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iTunes Match Confusion Abound

Here are some of the most common queries, concerns, and misconceptions about Apple’s music service, laid out for your reading pleasure.

via iTunes Match: What you need to know | Macworld.

Macworld wrote a nice article here clearing up a lot of the misconceptions surrounding iTunes Match. I think this is a classic case of people hearing what they wanted to hear back when Apple announced this service. Many had it in their heads that it was some grand Cloud strategy that would allow them to no longer store any of their music on their devices, and just stream it all at will from anywhere. And that’s not really what iTunes Match is.

Which is why I questioned the value of iTunes Match when it was announced, and everyone else seemed to think I was crazy.

The way I see it, there are only two reasons to become an iTunes Match member, and only one to become a long-term subscriber.

  1. You have a lot of songs in your iTunes library that are lower quality than 256 AAC, and you want a quick and cheap way to upgrade all those tracks to better-quality versions.

  2. You have a lot of obscure music that isn’t available on iTunes, and you’re too lazy to set up music synching with your computer and let it sync once.

The first reason turned out, to my surprise, to be enough for me to sign up, at least for one year. I don’t plan on re-subscribing next year, as reason 2 doesn’t apply to me. But I found that I did indeed have a lot of tracks (over 7,000) that were either ripped from my CDs prior to the iTunes Store era, in which case they were mostly MP3s, or, and this was the kicker, bought prior to Apple’s switch over to iTunes Plus, in which case they were still encumbered with DRM and only encoded at 128k. Apple has long had a service whereby you could pay 30 cents a track to upgrade your old purchased tracks to 256, non-DRM versions, but with the size of my purchased library, I was looking at over $350 to upgrade all my older tunes to iTunes Plus. So I never did. And that would leave my old CD rips out, as well. Being able to upgrade all those tunes alone made the $24.99 for one year of iTunes Match a no-brainer for me.

For those of you who never paid for your music back in the Napster era, think of iTunes Match as a one-time $25 fee to make as much as 25,000 songs of that music legit, no questions asked. My guess is that if you didn’t value the music enough to pay for it back then, you won’t now, even at that bargain price.

Beyond upgrading old purchased and CD tracks to 256k, though, I don’t really see the point of iTunes Match in the long run. Because, and here’s where the confusion comes in for a lot of people, it’s not a streaming service. There’s a streaming component, but it’s not the primary focus.

Sure, you can technically stream songs in iTunes that aren’t on your computer. And your AppleTV, which doesn’t have a hard drive, will stream your music as well. But that doesn’t make iTunes Match a streaming service. Rather, it’s a service that happens to stream sometimes.

iTunes Match is essentially iCloud for your music. Like iCloud, there is a copy out there in the Cloud for you to grab and pull down to any one of your devices. But the focus is still on the local copy of the file. On iOS devices, if you listen to any iTunes Match track that isn’t currently on the device, it doesn’t stream; it DOWNLOADS the track and leaves it on the device after you’ve listened. It plays the local copy, not the Cloud copy, in other words.

And, to be honest, that’s the way I want it. I don’t live in this fantasy world where I’m connected to solid, uninterrupted 3G or Wifi 24-hours a day. In fact, where I listen to music the most (on the subway, walking around downtown San Francisco, and in many cafés) I’m connected to neither 3G nor WiFi quite often. So a Cloud-only music service would be fairly useless to me. I’d be without music a majority of the time.

Downloading the occasional random track that I didn’t think I’d want while I was around my computer last is a nice bonus, sure. But the chances that I’ll want to do that often enough to justify $25 a year are slim.

I’m perfectly content with going to iTunes on my computer and telling it to sync my music over WiFi once. After that, everything I buy new on the iTunes Store gets downloaded automatically to all my iOS devices, anyway. And all my past iTunes purchases can be downloaded with a tap, no iTunes Match needed. It’s only my old CD rips that won’t be available in the cloud after my first year is up. No big deal to me.

If the majority of your music isn’t from iTunes, AND it’s obscure enough that iTunes Match won’t even recognize it, AND you still want to be able to download it at will, then sure it makes sense to keep subscribing year after year to iTunes Match. Otherwise, sign up for the first year, get your lower-quality tunes matched up, and then you’re good to go.

If you’re really looking to store no music on any devices, and you just want to stream everywhere all the time, then Apple isn’t where you want to get your music. Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, etc. are the way to go for you.

If you’re a quality nut, and you only want songs ripped in pristine AIFF or Apple Lossless, no Cloud service is ever  going to be for you. You’ll be manually syncing forever.

If you have more than 25,000 tracks, you should seek professional help. You’re a collector, not a listener. No one who owns that much music has listened to it all once, let alone enough to appreciate it.

Why so many people seemed to think that iTunes Match was going to be everything for everyone is a mystery to me. As I said before, I think a lot of people heard what they wanted to hear, rather than what was actually being announced.