Clarifying the Apple Music DRM Situation

My apologies to Serenity Caldwell, writing for iMore,1 for liberally quoting her piece here, but I have complaints. Not with Caldwell, but with what this piece means:

Just like with the company’s iTunes Match service, Apple Music allows you to upload the music you own on your Mac to iCloud; from there, you can stream and download it using your iCloud Music Library to your other devices.

Apple’s upload algorithm for Apple Music works in two parts. First, it scans your library for any tracks that also happen to be in Apple Music, and matches those together—so when you download a copy of your song on a different Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Then, any songs it can’t match, it uploads directly to iCloud; when you download a copy of those songs on a different device, you’re getting the same file you had on your Mac.

This all sounds exactly like iTunes Match, with one tiny exception:

… you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Not the iTunes catalogue — the Apple Music one. iTunes lacks DRM; Apple Music has DRM. That’s the difference: it’s subtle, and it’s poorly-explained. iCloud Music Library is a completely different pitch to that of iTunes Match and iCloud Photo Library, despite sounding similar, if not identical.

Here’s what Apple says about iTunes Match:

With iCloud, the music you buy from the iTunes Store automatically appears on all your devices. And for music you haven’t purchased from iTunes, iTunes Match is the perfect solution, letting you store your entire collection in iCloud — even music you’ve imported from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes.

And for iCloud Photo Library:

iCloud Photo Library helps you make the most of the space available on each of your devices by automatically storing the original high-resolution photos and videos in iCloud and leaving behind the lightweight versions that are perfectly sized for each device — taking up only as much space as needed.

Reading between the lines, these pitches sound like Apple is saying “Hey, don’t worry about your ever-increasing media libraries taking up way too much space on all your devices. Leave it with us, and we’ll keep it safe.”

Here’s the pitch for Apple Music:

Your entire library lives in iCloud when you’re an Apple Music member. First, we identify all the tracks in your personal collection and compare them to the Apple Music library to see if we have copies. If we do, we make them instantly available in iCloud across all your devices. If you have music that’s not in the Apple Music library, we upload those songs from iTunes on your Mac or PC. And because it’s all stored in iCloud, it won’t take up any space on your devices.

Sounds pretty much the same, doesn’t it? And it has a similar name to iCloud Photo Library, so you’d expect it to behave in a similar way. But it does not. Caldwell, continued:

So what gets DRM? Any matched track you download to another device. It gets DRM because the file itself is coming directly from the Apple Music catalog, which, as we established above, has DRM on it.

Uploaded tracks that you re-download will never get DRM, because they’re not coming from the Apple Music catalog.

So: tracks that are matched to the gigantic Apple Music catalogue will have DRM applied when you download them again, whether that’s to your iOS device, or another Mac that doesn’t have the song in its local library. Apple will just store, locker style, tracks that you upload, like a live bootleg recording or something recorded by a local band that isn’t on Apple Music (or the Beatles). This is almost identical behaviour to that of iTunes Match, with the exception that tracks are being matched to the DRM-laden Apple Music catalogue, not the DRM-free iTunes catalogue.

So this makes sense:

That said: Do not upload all your tracks from iTunes to iCloud, then delete the local copy on your Mac. If you do that, you’re getting rid of your original, DRM-free copies. And you’re leaving yourself without a physical backup of your data, which I never, ever recommend.

It’s probably a bad idea to be without a local backup of your music, but that’s almost what it sounds like with iTunes Match: store everything in the cloud, and you’ll have it available any time you want. It isn’t as risky because the files are DRM-free, and are of a good enough quality (256 kbps AAC) that most people really won’t care that they’re not the “original” files.

Apple Music and iCloud Music Library are pitched so closely, and the nuanced differences are not explained very well. Yet, these differences are incredibly important to know, because a normal person could reasonably consider their library to be safely off their computer, readily accessible when it’s needed, and largely recoverable if they were to switch to a different service.

This is an article that Serenity Caldwell should not have had to write. Not because of some of the FUDdier articles around,2 but because Apple should be more clear about the difference between Apple Music and iTunes. I would bet actual money that Apple wanted to — in essence — add these features onto the existing iTunes library, but were prohibited from doing so by record labels.

The reality is more confusing than that, and Caldwell’s article helps clarify it somewhat, but I still feel a bit lost in an array of very similar products. If this sounded simple to you before reading Caldwell’s article or mine — two libraries of music with two similar matching products that behave in differing ways — you seem to be one of very few.

  1. I have my reservations about linking to this page — or, indeed, anything from Mobile Nations: depending on the ads on the page, I’m seeing over 2,000 errors and 80,000 warnings generated by the advertising and analytics scripts on the site. iMore’s site continues to be a wart on the web, and it’s barely tolerable that this hasn’t been fixed. ↥︎

  2. Thanks to Cult of Mac for reliably being the serious counterpart to Gizmodo while retaining similar journalistic integrity↥︎