Apple Music’s “Library” concept is still confusing

Apple Music is much improved, but it is still way too complicated.

Fundamentally it is complicated because it wants to be your cloud library for “your music,” that is, music that you have ripped from CDs or bought from iTunes or whatever, while also being a modern streaming service. That decision has led to the centrality of the “library” concept.

For a pure streaming service, the concept of a library is simply redundant. There is the streaming catalog, and then your playlists. A “library” need be nothing more than a really big playlist (“My 10,000 favorite songs”) or a meta-playlist that just shows you everything in all your other playlists. There’s no reason to introduce another level of hierarchy, and especially not to hang functionality off of it.

For a service that also wants to be a repository of “your” music, maybe you also need a library. But the execution can be improved.

Apple has improved on the library concept a number of ways since Apple Music launched. You can now set it so that adding tracks to a playlist from the Apple Music streaming catalog no longer automatically adds them to your library. Previously, your playlists could only have tracks that are in your library, which is bonkers for a cloud jukebox service. Another improvement is that your own music files now either upload to Apple Music, or match to DRM-free cloud files that you can download free of any restriction on any other computer. Previously, they only matched to entries in the Apple Music streaming catalog, and downloading them was the same as downloading any other Apple Music track–that is, they were DRM’d tracks tied to your subscription. There are real improvements!

Nevertheless the centrality of the library concept still holds Apple Music back. For example, some kinds of metadata only sync between devices for tracks that are in your library. If you create a playlist of tracks, half of which are in your library and half of which are not, and then listen to it 10 times on your iPhone, when you pull up that playlist in iTunes on a Mac, only the tracks in your Apple Music library will have playcounts. That is just silly. Whether or not you have listened to a track is a fact that has nothing to do with whether it is in your library.

Another consequence: in the iOS app, there is now a “downloaded music” section. This is helpful! But if you browse in this section by artist or album you will see, not the artists and albums currently downloaded to your phone, but only the artists and albums downloaded to your phone that are also in your library. So, if you make a playlist of 10 new albums to check out (and why would you want them in your library?) and save it offline, none of them will show up under the artist or albums area of your downloaded music. Those tracks will only be visible if you look under that specific playlist. Again, this is silly: An album is either downloaded to your phone or not. Why are albums that are downloaded to your phone not visible in the “albums” view of the downloaded music section unless they are in your library?

My solution would be this: Your iCloud Music Library should contain only matched and uploaded songs. It should not be possible to add Apple Music tracks to your library. Your library is your music that you brought to Apple Music, and it should not intermingle with Apple Music tracks. When I check out a book from the library, I don’t make room for it on my shelves.

This means that when you search for an album in Apple Music, you shouldn’t see the “Add” button, or the cloud button that you see when Apple Music thinks that album is already in your library. It’s worth pointing out how confusing those buttons are in practice, by the way. Here’s what happens when I look up the album “The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone” by the Apples in Stereo in Apple Music.

I see the “add” button, even though the complete album is already in my library. Why? Because it thinks I’m missing one track, “I Can’t Believe.” Why? When I look at that album in my library, I see that every track but that one matched, and that one track uploaded. Why? I don’t know. I just know that this is an ugly mess. I’d rather not see any ugly “add” or cloud-looking buttons at all or have what I am looking at in the Apple Music catalog change based on what’s going on with my matched and uploaded music. (Of course, behind the scenes Apple should correlate when I listen to matched music to entries in its catalog for the purposes of recommendations. But all that should be invisible to me.)

Finally, when it comes to browsing-type features–where currently I can browse my library by artist or album or song–make it so that I can just browse “My Library” (uploaded and matched tracks) or “My Library and Playlists” (which gives people that want it the ability to build a “collection” of songs they don’t own). This would seem to provide the best of both worlds, and would be conceptually simpler.

Apple Music Has Failed at a Goal Not Worth Pursuing

Nearly every serious problem or misunderstanding I’ve seen myself, and reported by others with Apple Music has to do with iCloud Music Library, its confusing attempt to integrate a user’s existing music library of local files with the streaming service, and, more broadly, with this entire concept of a “library.” Just look through Serenity Caldwell’s troubleshooting guide. It doesn’t work right, but even more fundamentally it’s a pointless exercise.

When it comes to Apple Music, the streaming service, your “music library” should just be the Apple Music catalog. You can make playlists from this and save them offline. No further concept of a “library” is necessary beyond this. If you want to have the equivalent of a “library” you should just be able to create a very large playlist that you can view in different ways. You can even have a smart playlist that shows you all the music in your other playlists. Why is Apple trying to replicate the mental model of a record collection in the cloud, and introducing a somewhat baffling extra layer of hierarchy?

But what, you ask, about your lovingly-curated library of music files, with much music that’s not available on the streaming service, or might just drop off of it because of licensing vagaries? Well, Apple should still offer iTunes Match, even integrating it with with Apple Music. You should still be able to upload or match (to DRM-free files) your local music files, have them live on the cloud, and even have playlists consisting of both Apple Music and Match music. This collection of music you own, instead of renting access to, is indeed a “library.” But there shouldn’t be this concept of a unified library consisting of music you own and music you don’t. To the extent the “library” concept makes sense it should be this cordoned-off area for music the user owns that does not mix with DRM-laden streaming-only tracks. Did you know that if you add music to your iCloud Music Library from Apple Music, you can actually edit the metadata? What is the purpose of this feature, other than to be confusing as hell? When I go to the public library I don’t demand the right to re-title books and alter the dewey decimal system.

This wouldn’t solve issues with how iTunes’ scan-and-match feature itself is subject to errors that are hard to track down, but cordoning off the error-prone matching (and limiting it to the desktop) would solve a lot of the recurrent problems. Ideally, iTunes would be maintained as a local file management program that can perhaps upload tracks to the cloud, with extraneous features like iOS syncing gradually taken out of it, and with Apple Music existing as its own set of apps.

As for me, I’ve been happy with Apple Music, once I figured out its quirks, because I’ve totally given up on Apple managing my music. That I currently am just storing in organized folders, like the old days, that I back up to the cloud, not like the old days. (I listen to this music on the go with the very useful app nPlayer.) Apple’s made a fine streaming service, but it has not succeeded in its goal of being a one-stop-shop for every digital music modality, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, because that’s a stupid goal anyway.