Earlier this week, I wrote about the nightmare that is iTunes and Apple Music. My cri de coeur was prompted by a widely circulated blog post by a guy named James Pinkstone who thought Apple Music had systematically and deliberately deleted 20 years’ worth of his MP3s and replaced them with proprietary streams. It was a chilling story, but a hard one to evaluate because Pinkstone didn’t provide quite enough details about his situation. My conclusion, after talking to Apple Music expert Serenity Caldwell, was that insofar as Pinkstone's music files had been removed from his hard drive, it wasn’t by design, and that most likely, he had inadvertently caused the problem himself as a result of the insanely hard-to-understand iTunes interface.
I’m no longer confident in that conclusion. Thanks to a startup founder named Robert Etropolsky who emailed me after reading my story—and some intense detective work from Caldwell—I now believe Apple Music actually is deleting some people’s MP3s, most likely because of a bug.
Etropolsky used to have 90 gigabytes of music on his hard drive; he now has just 30, and it’s not because he deleted anything himself. As you can see in this extremely clear and persuasive video he posted on YouTube, there are many songs in his collection that iTunes has “matched” to tracks that exist in its cloud-based Apple Music library. This would be more or less OK if Etropolsky could still listen to the MP3s that, in many cases, he imported to his computer years before Apple Music even existed. But as Etropolsky demonstrates, those files are not on his hard drive anymore: Using the TimeMachine feature on his computer, he makes it clear that this was not the case just a few months ago.
In February 2016, Etropolsky points out, he had four full-length Portishead albums on his hard drive. Those albums—which he is using as an example of the larger problem—remain accessible to him through his iTunes library, but only as streams from Apple Music. When he looks in the folder where the Portishead albums used to be, he finds that they are mostly empty.
The big problem here is that if Etropolsky ever decides to stop paying for Apple Music, he will lose access to the Portishead albums altogether, because the files Apple has provided to him in lieu of his originals—the ones he bought on CD years ago and ripped onto his hard drive—will disappear as soon as he ceases to be an Apple Music subscriber. The bottom line: Etropolsky used to have some things, Apple took them away and gave him different things, which it will take away from him if he stops giving them money.
Why did this happen? And could it happen to the rest of us?
Some Apple diehards will undoubtedly respond “it didn’t” and “no, it won’t.” Surely Etropolsky screwed up in some way, they will say, and the terrible thing that happened to him is surely his own damn fault. To them I say, watch the video! If you can figure out what he did wrong, I’m sure he’d love to hear from you, since he himself is an Apple fan who keeps a picture of Steve Jobs as his desktop wallpaper. As he told me in an email, he doesn’t want this to be true.
Another person who doesn’t want it to be true: Serenity Caldwell, the author of an unofficial manual to Apple Music and the managing editor of Apple news site iMore.com, who wrote an article in response to last week’s alarming blog post entitled “No, Apple Music is not deleting tracks off your hard drive—unless you tell it to.”
Caldwell was initially skeptical when she heard Etropolsky’s story, but after asking him a series of detailed questions and looking through a stack of screenshots he had provided for her perusal, she was forced to conclude that much of Etropolsky’s MP3 collection had indeed gone up in smoke, and the cause was not human error. Why this took place, she could not initially determine, but as she explains in a new blog post that just went up on her website, she now believes that a bug is probably to blame. Caldwell writes:
Based on several Apple Support threads, it appears that the most recent version of iTunes 12.3.3 contains a database error that affects a small number of users, and can potentially wipe out their music collection after the update. The error has been mentioned a few times, primarily on the Windows side, in the weeks since the 12.3.3 update, but appears to be rare enough that it hasn't previously received major press. Apple did put out a support document shortly after the 12.3.3 update that walks you through some fixes if you find that your local copies of music are missing.
I can't state for certain that Etropolsky and Pinkstone fell victim to this bug, but based on their descriptions and screenshots, it seems likely that [they did.]
After running through her theory of the "database error" that resulted in the files being deleted without the help of any clueless user, Caldwell adds:
I don't want to incite mass panic, here: This bug appears to have affected a very small number of users, and if you didn't have local files disappear after updating to iTunes 12.3.3, your library is likely just fine. You can check to see if your library is locally-stored by turning on the iCloud Status and iCloud Download icons; if you've been affected, I suggest restoring from a backup or following Apple's Support document.
At the end of my piece from earlier this week, I expressed some tentative optimism about learning to start trusting iTunes again after years of feeling betrayed by it. Reflecting on that now, my mind goes to a Russian saying that I was taught as a child: "We thought maybe it would be better this time, but it turned out the way it always does."
A spokewoman for Apple did not respond to a request for comment.