MAY 9 2016 5:55 AM
Apple Destroyed My Will to Collect Music
Last week, an astonishing blog post by a man named James Pinkstone circulated on social media. In it, Pinkstone claimed that he had lost 20 years’ worth of music files as a result of signing up for Apple Music; as he explained it, the service had hoovered up the collection of MP3 and WAV files he had been keeping in his iTunes library and replaced them with streaming versions that lived in an Apple-owned cloud. The original files, as Pinkstone understood it, had been deleted off his computer in the process. To his surprise, when he called Apple Support to find out what happened and how to fix it, he was told that this was exactly how Apple Music—the company’s year-old streaming service— was supposed to work.
These were disturbing allegations— especially if, like me, you had recently signed up for Apple Music for the first time so you could listen to the new Drake album as early as possible. It was particularly worrisome that a lot of the songs Apple Music had allegedly removed from Pinkstone’s hard drive weren’t properly replaced. For example, instead of a rare, early version of a Fountains of Wayne song that Pinkstone had at some point downloaded or ripped to his computer as an MP3, Apple had plugged in a less distinctive, more widely available version of the song.
Hold up, I thought to myself: Did this mean that anyone who downloaded the early, leaked version of Drake’s “Controlla,” which featured a fun guest appearance by Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan, was going to wake up one morning and find that Apple Music had switched it out for the official, Popcaan-less album version?
Pinkstone’s blog post filled me with vicarious panic and rage. Here was yet another reason to hate Apple’s music software—something I’d been doing for years, with iTunes as the primary source of my discontent. To date, that discontent had been fueled by the utter disarray in which iTunes had left my digital music library. If what Pinkstone was saying was true, it seemed entirely possible that Apple Music had already started laying siege to what ruins still remained of my once-organized, once-glorious music collection.
It was not always this way. There was a time when iTunes was fine. For a while it even felt like a step up from Winamp, the elegant bit of freeware that I and millions of others installed back when we were using Napster and Audiogalaxy to download music by the truckload. But the digitally encoded honeymoon didn’t last: With the launch of the iTunes store and the phasing out of the iPod in favor of the iPhone, iTunes became the unavoidable command center for managing all kinds of data, not just “tunes” but photos, podcasts, apps, TV shows, and more. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate in 2012, in a piece titled “Won’t Someone Take iTunes Out Back and Shoot It?” the software had become a bloated monster that wasn’t good at doing any of the things that Apple was forcing it to do.
At some point between then and now, iTunes became a total black hole to me. I stopped understanding what it did when I downloaded a song and dragged it into my library. I didn’t get how it related to Apple Music, or what role iCloud played in managing my data. Above all I couldn’t get my head around syncing—the mysterious and maddening process I had to go through whenever I wanted to put specific songs on my iPhone.
How did I become the equivalent of the guy who, in a previous era, owned eight CDs, one of which was No Way Out by Puff Daddy?
None of it made sense to me, and when I thought for too long about the impact iTunes was having on the texture and structure of my music consumption, I was overcome with a bitter sense of loss.
I used to love collecting music. It was a fun, ongoing process that played out over years, and it provided me with an ever- growing time capsule of my taste. Even after I stopped buying CDs—I had amassed a big, proud shelf of them by the time I left for college—I treated my MP3s as my personal property, and I made a point of owning albums and songs that I loved and wanted to remember for years to come. Not to get too High Fidelity here, but my life was richer for having this
collection; in addition to reminding me of songs I might have otherwise forgotten and giving me easy access to them, it was a record of who I was.
Reading Pinkstone’s blog post reminded me how much more fractured and less deliberate my music-listening life has become in the age of iTunes.
Instead of having a collection that I care for and build over time, I have what amounts to a random pile of files spread across my various devices. These days when I want to listen to music, I consistently just put on either a streaming playlist that’s been curated for me by somebody else, or whichever big album happened to come out most recently, be it Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo or Rihanna’s ANTI.
How did this happen to me? How did I become the equivalent of the guy who, in a previous era, owned eight CDs, one of which was No Way Out by Puff Daddy and two of which were the Beatles’ greatest hits?
Part of the change can be attributed to my age, obviously: People who are 31 generally have less energy for cultivating their musical taste than they did when they were younger. Another part can be chalked up to the rise of streaming audio in general: One could argue that my “collection” now consists of everything that exists on Apple Music and Spotify, which I’ve subscribed to since its U.S. launch in 2011.
