Sorry, iTunes Fans: Apple Won’t Be Offering Purchased Tracks in Lossless Formats

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With all the excitement — and confusion — around the announcement that Apple Music is going Lossless, it seems that there’s one very significant limitation to the new service that Apple is being pretty quiet about: it’s only going to be available on Apple Music.

In other words, Apple is not bringing Apple Lossless Audio to its more traditional iTunes library in any way. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of music tracks you’ve purchased from iTunes over the years; if you don’t subscribe to Apple Music, you won’t be able to listen to them in Lossless Audio.

Apple tacitly outlined this in a recent support document, where it offered an oblique “no” to the question of iTunes purchases, emphasizing that tracks can only be downloaded in lossless audio from the Apple Music catalogue.

Can I redownload my iTunes purchases in lossless?

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you can redownload music in lossless only from the Apple Music catalog.

This is a roundabout way of saying that if you’re not an Apple Music subscriber, you won’t be able to download tracks in Lossless Audio.

Further, even if you are an Apple Music subscriber, any tracks you download in Lossless Audio will be Apple Music tracks, not your iTunes purchases — meaning you’ll only retain access to them as long as you’re an Apple Music subscriber.

Several readers have already posed this question to us, we’re sad to report that tracks purchased on the iTunes Store will still be in the same 256kbps AAC “lossy” format as they’ve been for the past decade or so.

Two Catalogs

Since Apple integrates the iTunes and Apple Music experience so well, it’s easy to miss the fact that it actually maintains two separate catalogues of music: the iTunes Store catalog and the Apple Music catalog.

While there’s a considerable overlap between the music available in iTunes and Apple Music, they’re not the same thing, and it’s actually not uncommon to find an album or track that’s available in one, but not the other, thanks to the vagaries of music industry licensing requirements.

To make matters even more confusing, this can even vary between different countries. So, it’s possible you might find a song on Apple Music in Canada that can only be purchased from the iTunes Store in the U.S.

In fact, even after Apple expanded Apple Music back in late 2016 to include all the features of iTunes Match, the two catalogues remained entirely distinct. At the time, I reached out to Apple executive relations, and they put me in touch with a Senior Product Specialist. During an in-depth phone conversation, he told me that due to licensing restrictions, even matching of songs against a user’s existing library came from whichever catalog the user was subscribed to.

In other words, somebody paying for the $25/year iTunes Match service would have tracks in their library matched against the iTunes Store catalog, while those paying for a full $9.99/month Apple Music subscription would have those tracks matched against the Apple Music catalog.

iTunes Lossless Audio

So, with that in mind it’s not really all that surprising that Apple isn’t offering the full Apple Lossless tracks on the iTunes Store. With the way the recording industry rolls, it’s our guess that they were far less willing to let people buy Lossless Audio tracks than to simply stream them.

Of course, as much as we’d like to lay all the blame at the feet of the record labels, we can’t give Apple a complete pass on this one either, as we’re sure they’d much rather entice people into paying a monthly subscription for Apple Music than simply buying a few tracks here and there from the iTunes Store. It’s a safe bet that Apple probably could have negotiated a deal with rights-holders if it really wanted to.

With Apple Music Lossless, however, it’s already done an end-run around the rest of the streaming industry, undercutting both the more expensive Tidal Hi-Fi and Amazon Music HD tiers — not to mention whatever plans Spotify had in the works — by delivering Lossless Audio to Apple Music subscribers at no additional charge. While everyone else has offered a two-tier system, with Apple Music there will be no tiers at all — everybody gets Lossless Audio, assuming of course your hardware can handle it.

When it comes to purchased music, however, there’s really no motivation for Apple to offer it in a lossless format. This is especially true if it’s going to have to pay the music industry more for the privilege of doing so, which is almost guaranteed to be the case.

After all, even though Apple fought tooth and nail with Hollywood studios to offer 4K movies on the iTunes Store, but that was a service where it wanted a competitive edge. Traditional music purchases and downloads on the iTunes Store has basically zero competition as the bulk of the world has moved on to streaming services. In fact, rumours have surfaced over the years that Apple has at least discussed shutting the music side of the iTunes Store down completely, although Apple has pointedly denied these allegations.

None of this changes the fact that iTunes music sales simply aren’t a priority for Apple anymore, so we’re not holding our breath that Apple Lossless Audio will ever come to music that you can actually buy from Apple.

That said, however, since everything is integrated into Apple’s Music app, if you’re willing to pony up for an Apple Music subscription, you’ll be able to easily listen to your purchased iTunes tracks in Apple Lossless Audio, as long as they’re also available on Apple Music.

From everything we know so far, you should be able to access the Apple Music Lossless version of any tracks in your library simply by removing the downloaded track from your device. Once the local download has been removed, the track will stream from Apple Music directly instead, and the Lossless Audio version will be used if one is available.

As an Apple Music subscriber, tapping the download button beside any of these tracks will also give you the Lossless Audio Apple Music version, instead of the 256kbps AAC one that’s available in the iTunes Store catalog. The only catch, of course, is that the Apple Music version will be protected with FairPlay DRM and will only be playable as long as you have an active Apple Music subscription. Hence, you’ll either need to keep a backup of the non-DRM version, or visit the “Purchased” section of the iTunes Store (in the macOS Music app) to re-download it from there.

We plan to provide a more detailed guide on how to do this after Apple Lossless Audio officially launches next month, so be sure to check back once we’ve had a chance to put the new service through its paces.

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