Apple Sent Two Men to My House. No, They Weren’t Assassins.

“I hope something goes wrong tonight,” said Tom, as he met my eye. He’d just finished petting my dog, and he was on his way out the door.

“Well, not really, but you know what I mean,” he continued.
I did, indeed, know what he meant.

Tom, along with his boss Ezra, had just spent most of Saturday at my dining room table with me, trying to recreate a disaster like we were Netflix green-lighting Fuller House. So far, no luck.

In the days leading up to our face-to-face encounter, they’d earned more of my trust when they acknowledged that A), they’d read the phone transcripts, and although they maintained that she was mistaken, they did not dispute my account of what Amber had told me, and B), they, too, were convinced this was not user error. Before allowing them into my home, though, I’d laid out some conditions. Their research would be strictly limited to Apple Music, iTunes, and my iTunes library, and I would always be in the room to watch them work. Any information gleaned would be used solely for iTunes and Apple Music troubleshooting. If I had a document on my desktop called “Zapruder Film Unedited,” for example, they would still leave it alone. They agreed, both on the phone and in person, so we began.

Through an external drive connected to my laptop, we were now using a specialized version of iTunes in the hopes that the deletion would again occur; an idea that we knew may not pan out, since I’d had Apple Music for eight months before that first mass deletion. If something did go wrong, though, this version of iTunes would document what happened in more detail than the consumer version could.

As one of the first steps in our experiment, I signed back up for Apple Music under Tom and Ezra’s supervision. They conference called with several other engineers in California, talking through their actions and discussing next steps.

While we waited for one particularly long file transfer, we went out to lunch at a local bakery. Since they’d flown in from across the country, they were looking for authentic Southern food. Grits were involved. Full disclosure for those of you who think Apple has given me hush money: they did buy me a breakfast sandwich, and it was delicious.

After lunch, we spent hours troubleshooting, but the problem eluded us. This time, the files remained, which was just one of many confounding elements of my whole saga. The problem wasn’t cut-and-dry, therefore has proven difficult to replicate. For example, one of the many confusing things about the initial file loss was that only most of my music files had disappeared. Most, but not all. To further muddle the issue, the missing—and remaining—files had little in common; some were WAV, others Mp3, others protected AAC files that I’d purchased through iTunes between 2003 and 2009. Genre, size, and artist name varied greatly among the missing files, as did date added. There was no discernible pattern.

 

LolaCablesWithCaption

Although the day offered no revelations, we weren’t yet finished. Before Tom and Ezra left on Saturday afternoon, we discussed my homework. I was to treat this as any other Saturday night:
-Buy some songs in the iTunes Store.
-Import some of my own mixes from Logic and/or Pro Tools.
-Mess with some playlists.
-Stream my personal library to the Apple TV in the living room while my wife and I drank beers and played Boggle. Hey, I never claimed my life was any more glamorous than yours.

Since our listening choices were being documented, and had a marginal chance of being scrutinized for the ages, I made sure to include several songs from the early Sugar Hill Records catalog–which I still think may ultimately lead to world peace. Besides “Rapper’s Delight,” can Bashar al-Assad even name one song by The Sugarhill Gang? See?

Tom returned alone on Sunday to collect the data logs, and to clear my laptop of any evidence he’d been there.* While we waited for files to transfer, we finally got to geek out a little, which was something I’d admittedly been looking forward to. Although friendly the day before, Tom was of course very focused, and he didn’t even mention the Missile Command pint glass in which I’d given him some water. On Sunday, however, he talked more freely. We discussed pets, and work, and horror movies, both agreeing that John Carpenter’s The Thing may be the finest ever made. Apple may be a huge corporation, and I’ll never see most of what’s behind the curtain—but this Senior Engineer, who sat petting my dog and discussing Breaking Bad, was just some guy doing his best. Maybe not exactly like me, but not very different, either. OK, probably wealthier.

I am aware that there are people who think Apple is Satan himself, and I’m not here to try to convince you otherwise. There are also Apple apologists who believe The Great Fruit can do no wrong. You, too, will most likely not be swayed, and I’m sure you have your reasons. Regardless of whether I’ll remain a lifelong Apple software user, I’m still glad to have a chance to help those who are.

One of the things on which Tom, Ezra, and I seemed to agree was that Apple is not off of the hook yet. Their software failed me in a spectacular, destructive way; and since I rang that bell, many people have come forward with similar stories. Some may be a result of user error, but I have a hard time believing all are. I think Apple does, too; which is why, as of this writing, they have stated they are currently working on an iTunes update with additional safeguards added. If they can’t yet isolate the bug, they can at least develop measures to combat it. Like in The Thing, when…well, never mind.

