole album deleted and Apple gave me 10 free song credits to restore that Album. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've just had the pleasure yesterday (4th August, 2016) of discovering that over 50 playlists and 6,000 songs have 'disappeared' from my iTunes and also all the mpeg 4's from my Library - /Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Music. Both whole albums and parts of albums are missing. I have a 2015 Mac book pro running 10.10.5 which came with iTunes 12.3. I have not subscribed and do not have either Apple Music or Match.
    I have a basic free iClo(u)d account that does not include music storage. This occurred after I synced my iPhone with my Mac book pro to get images. Nothing to do with Music of any kind. I have tried the Apple support restore options - replacing .itl etc and it didn't work. I have discussed this with phone support 3 times and today they couldn't help me as 'their system was down', taking with it all history of support cases (know how they feel....) so I had to repeat my issues.
    I disagree that it's only a small number. Reason behind that could be that their own Support system looses all client phone in information, plus it's difficult for individual occurrences to be noticed and acknowledged on a large scale via numerous Mac forums of continually growing disgruntled customers.
    I've been a Mac product supporter for over 20 years in Australia and on a corporate buying level fighting to have them placed into large organisations such as News Corp.
    BUT, this is about the 5th major issue i've had with their products in just a few years.
    Where's the UAT? And most importantly, how dangerous is an unacknowledged 'bug' that can infiltrate and eradicate personal and valuable (purchased) information in your folders?
    No, it's not an Apple Music problem, or an iTunes problem - it's an Apple problem! And a big one.
  • I When purchased my new Macbook Pro in 2014 I noticed that my full Itunes library did not transfer from my old Macbook to my new one this also happened with my photo library from Iphoto Now I just realized that more albums and songs were deleted from my Itunes library. I don't use Apple Music so I know that is not the problem (well at least not in my case) Also, When purchased my new Iphone 6xl and synced it to my Macbook it said that some of my music could not be synced to my phone because the computer was not authorized which is insane because I have been using it for more than three years.
    I am beyond angry and want to know What Apple plans to do to rectify this?? Do they expect us to repurchase all the music they deleted from our accounts?? I suggest that we bombard them with emails and phone calls demanding them to FIX THIS NOW!!!!!!! or give us some compensation for our losses and the frustration and anguish it is causing us, It is not right that we are losing the music that we paid for. We Must Let Them Know How angry We Are.
  • This is incorrect and not something new. I'm what most people would consider an Apple fanboy but iTunes is an awful mess that deletes music regularly. Rip a CD? Awesome, iTunes will play it...for awhile. But as soon as Apple stops selling that song then POOF your song that you purchased with your money is gone. Hope you didn't throw away the CD like most of us do. What's worse is Apple does not care one bit. It baffles me that a class action lawsuit hasn't been filed but I've yet to see one. I've lost hundreds of dollars worth of music thanks to Apples unfair and deceptive practices.
  • No, sorry, you're incorrect. iTunes won't delete tracks you've ripped from CD, for any reason. It won't even delete tracks you've purchased and downloaded from the the iTunes Store... even if they've subsequently been removed from the Store. And it won't go into your backups (you do make regular backups, yeah?) and delete those, either. A "class action lawsuit" hasn't been filed because no one's able to prove what you're asserting. It always ends up being user error.
  • For me, what you state it won't do has happened to me several times. I use it all - iTunes Match, Apple Music and iCloud Music Library. I'll rip a CD (usually a rare import or something Apple Music won't touch or the artist won't let them touch), wait for it to sync to iCloud. I see errors frequently about it not being able to upload or some nebulous error. For the ones that do sync, I'll see it available on my iPhone with the cloud icon, so I click it and it starts downloading it to the iPhone. Now it's there as 'downloaded music' and will play. For a while. A few weeks later, the playlist might disappear from phone and iTunes. Or a few songs disappear out of the CD on one or the other. Some tracks get big long negative numbers like -2342243344, days AFTER I've ripped and uploaded and it was named correctly. I've had a few rare examples where the songs I ripped from a CD also disappeared from my computer hard disk. I chalk that part up to possible buggy iTunes, or the local iTunes library. But it does happen.
  • iTunes most definitely deletes files from your library. The reports of this are so widespread, that it baffles me that people like you come on here to refute first hand user experiences. I would consider myself an experienced mac user and know my way around the file system. I'm 100% those files were no longer on my machine after iTunes decided to delete them. The only way I got them back was to recover them from my backups. It's a serious problem (intended or unintended) that Apple needs to address and pretending the problem doesn't exist does not help.
  • Guess what? Apple has yet to fix this bug. I lost well over half of everything I had in iTunes. What a POS! The only thing worse than iTunes is everything else out there. As a retired software developer, I realize how difficult it can be to resolve bugs, but Apple isn't even trying. Ever since Steve Jobs died, the company has been headed down the tubes. Not that I think Steve Jobs was any sort of saint, but he truly loved technology. We all know geeks who can't settle for anything but perfection. They're typically not much fun to be around, but they don't settle for second-best either. That's what got Steve kicked out of Apple back in 1985, yet that's also what saved Apple after he returned. Now Apple is run by an administrator who looks after the bottom line in order to please the shareholders. UGH! Just like every other technology company after the founders have gone. :-(