It's ironic that at its Keynote last week, Apple chose to use DJ software (Algoriddim's excellent djay Pro) to demo the computer's new MacBook Pro Touch Bar, seeing as DJs appear to be abandoning Apple's flagship music program, iTunes, in droves.
What was once the go-to app for organising DJ music libraries is now, frankly, a mess, and judging by what our readers are telling us, they're voting with their feet. Indeed, for the first time ever, we are now - after a lot of deliberation - advising new DJs, or those not particularly committed to it, not to use iTunes at all. Why? Let's take a look.
Why DJs originally flocked to iTunes
Historically, DJ software generally came with file management features that, well, sucked. Meanwhile, when Apple launched the iPod, that device came with an elegant, clean, simple download store and file manager, called iTunes. It worked on PC and Mac, and basically was universally loved.
DJ program makers saw their cue, and built iTunes library viewing into their software. You could download, organise, and prepare your music in iTunes, and open your DJ software to see all your hard work waiting for you. No matter what software you used, it was all there. You could put your DJ playlists in your iPod too, and use them across multiple DJ programs if you liked.
Because iTunes established itself among DJs so universally, over the years we've found ways around its changes, foibles and stumbles. But lately, iTunes has become less and less attractive. Bringing us to today...
Why you should consider stopping using iTunes for your DJ music
- It's become big and bloated - iTunes used to be about music downloads and sync, with iPod, with DJ software, to your phone. Now it's about films, TV programmes, home video, podcasts, audio books, online learning, app management, streaming music... It's become this unwieldy catch-all that baffles most users and has been heading in the wrong direction for years. As a clean, focused music library app, it's now so far from ideal to be almost unusable. You want to do this stuff AND manage your DJ library elegantly? Not easy, not easy at all
- Apple is likely to terminate music downloads altogether soon - The writing is on the wall for music downloads as we know them, for sure - it's a question of when, not if. Streaming revenue has overtaken downloads and purchase revenue for the first time ever, and while downloads are still the order of the day for DJs, not for the public. And this is not a DJ program, it's a mainstream program. It's coming (indeed, the rumours of this have started already...), and when it does, do we really think iTunes will survive at all?
- iTunes can't handle DJ info very well - You can't view the universally accepted musical key info in ID3 tags in iTunes, so now that all DJ software can analyse key, there's no easy way of sorting by that info back in iTunes. You can't, of course, see cue points, set loops or view waveforms, like Rekordbox, Mixed in Key 8 and Beatport Pro, three would-be contenders in this space. In short, iTunes is slowly but surely becoming a compromise too far for many DJs when it comes to DJ library management
- They keep messing with stuff we rely on - In the latest of a long line of irritating tweaks, the good old Rating column has been downgraded, being hidden by default on desktop and disappearing entirely from mobile. It prompted a couple of change.org petitions to get it back. Such changes underline the fact that in a piece of software whose primary purpose is no longer what we DJs use it for, nothing appears to be sacred
- Cloud feature and streaming have really messed things up - This has been the final straw for many. After the debacles with some DJs finding themselves locked out of their own files, and others finding their own versions of tracks replaced by other versions when they unwittingly agreed to the terms of iTunes Match, what we're now left with is a program that attempts to blur the divisions between music that's local and owned by the DJ, music that's local but "borrowed" from Apple Music, and music that's streamed on demand from Apple Music itself. All very clever for consumers, but a nightmare for DJs who quite like the idea of using the Apple Music streaming service, but also want to maintain a local library. That just isn't possible in iTunes in any elegant way any more
So is iTunes dead?
To be clear, we still like iTunes in a consumer setting (although we feel Apple should really split apart its various functions, just as it has in iOS), and indeed, we use it for Apple Music quite happily - we just don't keep our local DJ music in iTunes any more. At best, it's become an either/or - which is a problem for those who are encouraged to use it by Apple's systems to do so much more than manage a local music library.
Put it this way: If we'd never seen iTunes, and it appeared now as it is today, would we rush to use it to organise our music? I think not. Yeah, it is "there" in DJ software - always its biggest pull for DJs - but even the manufacturers are turning against it (for example, "when using Serato DJ, third-party programs such as iTunes are not the best and most reliable way to organize your Library" - not my words, but those of the official Serato iTunes documentation).
We've all been living with its increasingly severe compromises for too long. Even as a legacy system it's struggling, but as a way of working for people just starting in DJing? Not in a million years. And that's why we no longer recommend it, at least in the majority of cases, to our students. The library systems in (most) DJ software are getting much better, and meanwhile, iTunes is getting sadly worse.
So what should you do instead?
Right now, our best recommendation is to keep your DJ music in a folder, called, say, "DJ Music". You can use your DJ software's built-in library features for editing tags, adding artwork and so on, or use a specialist ID3 editor instead. You'd then do all your playlisting within your DJ software itself, possible using something like Rekordbuddy to move that info from DJ program to DJ program, either for redundancy's sake or just to keep your options open for DJing.
You lose the ability to easily play your DJ music across your Apple devices, but if you choose to use a service like Dropbox, for instance, you can still keep your music in sync across devices that's exactly how we are doing it now here at Digital DJ Tips HQ. There are Dropbox music players for all mobile devices. That also takes care of your backups.
(Not convinced? See how other real DJs do it here: Five Steps To Your Perfect DJ Music Library System.)
No music preparation or organisation system has ever been perfect, and this one would mean you're only running your DJ software on one computer, with the Dropbox "cloud" element really being a "read only" copy of your music. It will also work better if you keep a nice, simple file naming convention as Dropbox lists tracks by filename, just as your Finder or Windows Explorer does.
The exact way you choose to move forward will depend on your devices, library size, software and preferences. But in our view, iTunes shouldn't be part of that any more, at least for a great number of DJs, and we will no longer teach DJs to use it in this way. If you're still managing, or even still happy using it, we're not here to tell you you're wrong, but at the same time, we can't see things ever improving from the gradual decline we've endured over the past half decade.
So what about that keynote, then?
Here's an interesting footnote. Music is going all-out streaming, I think we can all see that. Apple and Algoriddim (the makers of the djay Pro software featured in the keynote) have tight iTunes-DJ software integration already, tighter than anyone else.If those guys can agree to make Apple Music subscription files available directly in djay Pro, then Mac users at least will have a rock solid DJ platform that taps directly into Apple Music, which will be a pretty compelling offering for lots of DJs, and could be the catalyst that moves mainstream DJing from local music to streaming, especially if it allows offline "locker"-type access so there's no need for internet when actually DJing, and jumps through the licensing hurdles.
We have no word if this is coming, but if it does, it'll be big.
So, have you abandoned iTunes like we have? Did you never use it in the first place? Or are you still using it, completely happy with it, and wondering what the fuss is all about? Please share your thoughts in the comments...