If you take nothing else away from this, please remember to back up your data. Redundantly. If you don’t like to manually click and drag, Retrospect has worked well for me in the past. If you’re an Apple user, Time Machine is pretty solid, but keep in mind that Time Machine overwrites its own, older backups when drive space diminishes. That means that, if you don’t catch a problem quickly enough, even those automatic backups may be missing the data in question. It’s worth taking the time to personally make sure you’re backing up what you believe you are.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch the first episode of Firefly. I’ve never seen it, but Tom told me it’s a great program, and I’m trying to keep an open mind. If it turns out to not work for me, I can always do something else with my time and money.

*Just to be safe, I wiped my drive completely and reinstalled everything from a backup I’d made moments before our spelunking commenced on Saturday.

Apple and James’ Excellent Adventure

Within hours of my blog post going viral, I received a phone call from John, an Apple representative. I cautiously heard him out.

John wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, and connected us both to Dave, one of Apple’s technicians. Despite what Amber had told me, Dave asserted that deletion of original files isn’t supposed to happen. This obviously put me in an awkward position, since I’d relied on Amber’s expertise while writing my original blog. Although I’m guarded, since Apple has given me two conflicting responses, I really hope that Dave is correct–because the alternative is Robocop 2-level bleak.

ET and Jimmy 1982

The Author, at the Exact Moment He First Developed Trust Issues.

I want to believe in a future that is less Ready Player One and more Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. So I talked with Dave about the details of what happened, answering his questions thoroughly. He’s looking into the issue, and I’ll be sure to post an update if or when we make any progress. In the days since then, I’ve received another call from Dave and some of his fellow engineers, but as of now they’ve told me of no new breakthroughs. At the moment, I’ve been using Swinsian as an iTunes alternative, and so far I’m really pleased with how smoothly and intuitively it operates. No, I’m not a shareholder. Yet.

My original blog post was a warning, aimed at helping others avoid a similar situation. But if Amber was incorrect, and Apple Music is not supposed to delete the users’ files, then I’m actually relieved. It means that all of us who’ve suffered through this fell victim to a bug rather than something more malicious.

We’ll see. Or maybe we’ll never know. In the meantime, as Abraham Lincoln said, be excellent to each other.

Apple Stole My Music. No, Seriously.

*See update 1 and update 2 for the conclusion of the below story.

“The software is functioning as intended,” said Amber.
“Wait,” I asked, “so it’s supposed to delete my personal files from my internal hard drive without asking my permission?”
“Yes,” she replied.

Angry man crashing laptop

Maybe I’m Not Pressing the Keys Hard Enough.

I had just explained to Amber that 122 GB of music files were missing from my laptop. I’d already visited the online forum, I said, and they were no help. Although several people had described problems similar to mine, they were all dismissed by condescending “gurus” who simply said that we had mislocated our files (I had the free drive space to prove that wasn’t the case) or that we must have accidentally deleted the files ourselves (we hadn’t). Amber explained that I should blow off these dismissive “solutions” offered online because Apple employees don’t officially use the forums—evidently, that honor is reserved for lost, frustrated people like me, and (at least in this case) know-it-alls who would rather believe we were incompetent, or lying, than face the ugly truth that Apple has vastly overstepped its boundaries.

What Amber explained was exactly what I’d feared: through the Apple Music subscription, which I had, Apple now deletes files from its users’ computers. When I signed up for Apple Music, iTunes evaluated my massive collection of Mp3s and WAV files, scanned Apple’s database for what it considered matches, then removed the original files from my internal hard drive. REMOVED them. Deleted. If Apple Music saw a file it didn’t recognize—which came up often, since I’m a freelance composer and have many music files that I created myself—it would then download it to Apple’s database, delete it from my hard drive, and serve it back to me when I wanted to listen, just like it would with my other music files it had deleted.

This led to four immediate problems:

1. If Apple serves me my music, that means that when I don’t have wifi access, I can’t listen to it. When I say “my music,” I don’t just mean the music that, over twenty years (since before iTunes existed), I painstakingly imported from thousands of CDs and saved to my computer’s internal hard drive. I also mean original music that I recorded and saved to my computer. Apple and wifi access now decide if I can hear it, and where, and when.

2. What Apple considers a “match” often isn’t. That rare, early version of Fountains of Wayne’s “I’ll Do The Driving,” labeled as such? Still had its same label, but was instead replaced by the later-released, more widely available version of the song. The piano demo of “Sister Jack” that I downloaded directly from Spoon’s website ten years ago? Replaced with the alternate, more common demo version of the song. What this means, then, is that Apple is engineering a future in which rare, or varying, mixes and versions of songs won’t exist unless Apple decides they do. Said alternate versions will be replaced by the most mainstream version, despite their original, at-one-time correct, titles, labels, and file contents.

