Sunday, April 19, 2009

iTunes Plus Fail

So, recently Apple has been gradually updating all its protected content to unprotected (though tagged) files. I've been buying the upgrades as new versions become available.

But the process has kind of petered out lately, and now a banner on the iTunes Store home claims "Music is Now 100% iTunes Plus."

So does this mean I have upgraded all my songs -- all ummm, wow, thousand-plus?

Well, not exactly. I have a "residue" of about 65 songs that I apparently can't upgrade. Let's look at the different situations here.

Some of them are from completed albums that just don't exist on iTunes anymore. Here are a few examples: Otis Taylor's album Below the Fold is just gone. The Orb's Bicycles and Tricycles, just gone, as well as the EP entitled Aftermath. Tommy Keene's album Crashing the Ether. So there's no "upgrade path" to these tracks.

For whatever reason, the DRM-free versions were not made available, and for the sake of -- what, DRMological purity? -- the old songs were not kept around as DRM files, but just... purged. Tossing out whole albums seems like a funny way to achieve the goal of 100% DRM-free music.

Should I expect iTunes Plus versions of these to reappear at some point in the future? I feel like it is incumbent on Apple to propose a solution here, especially if they have a goal of eventually decommissioning their DRM playback authorization service. That would be very uncool, because these tracks would then no longer play, unless I bypass the DRM in one of the various methods available.

Another case: the first big album by Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). The original is not available as iTunes Plus tracks because it's been replaced by the remastered album, which has a few extra tracks. I guess I shouldn't expect to get a low-cost upgrade to remastered tracks; the labels themselves push this kind of upgrade. But still, it might have been nice to see Apple upgrade the original non-remastered tracks. This was a very popular album; I wonder how many people who purchased it now find themselves in my position?

Some other cases are more confusing. I own a whole bunch of loose tracks purchased from compilations -- and those compilations albums are now gone. The songs themselves are most likely all still available on iTunes, but in their original albums, or in different compilations, so there's no inexpensive upgrade, because their system doesn't think they are the same song.

This seems to be the case even for some tracks that aren't from compilations. I have a single track from Michael Jackson's album Off the Wall. The album is there in the store, and it doesn't seem to be a remaster or contain any change to the track listing. There is no apparent way to upgrade it aside from buying the new track. Why?

I guess it isn't incumbent on Apple to provide me with an upgrade path, but it's annoying; I was able to buy upgrades for almost all of my material.

Then there are some cases that seem like mistakes. I own the DRM version of Rush's album Exit... Stage Left (the remastered edition). It's there in the iTunes catalog as iTunes Plus, but there isn't an upgrade option. And five or six of the tracks are missing. There's a similar situation with their album All the World's a Stage, except in that case only four tracks out of the ten or so are available. Following the link from the protected album in my library to the iTunes Store doesn't even take me to the album, or the band, just to "Rock." So maybe it's a database problem?

I can't complain too much -- it looks like I was able to upgrade more than 90% of my purchased iTunes music. The audio quality is better, and there's no DRM. But having it mostly work also serves to highlight the parts that didn't work. And having music just disappear from iTunes -- well, it makes me nervous, like seeing books disappear from the bookstore, for unclear reasons. Because they just didn't sell well enough to earn their keep? That's not what I'd expect for an entire online store that is 90% or more "long tail."

How about you -- if you owned any protected content from iTunes, have you upgraded it? How did the process go for you?

UPDATE 1: a few days later, I am still seeing new iTunes Plus ugrades to existing tracks become available. So, apparently Apple has indeed, at least in some cases, removed the DRM tracks before providing their iTunes Plus replacements. Also, I noticed that the example I showed of a "broken" album can't even be purchased as an album or partial album with one click, just track-by-track. Do albums appear piecemeal in the iTunes store as they are added, even if they are not complete?

UPDATE 2: it isn't just some old rock albums. Kate Bush's album Aerial -- a fantastic album, by the way -- is listed as a "partial album." Only 7 tracks are available, out of sixteen, and you have to buy them individually. I don't get it!

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