Essays on Technology and Culture

Fear Of A Cloudy iTunes

I use iTunes a lot. I’m also one of those rare people who have very few issues with iTunes. It imports my music. It plays my music. It synchronizes my music to my iPhone. It works. Barely, sometimes, but it works. I’d love to see an update and a rethink of the UI, but whatever happens with upcoming versions of iTunes there is one thing I don’t want to see. I don’t want my music to live in the cloud.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind having my music be in the cloud. As long as the cloud is an accurate mirror of my locally stored music library, access to it from any device would be awesome. There’s no way to keep a local copy of all my music, anyway. Apple doesn’t make a portable device large enough, anymore. Even if they still made the iPod classic, it couldn’t hold all my music. I sync a subset of my massive library onto my phone. This means that if I want to listen to an album at work that isn’t on my phone, I’m out of luck.

Yes, I am an edge case.

So, cloud-based music locker services are pretty much made for me, right?


There’s a lot of trust that a cloud-based music locker needs that I am not willing to give up yet. I need to trust that the music locker will respect my anal-retentive metadata and organization. I need to trust that the music locker will not replace my rips from vinyl or remastered CDs will be replaced by different versions. I need to trust that the music locker will not replace my live recordings—of various degrees of legality—with studio recordings. I need to trust my music will remain mine, and not used as a way to get more data to display more relevant ads. I need to trust that the software I use to access and play my music works the way I think. I need to trust that the right music will play, without issue, when I tap the play button.

Right now, none of the options out there meet that level of trust. I’m wary of using Google and Amazon’s lockers, because I don’t trust those companies with my personal data. This leaves iTunes Match and/or iCloud Music Library. Until recently, my library was too large to use either. I actually whittled my library down to make it fit, and my readers will already know how that worked out.

Even if the issues around iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library are sorted out—and I have no evidence this is the case—Apple has lost my trust in this area. It might not be a permanent loss of trust, but they’re so far behind that it will take a lot of work to do it. If iTunes, or whatever replaces it, puts the cloud first, it needs to be flawless for me, and other obsessive music nerds (like, say, Jim Dalrymple).

What does I mean by flawless?

It means that my music remains my music—that nothing is modified by Apple between my media drive, the cloud, and my iOS devices. End of story. The only way I can have this, with services I can trust, is to synchronize files to my phone. This might be going away. Rene Ritchie wrote on the possibility of iTunes moving to a cloud-first model, and the idea scares the hell out of me.

What worries me most about a cloud-first iTunes is that it means I will lose the ability to simply synchronize music files to my iPhone. Right now, iTunes has this bizarre (to me) hybrid approach where music can live in either a set of local files or in the cloud. My way of dealing with the ambiguity is to disregard every cloud element of iTunes and use it purely with local files. This is the way I’ve managed my music for over a decade. A cloud-first iTunes will, at best, leave local media as a second-class citizen.

I don’t suspect malice on Apple’s part for this, though I’m sure they would love more Apple Music subscribers. I suspect that the Music and iTunes teams at Apple feel that the cloud for media is the future: streaming first, a music locker second. They genuinely think is the best solution for everyone, and maybe it is for your average music listener. I am not the average music listener. On the day I wrote this, I dropped $75 on a two LP reissue of DEVO’s E-Z Listening Muzak collection. This is not normal—for multiple reasons. If Apple has to leave anyone behind for their ideal music listening future, it’s going to be the loonies like me.

So, if Apple leaves me behind, what do I do? There are iTunes replacement apps, but they don’t synchronize my phone. Plus, while all my digital music is DRM-free—both what I purchased in iTunes and acquired through, er, other means—I have videos that are copy protected. If I ditch iTunes, I lose access to them, unless I break the DRM. How soon before I buy a Sansa Clip, a high capacity SD card, and manually manage my music again, down to the file level, like it’s 1998 all over again?

I try not to be afraid of technological change. I try not to be cynical. As it stands right now, I see no way out. Music is a huge part of my life. I even own music on cassette tape. I don’t even have a tape player. Music moving to the cloud threatens to upend so much of how I experience something that brings me no end of joy. I can’t be the only one.