3. Although I could click the little cloud icon next to each song title and “get it back” from Apple, their servers aren’t fast enough to make it an easy task. It would take around thirty hours to get my music back. And even then…

4. Should I choose to reclaim my songs via download, the files I would get back would not necessarily be the same as my original files. As a freelance composer, I save WAV files of my own compositions rather than Mp3s. WAV files have about ten times the number of samples, so they just sound better. Since Apple Music does not support WAV files, as they stole my compositions and stored them in their servers, they also converted them to Mp3s or AACs. So not only do I need to keep paying Apple Music just to access my own files, but I have to hear an inferior version of each recording instead of the one I created.

Of course, there are more issues than this. Apple has faced widespread complaints regarding Apple Music displaying incorrect album art, mangling file information, and Apple “geniuses” being ill-informed on the subject, thus unable to offer working solutions.

If you’re wondering why Apple hasn’t been sued yet, it’s because the iTunes Terms of Use vaguely warn of this issue, then later indemnify Apple and preclude any litigation from users who’ve been boned:

“iCloud Music Library is turned on automatically when you set up your Apple Music Subscription…When your Apple Music Subscription term ends…you will lose access to any songs stored in your iCloud Music Library.

Middle finger

Apple’s Terms of Use, Abridged.

…YOU EXPRESSLY AGREE THAT YOUR USE OF, OR INABILITY TO USE, THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE IS AT YOUR SOLE RISK. THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE AND ALL PRODUCTS AND SERVICES DELIVERED TO YOU THROUGH THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE ARE (EXCEPT AS EXPRESSLY STATED BY APPLE) PROVIDED “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” FOR YOUR USE, WITHOUT WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED.

…IN NO CASE SHALL APPLE, ITS DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES, AFFILIATES, AGENTS, CONTRACTORS, OR LICENSORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, SPECIAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES ARISING FROM YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE OR FOR ANY OTHER CLAIM RELATED IN ANY WAY TO YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS IN ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS, OR ANY LOSS OR DAMAGE OF ANY KIND INCURRED AS A RESULT OF THE USE OF ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS POSTED, TRANSMITTED, OR OTHERWISE MADE AVAILABLE VIA THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, EVEN IF ADVISED OF THEIR POSSIBILITY.”

I recovered my original music files only by using a backup I made weeks earlier. Many people don’t back up as often as they should, though, so this isn’t always an option. Amber relayed to me that she’s had to suffer through many calls from people who cancelled their Apple Music subscription after the free, three-month trial, only to discover that all of their own music files had been deleted and there was no way to get them back.

So my files were temporarily restored; but the only way to prevent this from happening over and over, according to Amber, was to cancel my subscription to Apple Music (which she herself doesn’t use due to the above-listed reasons) and to make sure my iCloud settings did not include storing any music backups.

Headphones on Laptop

The Scene of the Crime.

For about ten years, I’ve been warning people, “hang onto your media. One day, you won’t buy a movie. You’ll buy the right to watch a movie, and that movie will be served to you. If the companies serving the movie don’t want you to see it, or they want to change something, they will have the power to do so. They can alter history, and they can make you keep paying for things that you formerly could have bought. Information will be a utility rather than a possession. Even information that you yourself have created will require unending, recurring payments just to access.”

When giving the above warning, however, even in my most Orwellian paranoia I never could have dreamed that the content holders, like Apple, would also reach into your computer and take away what you already owned. If Taxi Driver is on Netflix, Netflix doesn’t come to your house and steal your Taxi Driver DVD. But that’s where we’re headed. When it comes to music, Apple is already there.

Audacious. Egregious. Crazy. These are just some of the adjectives I used in my conversation with Amber.  She actually asked me how I wanted to move forward, putting the onus of a solution back on me. I understand why, too: she’s just as powerless as I am. I would love for Apple to face public backlash and financial ramifications for having taken advantage of its customers in such a brazen and unethical way, but Apple seems beyond reproach at this point. It took three representatives before I could even speak to someone who comprehended what I was saying, and even when she admitted to Apple’s shady practice, she was able to offer no solution besides “don’t use the product.” When our data is finally a full-blown utility, however, “just don’t use the product” will cease to be an option. Apple will be in control, bringing their 1984 commercial full circle into a tragic, oppressive irony.

For an update on how Apple has denied what Amber asserted, as well as how James has been working with Apple to try to troubleshoot the software, click here.

For an update about how two Apple engineers visited James to troubleshoot, click here.