Maybe it's time Apple Music stops matching tracks altogether

The idea behind iCloud Music Library is awesome:

  • Sync your music library to the cloud.
  • Have library everywhere.
  • Rock out wherever you want, on whatever device you want.

The execution, unfortunately, is fraught with disaster. The Loop's Jim Dalrymple, a music lover and one of Apple's biggest supporters, lost music and swore off the service. Customers are freaking out. How did Apple get here? What happened to "All the ways you love music, all in one place"?

The origin of matching

In the beginning, there was iTunes. Music-lovers could rip purchased CDs onto their Macs and listen to them to their heart's content in the app.

Then came the iTunes Store, which let users purchase high-quality songs for a set fee. Ripped music and purchased music lived side-by-side in harmony — though you couldn't do much with that music, due to DRM.

After a few years, that DRM limitation was lifted due to some Apple wheeling and dealing and a $.30 price increase on tracks (opens in new tab), which meant your music was yours and nicer-sounding than ever.

Unfortunately for those who ripped music early on, when slow and low-quality CD drives were the norm, those ripped tracks sounded far worse than their iTunes counterparts — especially higher-quality DRM-free versions.

So, a few years ago, Apple introduced iTunes Match: For $25, you could automatically upgrade any track in your music library that had an iTunes Store counterpart; you could then delete your old music file and replace that low-quality MP3 with a high-quality, DRM-free AAC track. (If that song didn't exist in the iTunes Store, you'd just stick with your old file.)

Even better: If you paid that $25 every year, you could get up to 25,000 of your tracks to stream to all of your other devices, using a service Apple would later name iCloud Music Library.

If you stopped that $25/year subscription, you would no longer be able to stream your library to other devices, but your upgraded tracks were yours to keep. You got high-quality DRM-free versions of your tunes, and if you wanted to continue paying $25/year, all your local songs on all your devices. What wasn't to love?

Well, a few things. The iTunes Match algorithm wasn't perfect — it would occasionally match original songs with covers, and mess up album art. And if the iTunes servers were cranky, you often couldn't download your songs on your iPhone or secondary Macs. But overall, it wasn't a bad gig.

iTunes Match worked with Apple's iTunes Store catalog, which meant that users quickly got comfortable with DRM-free files that were theirs to keep. They could delete local files from their original library and get high-quality versions with no problems, and they could cancel iTunes Match at any time with no threat to their library. They'd lose their cloud-based library on their other devices, but that's what you paid the $25/year for — it made sense.

Enter: Apple Music. The service was lauded as another streaming music platform — one encumbered by DRM, because that's how streaming services function. (Without DRM, someone could download a bunch of songs and stop subscribing, keeping those songs forever. Record labels? Not too thrilled about that idea.)

But Apple Music wanted to be more than that. The company had seen moderate success with its iTunes Match program, and users said they loved having their owned music on all their devices. What if Apple Music could combine a streaming service with the music already in their users's libraries?

In theory, it was a lovely idea. In practice...


How DRM screwed everything up

While the Apple Music catalog and iTunes Store catalogs have similar songs within them, they are vastly different beasts: iTunes encodes all its tracks as DRM-free 256kbps AAC files; Apple Music files are 256kbps, but they're protected AAC files and require an active Apple Music subscription for them to play.

iTunes Match made sense: Users matched low-quality tracks for high-quality iTunes Store ones, and their library would be ready for streaming quickly because most of those high-quality tracks were already in Apple's catalog, saving them from lengthy manual uploads.

Apple Music uses this same idea, but to almost disastrous effect. Sure, it's quick to "upload" your library to Apple Music for the same reasons, but any tracks you re-download are protected music files from the streaming catalog — files that will essentially become non-viable as soon as you end your subscription.

This has resulted in lots of nasty problems, including users downloading what they assume is their own music onto secondary computers, only to have those tracks stop working if they end their Apple Music trial. Or those who upload their live music collections, only to find them matched with studio versions on their other computers. Or worst of all: People who once had iTunes Match and deleted their original libraries, filling them with DRM-encumbered Apple Music songs. (Please never delete your original library. Just don't. It's always a bad idea not to have a physical backup.)

This is a no good, very bad, downright terrible experience. It takes a nice idea (iTunes Match) and bastardizes it into a confusing hellstew I've had to write more explanation articles on than I can count.

Something has to change.

Kill the match

A radical proposal: Leave matching to the service that has matching in the title — iTunes Match — and take it out of Apple Music altogether. Instead, if Apple wants give users their libraries in the cloud with an Apple Music subscription, do it the old-fashioned way: uploading their original tracks. This takes DRM out of the equation, and it turns iCloud Music Library, essentially, into a musical version of Dropbox.