Nevertheless I believe that Apple—and iTunes in particular—shoulders more responsibility than anything else for how my listening habits have changed.
At the root of the problem is that the iTunes interface is now designed first and foremost to seamlessly integrate with other Apple products. For worthy reasons, Apple has made it extremely easy to listen to songs you’ve paid the company to listen to, whether you’re a subscriber to its streaming service or a customer in its online store. When I bought the Shamir album Ratchet from iTunes the day it came out, it automatically downloaded to my phone, my laptop, and my work computer. In the year since, I have never had any trouble listening to it, and by virtue of having it in all my iTunes libraries—the one at home, the one at work, and the one in my pocket—it actually feels like I own it.
I can’t say the same for a lot of other music I love, which exists on my devices in a state of abject entropy for the simple reason that it’s not part of the Apple ecosystem. The celebrated 2013 album Acid Rap by Chance the Rapper, for instance, is only available as a free download from mixtape websites; because I didn’t buy it from the iTunes store and cannot stream it from Apple Music, it doesn’t automatically show up in my digital library and I therefore seldom think to put it on. Ditto the trove of classic but never- officially-released diss tracks by Eminem that appeared online between 2002 and 2003, and rarities like the solo Julian Casablancas demo for the Strokes’ “You Only Live Once,” which appeared on the soundtrack for Somewhere.
A truly personal music collection is inevitably going to be full of such odds and ends. But while I’ve owned all the stuff listed above at various points in my life, I don’t have it all in one place, because iTunes has made it next to impossible to do so. At a time when artists have become increasingly generous about sharing stray material with their fans through the internet but never making it available for sale, I have lost the ability to keep track of anything that’s not officially sanctioned.
How I got here, I’m not totally sure, except that on more than one occasion, I’ve had some kind of syncing problem while trying to transfer something to my iPhone, or trying to delete photos or podcasts or movies in order to free up space. Whatever it was I was attempting to do, I must have selected the wrong settings or checked the wrong boxes or hit the wrong buttons while doing it; all I know is that Apple has repeatedly wiped my digital collection clean of all the songs I ever downloaded, except for the ones I had purchased directly from the iTunes store.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. The truth is I am a helplessly unreliable narrator in this story, because whenever I use iTunes, I find that I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, or what the consequences of my actions will be. So while I can’t really be sure how my music collection was decimated, I can say that I went from having a ton of MP3s—many of them downloaded from blogs or directly from artists—to just having the aforementioned Ratchet, Watch the Throne by Kanye West and Jay Z, and a handful of other basically random albums and songs that I happened to buy from the iTunes store.
On a basic level, I don’t have a music collection anymore because Apple made it too hard and frustrating to maintain one.
It’s my fault, obviously. If I were better at computers or maybe just more adept at interpreting the cryptic language that populates Apple’s dialog boxes, my life would probably be different. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous that a software suite from one of the world’s most successful companies is such a minefield, or that the steps required to move files from one of my Apple devices to another has the potential to rob me of everything I own. It doesn’t make sense that everyone I know ,who still uses iTunes despises it, and that many people, including me, have abandoned it in favor of streaming because managing their libraries became too much of a chore.
In my case it happened gradually and chaotically: Though I do still occasionally seek out mixtapes and stray leaks directly from the web, I’ve mostly just stopped listening to music that’s not available on Spotify. On a basic level, I don’t have a music collection anymore because Apple made it too hard and frustrating to maintain one. And though I certainly deserve some of the blame myself, I can’t help but feel that iTunes has beaten out of me impulses I once cherished, like wanting to download every new mixtape by Lil’ Wayne as soon as it came out, or feeling compelled to own every Smashing Pumpkins album, even though it’s been years since I wanted to listen to them. By making it so difficult to manage my digital music library, iTunes has even closed me off to certain artists I’m confident I would have otherwise loved—for instance, Lil’ B, the ultraprolific rapper who has put out thousands of songs that aren’t available on any streaming service and can’t be bought from the iTunes store.
I’m not saying it’s rational; obviously I could listen to Lil’ B if I really wanted to. And yet the consistently taxing experience of using Apple’s software to acquire, organize, and access my music has dissolved the sense of ownership and identification I once felt toward it. In so doing the company has turned off a part of me that I miss.
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