Remove Duplicates, Fix Broken Album Art in iCloud Music Library

For more than 10 years, I’ve been trying to find a good way to listen to my home iTunes collection from work, or on my phone. I’ve hacked up solutions with IceCast and remote screen sharing, used Slink with varying degrees of success, done the FireWire shuffle, you name it.

Taming a Mammoth Music Collection (no, this is not me).

Because my collection includes a lot of obscure and out-of-print music digitized from LP and other sources, Spotify and rdio were never options I loved (and I didn’t want to start over!) All I ever wanted was a good cloud-based solution for iTunes. But when iTunes Match finally arrived, my collection was already 3x larger than its upper limit of 25k tracks allowed, so that was a non-starter (though I begged to be able to throw money at them for a larger quota). At its largest, the collection was almost 6x larger (though I’ve done some paring down in recent months).

When Apple Music was announced, it promised to solve the “let me access my own music from the cloud” problem for once and for all. And when it did arrive, it was glorious. All 30 million+ of their tracks at your fingertips, perfectly integrated with the familiar iTunes interface and your existing collection, available from any device.

Not to mention access to expert human curation. No more “People who like this also liked that” algorithmic baloney of other services, but a real investment in human editors and curators who could help with the “discovery” problem in a way that no chunk of code can. And within days of starting to use it, Apple Music was putting incredible stuff in front of me — absolutely nailing my tastes. Check out this “Influences on Talking Heads” playlist they laid on me one day — if this isn’t playlist nirvana, I don’t know what is. Brilliant.

But while the core service was brilliant, the other shoe dropped almost immediately after launch — people were getting some really weird results with iCloud Music Library, the component that lets you upload your existing collection into their cloud. When it worked, it worked great. But a lot of people were complaining about botched metadata, duplicate tracks, and ridiculously wrong cover art. For those of us who had spent years finessing large collections into perfect shape, this was a non-starter.

The worst problems turned out to be a mix of bad engineering and users not understanding how the service worked. Apple quickly fixed some of the major issues, but duplicate tracks and bad cover art continue to be a problem for some.

In my case, around 5% of my collection ended up in iCloud with bad or missing cover art, or duplicate tracks. The rest of it was perfect, but that 5% was really annoying.

While some people bailed at the first sign of trouble, I stuck with it, because the pairing of Apple Music and iCloud Music Library gives us several things we can’t get with Spotify or rdio:

  • Ideally perfect integration with the music collections we’ve painstakingly massaged and perfected
  • The best discovery/recommendation features I’ve seen on any streaming service (because humans)
  • Seamless collection integration between desktop, laptop and phone
  • Ability to keep the super-rich slicing and dicing made possible by the iTunes interface

Unfortunately, it turns out that matching people’s music well is a hard problem to solve.

Why Do I Have Bad Cover Art?

First of all, understand that iTunes will not mess with your master copy. If you see bad cover art, you’ll only see it on a second Mac, or on an iPhone or iPad. Your original copy stays intact.

WTF?

If you upload an album Apple already has, naturally they want to present their already-stored cloud version. But if your own version of the cover art or metadata is different from theirs for whatever reason, they have two choices:

  • Store a cloud copy that’s uniquely yours (which is inefficient and could lead to you ending up with a worse version than you could have if you had used their copy).
  • Do some guesswork and figure that your copy of a track or album actually does match something similar that they already have. But what counts as “similar enough to match?” Fuzzy territory there. People’s collections are a freaking mess. This can’t be easy.

Naturally iTunes favors the 2nd method when possible.

Making things exponentially harder, many people collect singles, rather than albums. But outside of the album context, it’s hard (impossible) for Apple to figure out whether a track came from your favorite compilation, the original album, or some unique digitally licensed version. And yet they have to provide something. So they guess. And sometimes get it embarrassingly wrong.

Why Do I Have Duplicate Tracks?

In a word: Timing.

If you access your uploaded music from a second Mac (or a phone, I suppose) and see duplicate tracks, and some of them show a cloud icon while others show a cloud icon with a download arrow superimposed, it means Apple hasn’t yet processed tracks for that album. If you wait a bit, or pull down File | Library | Update iCloud Music Library, or quit and restart iTunes, the problem will correct itself in a bit. Don’t freak out.

But if you have a large collection, it could be a different but related situation. As of this writing, iCloud Music Library is limited to 25,000 tracks (we thought it would bump to 100,000 with iOS9, but that didn’t happen). You might have assumed that Apple would auto-upload 25k tracks and then stop, but nope — if you have a large collection, iTunes has uploaded nothing for you, though your previous iTunes purchases do show up. Cornfusing, right?

But here’s the cool bit: If your collection is larger than 25k, you can manually upload just the albums/tracks you want to live in the cloud via right-click | Add to iCloud Music Library. This turns out to be a really nice feature, as your cloud-stored library ends up perfectly curated according to your current tastes, not your decade-ago tastes. Play with it.

How to Fix Duplicate Tracks

If you have a situation like this:

where you see the same tracks or the same album listed twice, it means you purchased this album from iTunes in the past, it’s sync’d copies to your 2nd machine, but it hasn’t yet processed those tracks to make them identical to the ones you want to have in the cloud.

Again, totally confusing, but fixable:

Toggle into Song View, sort by Cloud Status, and select all of the tracks with the simple cloud icon (see screenshot above). Then right-click and choose “Add to iCloud Music Library.” A few minutes later, that list of tracks will integrate/consolidate itself into a single set.

n.b.: I’ve only seen this happen with tracks I’ve previously purchased from Apple.

How to Fix Bad Cover Art

Because of the guessing game Apple has to do with some tracks/albums, you may find that some of your albums have totally wrong cover art. It sucks, but there’s a fix.

Young Rebels??? How iTunes guessed that this was the right cover art for Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” is anyone’s guess. Most likely it started by matching a single uploaded track and incorrectly pegging it as part of a compilation. Then, later, when the rest of the album was uploaded, it applied the wrong artwork to the whole album.
On the Mac that still has the correct cover art (which in my case is always my desktop system at home), select all the tracks in the album, hit Cmd-I (Get Info) and click the Artwork tab. Click on the art itself, hit Cmd-X (to remove it), then Cmd-V to paste it back in. Click OK and let the cover art re-process.
On the host Mac, it’s shown correctly. So why didn’t it upload correctly? C’mon, Apple. Much work to do here.
Select all tracks in the album, then cmd-x, cmd-v to replace the artwork.

On the client Mac, wait a while or quite iTunes and restart. The replaced cover art will now be what you dig (the right artwork!).

Now the client Mac shows the correct artwork.

A bit later, the replacement cover art appears on the client Mac.

With these two techniques and a bit of elbow grease, I’ve been able to clean up all of the duplicate tracks and bad cover art that showed up in my cloud library. Hate that I had to do this work, but Apple Music + iCloud Music Library is otherwise such a perfect pairing, and solves so many long-standing problems for me, that it’s been worth it. Let’s hope they continue to smooth out these rough edges in the future.

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