A Year With iTunes Match

iTunes Match is an exciting prospect, but after nearly a year of real-world use, it just doesn’t match up.

Freedom from having to manage a big music collection sounds wonderful.  Backing up, restoring, transferring, organizing, updating and otherwise messing around with digital music can be a frustrating waste of time.

At $24.99/year, iTunes Match appears to be a great bargain.  Once matched, your music collection is available on all your devices, and you never have to worry about it again.  Considering that Apple charges a premium of about $100 for every additional 16GB of device space, the price of iTunes match is a good deal, because it can theoretically save hundreds of dollars in storage.  Multiply that by the number of Apple devices you own… not bad.

As a systems engineer of giant web infrastructures, there was a definite “what are the odds?” skepticism about uploading my arcane music library to Apple and having them stream it flawlessly, on demand, to any device.  Turns out I should have listened to my gut, because there are two major problems with iTunes Match as it exists today, and they’re not going away any time soon.

First, network bandwidth is not always up to the task.  There is nothing Apple can do about this.  It’s just a fact of life in 2012 that, from time to time, your mobile device will be in locations or situations where the wireless network is not good enough to stream music reliably.  Think about Pandora and Netflix.  They both have extensive experience and offer state-of-the-art streaming services.  Neither one works 100% reliably over wireless.  The better your network connection, the better they work, and if you are lucky enough to have a wired connection, they might offer reliability comparable to an aging Blu-Ray or DVD player with some slightly scuffed-up discs.  You can work around this problem by anticipating weak network situations and downloading tunes in advance, but in practice, this greatly detracts from the freewheeling set-it-and-forget-it appeal of iTunes Match.

The second problem is with Apple.  Even if you had a perfect network connection, Apple has issues with its infrastructure that prevent smooth delivery of the service.  Based on my own experience and plenty of anecdotal evidence, this is a hard claim to dispute, and it should come as no surprise since the iTunes Match concept is not something that currently exists anywhere else.  It’s an aggressive offering to be sure, and as of this year, a bit too bleeding-edge for my music.

As network quality increases and Apple improves its own infrastructure, it’s possible that iTunes Match will improve, but for now, I’m calling it quits and won’t renew the service next year.  Apple deserves credit for such an ambitious project, and despite the long odds, I believe it could have worked, but it’s not there yet.  On the plus side, the transaction enabled me to upgrade some old lower-quality CD-rips to Apple’s better-encoded 256kbps versions.  That’s nice.

The move toward streaming music instead of keeping stored digital collections will likely continue for sheer convenience, but as storage continues to evolve, there will still be room for locally-stored digital collections.  My personal post-iTunes Match approach will be to use streaming services in combination with local storage.  The ubiquity of free music streaming eliminates the need for a comprehensive collection of everything I might ever want to hear, and for music especially dear to my heart, like Reign in Blood, I can depend on high-quality local storage more than any streaming service — including iTunes Match.  It might be worth another try in a couple of years, but in a couple of years, will it still be relevant?