When the iTunes Store first opened for business back in 2003, all the music tracks were locked up with a digital rights management (or DRM) scheme called “Fairplay” to prevent sharing. If you bought a track from the store, you could only play on it one of five authorized computers or via iPods that you had synced with one of those five. But not only could the songs not be shared with friends, you also couldn’t play the music you had just legally acquired on many other legal devices you might purchase, like a Sonos wireless speaker or almost all other non-Apple MP3 players. While DRM did nothing to discourage piracy, it harrassed, hindered and harried paying customers.
Eventually, the music industry saw the light, thanks in part to Apple agreeing to a huge price hike, and stopped requiring DRM encumbrances. That was a great move but it left a lot of us with collections filled with previously legally purchased music that still had the DRM lockdown. Apple graciously offered to upgrade such tracks to a higher quality, DRM-free version for 30 cents a pop. But the iTunes Plus upgrade service, as it was called, was a disastrous mess.
So I have long had a smart playlist I set up in iTunes to list all my music tracks that still had DRM. And, even after spending a small fortune on iTunes Plus, the list still had several hundred tracks remaining. Well, they were remaining until just the other day when Apple opened its cloud-based iTunes Match service as an extension to its regular iCloud music service. For $25 a year, iTunes Match lets you upload any tracks to iCloud which you owned but had not purchased from iTunes to share among all your registered computers and devices.
There is also another, less-publicized side benefit. Tracks downloaded from iCloud are DRM-free and recorded at the high-quality rate of 256 kilobits per second. This means that if iTunes match matched your leftover DRM-locked, lower quality music, you can finally get out of jail free. Here’s how:
1. Make a smart playlist where “Kind” contains the phrase “Protected AAC audio file” and the “bit rate” is “128 kbps.”
2. Everything that appears on this smart playlist is the old, locked up kind of music track. IMPORTANT: On the view of this list, right click at the top on the categories of stuff where it says Name, Time, Artist etc and add two more categories: “iCloud Download” and “iCloud Status.”
3. Run the “Update iTunes Match” on your library. It’s under the Store menu in iTunes.
4. Now you can start the laborious process of deleting these crummy DRM tracks and getting back better and freer tracks.
5. I started by sorting the list by artist. Then find all the tracks on the smart list that have an iCloud status of “Matched” or “Purchased.” THIS TRICK WILL NOT WORK ON TRACKS WITH A STATUS OF “UPLOADED” OR “ERROR.”
6. Unfortunately, you can’t delete tracks directly from the smart playlist. You have to identify each track on the smart list and then go back to your whole music library on iTunes and find it again. If you are paranoid, click command-I after selecting each track in the main music library to make sure it is indeed DRM locked, visible on the “Kind” line as “Protected AAC audio file.” Delete the track if so. DO NOT CHECK THE BOX THAT SAYS “ALSO DELETE THIS SONG FROM iCLOUD” — do not, not, not check that box. On the next dialogue box that comes up, click that you want to throw away the file in the trash.
7. Now that you have deleted the old DRM-ed file, the song should still be listed in iTunes but with a download from the cloud icon:
Click on the iCloud icon and a fresh new copy of the track will be downloaded from Apple’s servers, one that is DRM-free and 256 kbps. Sweet!
There are all kinds of tracks of that can’t be re-downloaded using this trick, unfortunately. In my library of 5,000 odd songs, I am still stuck with 25 that are low-quality, DRM-locked versions. Most are special versions of songs that the iTunes store no longer carries like an acoustic version of U2’s “Stuck in a Moment.” Some are from albums that are no longer sold for download, like Prince’s “Musicology.” Seven are tracks from the original, self-published release of Nellie McKay’s album “Pretty Little Head” that were excluded when Sony re-released the album later.
In some cases, though, the songs iTunes Match couldn’t quite match were just duplicates of songs I’d long ago upgraded via iTunes Plus. A little library clean up is in order in these cases. For example, a duplicate version of Matchbox 20’s song “3AM” was hanging around as the older DRM-locked file because it was listed as “3 AM” (note the extra space). I just deleted the duplicate from both my library and iCloud.
And that’s it! Good luck cleaning up your library.