Back up your iTunes library

Digital files are portable, they sound and look pretty good, and they don’t take up the physical storage space that CDs and DVDs do. But there’s a big downside—one system crash or failed hard drive, and you can lose everything you’ve spent hours ripping from CDs or, even worse, purchasing from the iTunes Music Store. Here are several ways to prevent the loss of your precious files.

1. Go the iPod way

If you own an iPod and sync your entire iTunes library with it, you’ve already got a full backup in the palm of your hand. Though Apple makes the sync process a one-way journey (from iTunes to the iPod), several utilities let you copy files back from the iPod to your Mac. Free apps such as Isaac Huang’s iPodDisk and Whitney Young’s Senuti (   ; Mac Gems ) will help you salvage your collection in case of catastrophe.

2. Archive and copy

If you’re looking for a simple (but not extremely efficient) method, you can use the Finder to back up your collection to an external hard drive or a DVD. To save space, compress your library first. Control-click on your iTunes folder (by default it’s stored in your Music folder) and select Create Archive Of “iTunes.” This will create a zipped archive that includes your iTunes Music Library.xml file—essential for restoring your ratings, play counts, and other customizations—and that you can drag and drop to an external drive or burn to DVD (if your collection is small enough). But if you’re really serious about your collection, you’ll want to take stronger steps to protect it on a regular basis. Check out the next few methods.

Back It Up With Apple’s Backup application, .Mac members can easily save iTunes files to an iDisk, to an external hard drive or iPod, or to optical media.

3. Back up with Backup

If you have an Apple .Mac account, the free Backup application is by far the easiest way to protect your library. Open Backup and create a new plan by clicking on the plus-sign (+) button in the lower left corner of the window. If you’re launching Backup for the first time, click on the Continue button and then follow the instructions in the window that comes up. Highlight the Custom template at the bottom, click on the Choose Plan button, and label your new plan something like iTunes Backup . Click on the plus-sign button beneath the Backup Items window, click on the QuickPicks tab, select iTunes Library from the list, and click on the Done button. Backup will scan your Library folder and display its size, which will help you determine where you want to back it up—to an external drive or iPod, to your .Mac iDisk, or to optical media. The Destination And Schedule window lets you set how often the task is performed and choose a backup medium. You can, for example, set up Backup to copy your Library folder to an external FireWire drive at the same time every week.

4. Use smart playlists

Don’t have an external drive, an iPod, or a .Mac account? Not to worry—iTunes has all the tools you need for safeguarding your library. If you just want to make a onetime backup, open iTunes’ preferences and click on the Advanced item. Select the Burning tab, and under Disc Format make sure that Data CD Or DVD is selected. Next create a new iTunes playlist, highlight everything in your library, and drag the contents to the playlist. If you have podcast subscriptions, you may want to instead create a smart playlist that excludes them—unless, of course, you want to preserve Adam Curry’s daily musings for posterity—by selecting New Smart Playlist from iTunes’ File menu and setting the rule to Podcast Is False. This will create a playlist with all of your music and videos but without any of your podcasts. Smart playlists are also helpful if you want to back up only certain items, such as purchased music or audiobooks, or if you want to exclude low-rated songs or certain file types from backups. You can even use them to back up your tunes by genre, artist, or other customized settings.

Once you are happy with your playlist, click on the Burn Disc icon in the upper right corner of your iTunes window, and insert a recordable DVD or CD. Unless you have a very small library, you’ll need several discs—but iTunes will prompt you through the process. For good measure, make sure to store a backup copy of your iTunes Music Library.xml file somewhere to preserve your ratings and play counts.

But what about the music you add after that initial backup? Smart playlists can help you schedule regular backups without having to burn your entire library repeatedly. Once you’ve made your initial backup, create a smart playlist (or control-click on the smart playlist you already created to edit it, and click on the plus-sign button to add a new rule) and choose Date Added Is After—iTunes should fill in today’s date for you. The new list will be empty, but as you continue to add songs to your library, they will automatically appear in your backup playlist. This will help you make regular incremental backups. I like to back up my playlists on the last day of every month, but depending on how frequently you buy music or videos from the iTunes Music Store or rip your personal collection, you may want to choose a different schedule. Just remember to edit your smart playlist every time you make a backup, by changing the date—otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a lot of copies of the same songs.

5. Automate it

If you’re not afraid of a little prep work, this is perhaps the best method for backing up: use OS X 10.4’s Automator and iCal. Launch Automator and click on the iTunes icon in the Library window. Then drag the Find iTunes Items action in the Action window to the workflow area. This action works essentially just like a smart playlist. Select Find Songs (don’t worry, this also includes videos) and Date Added This Month. (Again, depending on how much music you add on a regular basis, you can increase or decrease this time frame.) If you want to exclude podcasts, add a second rule and select Genre Is Not Equal To Podcast. Next click on the System icon in the Library window, and drag the Burn A Disc action to your workflow area under the iTunes action. In the Disc Name field, enter

Backup
and select the Append Date option. You can then save the workflow and quit—but if you want to automate the process and perform regular backups, you need to follow a few more steps.

Make It Automatic By saving your Automator workflow as an iCal plug-in, you can sit back and let your Mac do the grunt work.

Select Save As Plug-in from Automator’s File menu, and then give the workflow a name and select iCal Alarm from the Plug-in For pop-up menu. Click on Save, and Automator will launch iCal and create a onetime alarm event for your workflow. To make it a repeating event, click to the right of Repeat in the event’s Info pane and select Custom from the pull-down menu. Schedule your iCal event to match the settings you defined in Automator—monthly or weekly, for example. From now on, iCal will alert you when it triggers the workflow to run. (If you prefer to back up to an external hard drive, replace the Burn A Disc action with the Copy Finder Items action from the Finder Actions lists, and specify where to save your files.)

[ Mathew Honan writes about technology for Time, Salon.com, and Wired. He keeps a Mac-oriented Weblog at mac.honan.net.]

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