Manage your iTunes library

You probably have a lot of stuff in your iTunes library. Music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks can easily add up to thousands of files. iTunes is both a media player and a database, and it’s the latter feature that helps you organize all these files. No matter where the items reside, you can see information about them in a clear, easy-to-use interface. You can then choose what to listen to, watch, or copy to an iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV.

The way you manage these files can make a big difference in how easy it is to find them, back them up, and keep track of them. So read on to find out what file-management method best suits you, and how to save time by letting iTunes keep tabs on all your files.

Where your files live

The first time you launch iTunes, it creates an iTunes Music folder and places it in your user folder/Music/iTunes). iTunes’ default setting is to download purchased files and copy all imported media files to that folder. It will also keep files organized by artist and album. These settings guarantee that you can find all your media files easily (for this to work optimally, however, you need to tag all your files correctly).

Store new files elsewhere

As you add large video files and the like to your iTunes library, your hard drive may get tight on space, and you may want to store some or all your files on an external drive. To put all your future media on an external disk, create an iTunes Music folder on that disk. Then, in the General tab of iTunes’ Advanced preferences, find the iTunes Music Folder Location section and click on the Change button. Navigate to the new folder and click on Open, and then on OK. This will tell iTunes to store all your new files in this folder. (Note that this won’t move your existing files, but you’ll still be able to access them from within iTunes; I’ll cover moving your iTunes Music folder shortly.)

To access the new content, of course, you’ll need to make sure you connect the external drive before you launch iTunes—otherwise you won’t be able to listen to the music or watch the movies you have stored on it.

Don’t copy files

iTunes Preferences: The various Music folder settings tell iTunes how to manage your media files.
Another option is to change iTunes’ settings so it doesn’t copy files when you add them to your iTunes library (the program’s default), but rather leaves them where they are. Doing so lets you keep some files in your local iTunes Music folder, and others on an external drive, or in another location on your startup volume. To make the change, look just below the iTunes Music Folder Location section in iTunes’ Advanced preferences and deselect Copy Files To iTunes Music Folder When Adding To Library (see “iTunes Preferences”). Now when you drag files into iTunes, the software will simply add pointers to those files instead of copying them. However, music you rip via iTunes or media you purchase from the iTunes Store will still end up in the standard location (the iTunes Music folder on your Mac).

The downside to this approach is that you’ll end up with files scattered in several locations. Sure, you can always control- or right-click on a file from within iTunes and choose Show In Finder to find out where it resides, but leaving the files where they are can still be confusing when you want to back up your music or find files manually.

Consolidate your library

If your media files are in several locations, there may come a time when you want to bring them all back into a single folder—either to back them up, or simply to keep them in one place so you don’t have to worry about plugging in external drives. In fact, if you have the drive space, it makes more sense to centralize all your files, so you always know where to find them. To do so, choose Advanced: Consolidate Library, and iTunes will copy any files that are not in the iTunes Music folder to that location. (This may take a long time if you have a lot of files.) You’ll now find all your files in your iTunes Music folder, but iTunes won’t delete the originals—the program leaves it up to you to decide their fate.

Move your entire media folder

For backup purposes especially, you may want all your iTunes files in one place, but not in your Home folder. The best solution is to use an external drive (or an additional internal one, in the case of tower systems) for your iTunes files. Although this may not be practical for a laptop (unless you use it in one location on a desk most of the time), it works very well for a desktop Mac.

To move all current iTunes media files to another drive, first copy your iTunes Music folder to a location of your choice. Then set the iTunes Music folder location to that new folder (as described previously). iTunes will take a while to update your library, depending on its size.

To make sure iTunes sees your new folder location, try to play a file. If instead of the expected sounds or sights, you see an exclamation point next to the file name, that means you need to consolidate your library (as described previously)—sometimes iTunes consolidates correctly the first time, and other times it needs to scour the library a second time to get everything right. After you’ve done this, you’ll be able to play files from your external disk, as long as it’s connected and powered before you launch iTunes.

If you do have a laptop, you can use the external drive to sync files to an iPod even if you don’t want to leave the drive connected all the time. Just sync your iPod, quit iTunes, and eject the external drive.

When you’re moving your files from one Mac to another, there are two ways to make sure the process leaves your iTunes library intact. The first is to use Apple’s Migration Assistant during installation or setup to copy all files and folders from your previous Mac to the new one. If you want to move the files manually, all you need to do is copy the folder containing your media files (say, your iTunes Music folder), and also copy the other files in the iTunes folder to the iTunes folder in your new Music folder.

Back up your media files

If your hard drive crashes, you’re in trouble. You’ll lose files purchased from the iTunes Store, but also all the files you so carefully ripped from CDs and DVDs—the files you spent a lot of time tagging, adding album art to, and maybe adding lyrics to. Backing up these files means that if you have a problem, you can restore them in minutes instead of the days or weeks it would take to rip them all again (and you won’t have to repurchase your iTunes Store files, either).

Backup Options: The iTunes Backup window walks you through the backup procedure.
There are many ways to back up your media files. Leopard’s Time Machine feature can back up all your media files automatically. iTunes also has a built-in method for backing up files, which you can access by choosing File: Back Up To Disc. Select it and you’ll see an iTunes Backup window offering to back up your entire library and its playlists, your purchased media files only, or just the items that have changed since you last backed them up (see “Backup Options”). (iTunes remembers which files you have added or changed, so if you have performed an initial, full backup, each subsequent backup copies only new files. This helps the backup process go much faster and take up much less room than backing up everything each time.)

When you click on the Back Up button, iTunes asks you to insert an optical disc, and then burns the files. When it fills up one disc, it will ask for another, and so on, until the backup is finished (DVDs work much better for this than CDs, as each DVD disc can hold more than six times as much data).

Since iTunes burns your files in a standard Finder format, you can just load a disc and copy its files without any special software. If you need to restore your entire library from optical backups, however, insert the first disc of your backup, and then follow the instructions in the dialog box that appears; iTunes can restore all your files and playlists, good as new.

[Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, books, music, and more on his blog, Kirkville.]

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