Yes, it will be slower. You know what? Dropbox is slow at first. Crashplan is slow at first. Heck, Apple's own iCloud Photo Library is slow at first.

You know what's forgivable? Slowness. I would pick a slow process a million times over before I chose "misidentifies my tracks and potentially makes them unplayable if I click the wrong button."

Yes, it's going to cost more for storage. Up the price if you have to. Make an all-upload Apple Music subscription cost more, or make it come out of your iCloud storage plan. I don't care. My job is to help people and calm their fears about technology so that they can use it properly. Right now, Apple Music is making that job next to impossible.

Apple Music is almost a year old, and in dire need of some improvements. Fix this, Apple. It's the right thing to do.

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.

  • Yes! Excellent suggestion. Leave my stuff DRM free, DRM the streamed/on demand tracks. Also, I couldn't help but read "in dire need of" and get Right Hand Man stuck in my head.
  • Just for clarification, it never added DRM to your iTunes tracks. It has DRM on the tracks that were delivered to your other devices. Your original tracks remain DRM free with Apple Music.
  • Exactly. She's definitely giving incorrect info out here. This is what causes so much confusion
  • I've actually written about this in detail. :)
  • One thing that you seem to have missed. iTunes Match did not have the issue with replacing originals with covers, because the way iTunes Match actually matched music entailed analyzing the audio itself. If you subscribe to Apple Music without also subscribing to iTunes match, it matches your music based on the metadata - that is what caused covers to replace originals, live music replaced by studio, etc. Most of the issues people have with the matching functionality would be resolved if Apple would analyze the actual audio for both iTunes Match and Apple Music.
  • Why not instead just roll in the functionality of iTunes Match into Apple Music? One subscription cost for both services. Apple Music Plus. Easier to understand, and owned tracks would then never be replaced by ones with DRM. Keeping these services "separate but complementary" was a bad, confusing idea from the start.
  • Yes, I should have clarified - leave my stuff DRM free on my other devices as well - and I include iTunes purchases as "my stuff." I know under normal circumstances my originals shouldn't get DRM'd. Enough else is wrong with AM at the moment that I still won't touch it though.
  • Thanks again for a dose of sanity Ren. Hopefully apple reads imore. itunes in general is just too bloated.
  • Isn't this how Google Play Music does it? I have it, and I upload songs I own to Google. I did this before Google released its streaming service. But now I also have a subscription to the streaming service (for the past 3 years.... love the grandfathered $7.99 monthly fee). It think it keeps everything separate. When I add music I've ripped (using iTunes, actually), Google uploads them to Google Music. I can also "add" them via the streaming service, which essentially gives me two copies. What I like is that it makes sense. And I haven't had any problems. Is this description of how Google does it accurate?
  • You are correct. I have duplicates throughout my Library because of this. Not a huge deal - it's easy to leave them alone or delete one or the other (my upload or the Google version).
  • I agree with the other comment on Google Play Music. I use that and never had any problems with uploading my music, not losing it, and having it on all my devices and through the web interface. I tried Apple Music, but left it after a week and went back to Google Play Music. However, I will say that I never lost any music with Apple so that sucks for those people that got hit by this.
  • I've been using the service since it came out and haven't had any trouble with it other than occasionally playing the wrong song (playing Jay-Z's Black Album track for the "Grey Album" track and vice versa) but that's not necessarily Apple Music's fault. If it were happening with iTunes Match, that'd be problematic since it's supposed to upload the file directly. Still, after reading through a lot of this today and looking at what I've actually saved from Apple Music (not much), I cancelled the service today. I think I'll pick a different stream-only service to test drive albums from before purchasing them.
  • I haven't really had any of the problems mentioned above, save one. Mismatched cover art. My main problem with that is it seems to be unfixable. For example, I have the Star Wars radio drama in my collection. Since iTunes only sells that as an audiobook, in my case it is a set of uploaded .MP3 files. Unfortunately, the first two episodes have mismatched art (and since its the first two, the whole set looks wrong). I've tried re-setting the album art on my home computer, then syncing tracks, and the album art is fixed... for a bout an hour. Then it reverts. Every, ****, time. I've deleted the tracks, re-ripped them from the CD, re-synced them, and an hour or so later, the same dude with dreadlocks re-appears on the cover. I've given up at this point. I mean, if that's the worst that Apple Music can do to me, I'll take it.
