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Apple Music has an iCloud problem

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I don't trust it, so I can't get the most from Apple's new service

I really like Apple Music. Everything from the setup process (I kept hitting "more artists" until I couldn't anymore) through the entire user interface left me impressed yesterday. Apple has managed to reinvent its Music app by stuffing a subscription music service inside it — without making it all hopelessly confusing. Is there a learning curve? Oh yeah. But once you get it, you get it. And aside from the occasional, laugh-worthy miss, the recommendations I'm seeing in the For You section are on point.

Still, there's one fundamental problem with Apple Music that's crippling its potential for me and keeping it from becoming my one and only music destination — exactly the thing Apple wants it to be. It's the way the service heavily leans on iCloud. Or more specifically, "iCloud Music Library." If you've not yet come across this option, broadly speaking it's a rebranded version of iTunes Match that comes included with Apple Music's $9.99 monthly fee. Flip it on, and Apple will scan your entire iTunes library and compare it with its own catalog. The goal is to make your whole music collection available across devices via iCloud. Any tracks that Apple successfully matches with iTunes show up instantly, and those that aren't automatically get uploaded. Once everything's done, you can stream music on your iPhone or iPad without taking up valuable storage, saving that space for more apps or photos and videos.

Apple Music iCloud complaint
A sample post from Apple's support forums.

At least, that's the idea. In reality, iTunes Match has been one of Apple's more flawed cloud services for a few years now. Ever since it rolled out, users have complained about several key things. For one, it's just not very good at the matching process. iTunes will mistakenly swap explicit songs for censored takes or disregard mono recordings in favor of stereo versions. Or it'll inexplicably match only certain songs from an album and upload the other tracks. Some of these issues, like censored tracks, have improved with time. But turning on iTunes Match (and thus iCloud Music Library) is still a huge gamble for people who are meticulous about their music library. Google Music has a similar matching mechanism, but Google mercifully includes a "Fix incorrect match" option that uploads the file from your PC or Mac to ensure you're hearing the right thing. I don't have to worry about my mono Beatles albums suddenly going stereo.

iTunes Match can mess with your library, and now it's a huge piece of Apple Music

A day after Apple Music's launch, people are already reporting that iCloud and iTunes have brought chaos to their music collections with incorrect album artwork and duplicated songs. There’s already a lengthy Apple support forum thread on the problems. Even if you've already got cover art linked to songs in your library, Apple will frequently ignore the work you've put in and just use whatever seems like the best fit from iTunes. And it's often wrong. This is another problem that Google shares with Apple, and another where Google makes it easier to fix mistakes.

But back to the main point: many people won't mind the roll-the-dice nature of iCloud Music Library — especially if you've ditched the traditional "music library" and gone all in on streaming services. But some of us definitely do. My iTunes library is comprised entirely of Apple Lossless tracks, carefully tagged with artist info and high-resolution artwork that looks great on my iPhone. If I turn on iCloud Music Library, I'm worried that all of that will instantly be blown up — and this stuff takes hours of monotonous work to fix. It's hugely disappointing because I love Apple's concept and it'd be great to have all of my music with me at 256 kbps quality while keeping the lossless files safe on my primary computer.

iCloud Music Library

As I alluded to earlier, this approach kills the potential of Apple Music for me. If you're unwilling to trust iCloud, you don't get the full feature set. Want to download any of those great, curated playlists for offline playback? Sorry, iCloud Music Library must be turned on first. If you want to enjoy this service's most convenient features, there's no way of telling Apple "put a wall between my iTunes library and Apple Music." In fairness, that makes total sense, since such granular options could get confusing in a hurry.

I'm not flipping the switch until there are clear signs of improvement

So the real answer is this: Apple, please make iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library better. No one is saying figuring this stuff out is easy, but it needs to be more reliable. Make it easier to fix the occasional screw-ups — or give users the ability to manually upload songs like Google does. (It's possible to upload 50,000 of your own songs to Google Music for free.) If and when that happens, I'll happily make Apple Music my go-to music app. Everything else Apple has here is pretty great. But for now I'll keep my Spotify subscription going. It's just way easier to save music offline without worrying about iCloud mucking up the library I've sunk years into. This forced link between Apple Music and iCloud Music Library just seems unnecessary.

But there may be an explanation, and if true, it's an ugly one: DRM. A troubling report today from Kirk McElhearn claims that Apple is applying DRM to every track contained in iCloud Music Library — even your own songs. So if you upload regular old MP3s to iCloud, delete them from your PC or Mac and then redownload, they'll be DRMed files. This differs from the DRM-free nature of iTunes Match and is a confounding decision from a company whose co-founder went to war with the music industry over the very principle of DRM. We've reached out to confirmation on this.

So for the next three months, I'll strictly be streaming music with Apple Music. At least that part's pretty great.