Apple Music and the Case of the Missing Audio Files

Can the Apple Music streaming service, launched in June 2015, remove music files from your hard drive without your permission? Even files you created yourself? The answer appears to be “maybe,” but the good news is that there are simple measures you can take to make sure your music doesn't disappear.

An online controversy was sparked earlier this month when a blog posted titled “Apple Stole My Music. No, Seriously,” went viral. It recounted the tale of a frustrated Apple Music user named James Pinkstone, who reported that his huge collection of music files had been deleted from his hard drive when the streaming service went rogue on him. A few days ago, a pair of Apple technicians flew out from California to Pinkstone’s home in Atlanta to investigate.

The incident started when Pinkstone clicked on a music file from his iTunes library and experienced an unexpected delay before it started playing. The same thing happened with other music files. This made him wonder whether, instead of accessing the music stored on his hard drive, he was actually listening to a streamed version of the songs. He turned off his WiFi and the music stopped, confirming his suspicions.

His surprise turned to panic when he checked his hard drive and saw 122GB of free space that hadn’t been there a few days earlier: His music collection was gone, except for a few random songs.

Pinkstone’s library didn’t consist solely of songs downloaded from iTunes. It included musical rarities, such as little-heard versions of tunes from the band Fountains of Wayne that he had downloaded from a collectors-edition CD. And when he tried to retrieve those cuts from Apple Music, it gave him the easy-to-find album versions instead. Further, songs that he had encoded as high-resolution WAV files had been replaced with low-res MP3 files. Pinkstone manages a photography and design studio called Vellum, but he also has a freelance career composing music for commercial clients. His most devastating discovery? His original compositions were also gone.

In his blog post, Pinkstone wrote that when he called AppleCare tech support, a specialist named Amber gave him some disturbing news.

“The software is functioning as intended,” said Amber.

“Wait,” I asked, “so it’s supposed to delete my personal files from my internal hard drive without asking my permission?”

“Yes,” she replied.

According to Pinkstone, Amber added that she had helped a number of users frustrated when some or all of their music libraries disappeared. And Apple’s own online forums are sprinkled with many other users who claim that similar things happened to them.

Apple: Lovers and Haters

Pinkstone’s post sparked an online skirmish between devoted Apple fans and the company’s equally vocal detractors, with the former accusing Pinkstone of user error (or acting on some sort of grudge against the company) and the latter group using the incident as an opportunity to take shots at the computer giant.

“I feel like I got stuck in the middle of an ideological battle,” Pinkstone says.

More reasonable voices in the tech community, like iMore’s Serenity Caldwell, explained that, despite what Amber from Apple apparently said, Apple Music really isn't meant to work that way. Here's what the Apple website says: “We compare every track in your collection to the Apple Music library to see if we have a copy. If we do, you can automatically listen to it straight from the cloud. If you have music that’s not in our catalog, we upload those songs from iTunes on your Mac or PC. It’s all in iCloud, so it won’t take up any space on your devices.”

However, the program should not delete the originals without your permission.

Since the blog post appeared, Pinkstone has conferred with a small army of Apple tech support people. After lengthy phone consultations between Pinkstone and a number of the company’s “geniuses,” Apple escalated the issue. The company sent high-level techs from its Cupertino, Calif., base to Pinkstone’s home in Atlanta.

The techs spent the entire weekend examining Pinkstone’s machine, poring over his Time Machine backups, and attempting to replicate the problem. They couldn’t do it—but this was no particular surprise given that Pinkstone had been using Apple Music for months without a problem before his files disappeared.

Pinkstone says he has been using Apple products since he got his first Apple IIGS in the mid-1980s. “I’m not a programmer, but I’m no novice,” he says.

And he rejects the idea that user error is to blame here. Pinkstone believes that the pattern of the missing songs—and notably the remaining ones—would have required an elaborate series of missteps. The songs that remained after the data purge were random, added to the library on different dates, with track and artist names that were scattered through the alphabet. “If A through Y were gone, but it left Frank Zappa, I can understand how that could have been user error,” Pinkstone says.

The logical conclusion is that some rather esoteric bug in Apple Music did cause the files to disappear. And according to Pinkstone, the technicians who came to his house agreed that user error wasn't the cause of the problem.

“In an extremely small number of cases users have reported that music files saved on their computer were removed without their permission,” Apple spokesperson Tom Neumeyr told us in a statement last week that was also sent to other outlets. “We’re taking these reports seriously as we know how important music is to our customers and our teams are focused on identifying the cause. We have not been able to reproduce this issue." However, Apple released an update to iTunes that includes additional safeguards.

The overwhelming majority of Apple Music users never experience such problems, but this sort of issue is reported occasionally, and not just in regard to Apple products. For instance, last year some Spotify users reported glitches in which the files downloaded to a computer or smartphone had disappeared. However, since the files in question were copies of songs streaming from a Spotify playlist, users were more annoyed than outraged.

The Takeaway: Back Up Your Music

How can you protect yourself from losing your music? First and foremost, you can do what Pinkstone did. Make backups. Often. He relies heavily on Apple’s Time Machine software, and also stores his data on an external hard drive. For this reason, his Apple Music debacle was an inconvenience for him rather than a full-blown disaster.

“My backups saved me,” he says.

You can debate the tradeoffs between archiving data on hard drives—which can break—and on-line backup and storage systems—which are only as stable (or unstable) as the companies operating them. Pinkstone chooses the hard-drive route, and even goes so far as to occasionally bring a backup drive when he visits his parents home in Pennsylvania. “In case my house burns down,” he half-jokes.

But whichever way you go, do something. One day, chances are, you'll be glad you did.

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