Apple Music playlist sharing is completely broken — but it's an easy fix

Unfortunately, you'll have to outrun her without our excellent Apple Music playlist "Georgia Dow, Zombie Chow." Because, try as we might, sharing playlists seems to be broken in Apple's subscription music service. It's the latest problem I've run into with Apple Music, which has lots of potential but remains plagued with persistent usability issues.

Trying (and failing) to make zombie playlists

Our Apple Music misadventure started when I was trying to share a playlist with iMore's Mikah Sargent. We're training for the Zombie Run Virtual 5k, and I wanted to share a playlist for it on Twitter. I expected a headache going in, since sharing is notoriously difficult on the service. What we found, however, is that sharing playlists on Apple Music is a huge pain and rarely works properly.

I whipped together a playlist of my favorite running tracks, and asked Mikah to look at them.

Hmmmm. Maybe some of the songs on my list just weren't licensed for Apple Music. I then sent Mikah all 17 of the songs individually, verifying that he could follow the link and listen to them on Apple Music. We removed all the ones he couldn't immediately play — a very time-consuming process.

Okay, that was awful. But at least, it will work now right? Right?

After reading Kirk McElhearn's excellent playlists explainer, it turns out the Mac seems to have issues in making playlists. So, I moved to my iPhone and repeated all of these steps, manually verifying each song and moving it to a playlist. I'll leave out the profanity that followed, but yep: right now, still broken on iOS, too.

We turned to iMore Serenity's Caldwell, an expert in Apple Music, to verify what we found. She was able to replicate our problems and errors on her devices, and even got this lovely error from Apple Music when loading her Mac-made playlist:

It's a dialogue box that doesn't go away when you hit "OK." It really sums up our experience with sharing playlists.

The playlist problem

To be fair, sharing playlists on Apple Music is a very hard problem to solve. iTunes has long been criticized for being too complicated, and in this case, 15 years of technical legacy is really working against them.

The songs in your Mac's library don't just come from Apple Music — they can come from CDs or MP3s you might have imported and put into iTunes, or even songs you bought on iTunes that aren't included in Apple Music.

While we can't know the legal agreements Apple has for Apple Music, we do know that negotiating rights with the music industry is notoriously difficult. I have obscure songs in my iTunes library that I can upload to my personal devices via Apple Music or iTunes Match, but Apple can't legally stream those uploads to the public without certain rights. And that's understandable: The company doesn't want to cheat those musicians by streaming their work without compensating them.

But a normal Apple Music user doesn't want to think about that — they just want to share music with friends. It's ironic that for a service whose main feature is curation, it's impossible to curate and share what you love.

Strangely, playlists I was able to share months ago will still show up on friends' computers, suggesting that our particular problem could be on Apple's server backend. With the upcoming overhaul to Apple Music, the company could be making changes that affect playlist sharing, with the holiday weekend exasperating what would have otherwise been a Friday-afternoon bug.

As a developer, I can appreciate the frustrations that come with nailing down obscure bugs. That said: I'm paying $9.99, and more than a year in. This feature should just work.

How to fix playlist sharing

There are several major changes coming to Apple Music this fall, including minor changes to song sharing; sadly, none appear to fix my major problem with playlist sharing. Because of the way Apple Music interacts with your computer's library, you're always going to have a jumbled mess of purchased iTunes content, Apple Music content, and content you've uploaded or matched to iCloud Music Library.

Fortunately, the fix here is potentially very simple: When I'm making playlists for my friends, grey out the non-Apple Music-licensed tracks that can't be played, rather than disable the entire playlist. That way, songs that Apple has legally licensed can be picked and played seamlessly. Better yet, this practice may encourage rights holders of greyed-out songs to work with Apple Music. After all, no one wants to be left out of the party.

Additionally, it'd be helpful to let us sort iCloud Music Library metadata on all platforms, rather than limit it to my desktop computer. On my Mac, I can see whether a song is matched (to Apple Music's catalog) or uploaded (which means I likely won't be able to share it), but no such toggle exists on my iPhone or iPad.

There's also the problem of catalogs: If I subscribe to both Apple Music and iTunes Match, my matched tracks connect to the iTunes Store track library — not Apple Music — and the iTunes Store has tracks that Apple Music isn't licensed to play. Unfortunately, there's no indicator in the iTunes app to tell you if an iTunes-matched track is also available in Apple Music: You just have to guess.

My last improvement is a big one, and a feature services like Spotify have already implemented spectacularly: Public playlists are searchable, and can be live-updated when added to a person's library. Apple has neither of these features at present: You can only share a playlist with someone by sending them a URL, and in my experience, that URL only parses about half the time on iOS and rarely on the Mac. And if that person adds the playlist to their library, it's fixed in time forever — if I decide to turn "Georgia Dow, Zombie Chow" into "Mikah Sargent, Zombie Ascent," poor Mikah will never know his fate has been sealed.

Just make it work

Apple Music's reputation has taken many hits since its debut, most unfair and inaccurate — like the erroneous claim that the service will delete your music tracks. For all my gripes, I find Apple Music a great service, one increasingly worth your $9.99 a month.

But it's also fair to say, like Georgia Dow in the zombie apocalypse, it keeps stumbling — leaving services like Spotify and YouTube Red to sprint ahead in market share, even when they're worse in many ways.

We're counting on you to fix this bug, Apple. Maybe Georgia Dow isn't, but the rest of us have some training to do.

Brianna Wu

Head of Development at Giant Spacekat. Host of Isometric and Rocket on Relay.FM. Godzilla of tech feminists.