  • Apple Music should be it's own app on all platforms and it should be a separate library. I don't think matching needs to go away, but there is a better way to do it. Grant Apple Music read only access to the music library to scan for matches. Users should then be presented with the results and be able to fix mismatches by either picking the proper match or by choosing to upload a 256kbps copy of the original file. If you don't care about that feature just skip it and use the other Apple Music features.
  • Whatever Apple ends up doing I just hope they don't discontinue iTunes Match.
  • I think Apple didn't realize what an obvious issue this would be. Even when I was learning about Apple Music this issue popped into my head and sure enough its been a disaster for some. I love using Google Music. Their web app is superior to iTunes for uploading and managing my music. Their mobile app is rock solid (but ugly). I just wish they had a f'in Apple Watch app. And the ability to pin by artist, not just album, which is tedious.
  • I've already lost some music thanks to iCloud music library. How do you recover music you've lost? Sent from the iMore App
  • Depending on what you mean by lost, there are a few options: If you've accidentally deleted tracks, the best way to get them back permanently is to sign up for iTunes Match; those tracks should then show up as "matched" under your library. If your tracks have been mis-matched, you'll want to delete the song from iCloud Music Library and restore your original MP3.
  • Wait what?
    When I match a song and download its iTunes Match equivalent, I get to keep that iTunes song in my local library. It says "Matched" instead of "Uploaded" or "Apple Music" in my iTunes. I know they had a glitch where they replaced my local song with a DRM file (that I couldn't sync to my iPod Touch, for example), but that issue seems to have been remedied. Am I missing something? Sent from the iMore App
  • You're using iTunes Match, and you're fine! This is referring to Apple Music's version, which non-Match users get, that connects tracks to DRM versions from Apple's catalog.
  • If i ever use apple music one day i'll turn off this feature. I don't want to have my purchased music with my rented one. It will be a mess and will make me a prisoner of apple! But anyway i am really not into this streaming stuff... I'd rather pay my music and "own" it than paying 10$ per month to be able to listen to my music. Spotify free and itunes are my friends :) Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree with this suggestion. Apple may have a lot of things right. This isn't one of them.
  • I keep all my original music on a separate Mac mini with Apple Music and iTunes Match disabled. This is my primary music source for home listening to my lossless ripped collection. Then I use Apple Music on my laptop and mobile devices. I can either use Apple remote to control the Mac mini or the music app to stream. Everything stays separate. How it should be implemented by Apple. Sent from the iMore App
  • I have never subscribed to Apple Music (and probably never will). All my tracks are from my CD's (or purchased MP3's from Amazon. I use iTunes Match (Hurray for the 100,000 song limit! and I hope Apple never discontinues this service. I will pay more, if necessary). Will encounter DRM from Apple Music? I would think not ... as a "subscription" to a streaming service is not involved (besides iTunes Match...).
  • Nope! If you use Match, you're golden.
  • This is the primary reason that I do not subscribe to Apple Music. Thank you for isolating and shining a light on this core problem! I do not trust the matching algorithm, and have found a couple of tracks to match inaccurately. (e.g. Ozzy tracks that Sharon had overdubbed different basslines to avoid royalties.) I don't want to have to scrutinize my collection to ensure my music is not replaced / lost. Even if I do regular backups, I don't want to discover the error down the line and find that the backup with the original track was replaced to make room for a newer backup with the wrong file. I like iTunes Match, am I am careful anytime when I delete an older file, to download the better bitrate one, to ensure it sounds identical (except for compression quality of course).
  • Why is my purchased music playlist on my iOS devices not showing up on my Mac I didn't create this playlist it appeared when I chose the merge setting during Apple Music setup is this normal or unexpected it's showing up with all my other playlists on my iOS devices but not my Mac but all the playlists I manually created are
  • Is there a reason that the playlist purchased music on my iPhone is not showing up on my Mac but is on all iOS devices I didn't create this playlist it appeared when I signed up to am and when I merged my library with Apple Music library can you tell me if this is Normal or if anyone else is experiencing this issue
  • I agree. Not for the DRM issue, but because the matching algorithm is horrible. I collect bootlegs and demos of my favorite bands, and Apple Music tends to match them with studio versions. I spent a couple weeks talking to Apple Support about it and they admitted the issue was not fixable. It's because Apple Music only scans your library based on metadata as opposed to scanning using acoustic fingerprinting.
  • So Apple Music only scans metadata and iTunes Match scans acoustic fingerprinting?
  • That would be terrible for me. My tracks (from my CD's) are Indian Classical Music raaga's, which have the same common names. The same raaga (composition) is often sung by the same artist in different recordings, some live, some in the studios. So, the tracks have the same name, but sound different (but similar ... its complicated).
    This would cause a lot of mismatch, even with my own tracks!! Apple will match my new track with a previously uploaded track of the same name by the same artist.. when it shouldn't have!!
    Thank goodness I keep a separate archive of my own ripped tracks. And that is what I use for my internal DLNA consumption.
  • My biggest problem with Apple Music is low quality bitrate. I really wish they brought it up to 320 Kbps or something equivalent.
  • Yay. Sign me up for that. Matching is fine if your music library is fully "matchable" to begin with. For many of us it isn't, though. My music library is what I use as a research reference and much (about 25% of it) consists of rare classical recordings that never made it to CDs or downloads. So I'm staying well away from anything that might get their cloudy little hands on that, particularly things as flaky as Apple Music.
    At the moment I'm actually using Dropbox to play these files, but that is hardly ideal because Dropbox doesn't show metadata. To have it integrated into Apple music would be far more useful. So stop matching and sign me up.
  • I agree, separate Apple Music to it own app, leave iTunes Match alone. I use iTunes Match but am no longer an Apple Music subscriber (I did the free trial). I like to buy music, I'm an old guy. After the trial my library is still all screwed up and I've slowly worked at cleaning it up. Numerous duplicates (100s), some of which are DRM and won't play. My Match music I added during that trial period is all gunked up. If you can play almost any song known to man, why did Apple Music have to climb on top of my library, give it is own app, and when I want to listen to my stuff I can fire up its app. I never understood why they melded them, it was .mac all over again, big on promise, bigger on headache.
  • Google Play Music is the only service that got this idea right.
  • I don't had an issue when the match-algorithm would work or at least you could upload the original version. Like when the match didn't found an equivalent track. This and for all improve the match algorithm, like apple already did once with iTunes match - not using the metadata but also a music fingerprint and other informations like the duration.
    This would also improve apple music cause here also sometimes tracks are downloaded incorrectly when the same song exists on differnt albums.
  • I hope to god they dont get rid of Match. We're not all going to be signing up to Apple Music subscription and for me it's super. All my somewhat obscure classical/choral music - which Apple screws up more than most i suspect - syncs nicely across my devices.
  • As much as I wanted to like iTunes Match, it has never worked right for me. I admit I listen to a lot of obscure bands (mostly extreme metal) and I don't expect everything to be in the iTunes library. The problem is when it doesn't find an artist it will still take some song titles and match them to different artists with the same song title, messing up my music and album art. I don't know why it does this but it has on two occasions. Then I have to re-upload my CD and delete the incorrect stuff. I would gladly pay $25 a year if the service didn't "break" my library. It took months to upload 1000+ CDs and I'll be damned if all of that goes to waste because Apple decided what songs I have. I'll just stick with my iPhone and 160GB iPod, which may be running out of room but at least everything on it is correct. Sent from the iMore App
  • Everyone should leave feedback on this for Apple.
  • I'm an iPhone user but formerly had an Android phone, and you know what works really well for this exact scenario? Google Play Music. You can upload your entire iTunes library (sans any DRM protected tracks of course) and stream it to all your devices, for free. Then if you want a streaming service, pay $9.99/mo and bam, all of your own music is side-by-side with Google's catalog. It doesn't "match" anything, so if you have a low quality file you can't download the higher quality version, but as long as you keep your subscription you can play all the music in their catalog which basically matches Apple's in my experience. I'm amazed how few blogs talk about GPM, especially iMore (with sister site AndroidCentral). I've been using it since launch and it's excellent, and works very well across my iPhone, Mac and Android tablet. Works with Airplay, works with Chromecast, just works all the time, and it has never screwed up my old iTunes library that I keep on my Mac.
  • Great article (and GIF) Serenity. Agree 100%. I'll add a related gripe -- iTunes' iCloud Match Status icons are equally bad. There are only two statuses that matter: 'Done' and 'Not Done'. Instead they've got 9 different statuses. Why is it the customer's problem if a song is duplicated across multiple albums? Why should we care if artist XYZ was on Apple Music but later left? Why does it matter if a song is below a certain bit rate? I'm sure this is driven more by music industry nonsense than Apple nonsense, but it's Apple's product. The blame goes to them. The buck stops with them. If Apple doesn't fix it, the bucks will stop going to Apple.
  • They don't have to ditch the Match. When Apple Music or iCloud Library "matches" the songs for syncing, there is no reason why it can't recognise which songs were purchased from iTunes or otherwise already on device DRM-free and which were downloaded from the subscription service (Apple Music). Add this meta-data to a person's account. Only the downloaded-from-subscription-service songs need to be DRM-ed not those purchased from iTunes (data already available) or those DRM-free songs synced through matching (data obtained when initially matched.
  • It all went to pot with that car crash of a keynote, which included Jimmy Iovine and Drake, where it was never given any clarity. I had my concerns over what was to come back then. Having said that, I get a lot out of the service, but the mis-matching of files almost drove me to pull out of it. I then read an article on iMore, I think it was by yourself, warning of the consequences, saving me a lot of heartache. I believe that what you suggested is the best thing for the service, until they find a better way to do it long term. If Apple do this, get rid of Connect, which just gets in the way of my experience and de-clutters the interface, then it would make a massive difference. Sent from the iMore App
  • You can easily disable Connect in iTunes (under Restrictions) as well as iOS (under Settings -> General -> Restrictions.) In the iOS Music app, the Connect button is then replaced by the far-more-useful "Playlists" button instead.
  • A simple solution is Apple should never overwrite metadata on files on a user's drive. It can try it's best to match and keep that metadata in the cloud and only for matched songs streamed from the cloud or downloaded from the cloud (e.g. to another device). In this case, at least the original files are never touched. I am not sure why there is a need to modify the metadata on the original file knowing that the matching algorithms are not perfect.
    This may lead to some confusion sometimes (when listening to original files versus files matched in iCloud but better than having meticulously curated metadata overwritten.
  • Apple Music and iTunes Match seem to require a degree to understand. I've gone back to just syncing my local content to my devices through iTunes. Keep it simple. K thx
  • One important information is missing in the article: The matching of iTunes Match and Apple Music is different! iTunes Match uses some kind of song signature and this works quite well (but not perfect). Apple Music uses the metadata only and that is one of the reasons for all the problems.
  • One other mess you don't hear much about: let's say you a few thousand CDs ripped onto iTunes, and now signed up for Apple Pay and, by extension, iCloud Music Library. The next time you get a new phone or a replacement phone, you cannot sync your phone, via iTunes, to get the 90% of your CD-ripped tunes onto your iPhone. Your choice is to download them one by one in the iPhone Music app, or turn off iCould Music Library, sync, carefully turn it back on and then re-download all the Apple Music-songs you previously selected.
  • Good point - but what's Apple Pay got to do with any of this? BTW, iCloud Music Library doesn't require you you to download those tunes one-by-one. You could very easily go to a synced playlist that has all of them, and tap one button to queue them all to download.
  • I meant to say Apple Music not Apple Pay.
  • I kept my subscription to iTunes Match in addition to AM. I never used it to get high quality files in exchange for low quality files, though. I used it is to be able to access my music on the road and the fact that it worked with Siri made it a major plus. Also, it is just another backup ( in lower quality) when the files are matched properly ( which is probably about 90-95 percent correct in my case), Also, I used Crashplan to back up my original ALAC files as mentioned in the article. However, I have a huge collection ( 100s of GB), so I paid extra for their seeded service ( they send you a terabyte drive to get started) . The problem with Apple just loading up all your music is that people like me will go over their datacaps in short order ( Comcast in this area is limited to 300gb per month). As a result, the "Apple deleted all my files rant" that we see about once year, will be replaced by the much more frequent "I have a huge bill from Comcast thanks to Apple". Personally, I think the number of people having deleted library issues is tiny. That is why most blogs have been quoting Dalrymple for the last year instead of using their own experiences. That being said, if they no longer matched files in Apple Music and required an iTunes Match account to get your own files into the service, it wouldn't hurt my feelings.
  • Google is free 50000 songs
  • Very good idea. Since Apple hasn’t figure out how to manifest data in more than one way, it's time to admit defeat and simply think of everything as a flat file.
  • Instead of making Apple Music "stop matching tracks altogether," why not instead roll in the functionality of iTunes Match into Apple Music? One subscription cost for both services. Easier to understand, and owned tracks would then never be replaced by ones with DRM. There still might be mismatches, but it wouldn't be as disastrous.
  • I suspect I'm not the only person who doesn't want a music subscription service - so not subscribed to Apple Music, and find Match super useful to sync music across devices!
  • Okay then fine, keep iTunes Match as a distinct offering, but sell Apple Music as an upgrade to that. The fact that customers can sign up for Apple Music and pay $10/month and still not have the functionality of iTunes Match is what's causing a large portion of this confusion.
  • Serenity, As usual (well, mostly) you nail Apple and apply real-world gumption. Yes Apple, fix Apple Music. Please stop effing with my HUGE 200G library and the work JOBS did to get rid of DRM.