Q: I have many, many GBs of music stored on an external drive due to the fact that I use a Macbook Air and space is limited. I want to be able to access this music with iTunes but NOT import it to my Air. What do I do? I’ve tried moving the iTunes folder to the external disk, but I can’t access the music. Can you help?
A: There are two ways that you can approach this depending on whether you want iTunes to manage your music library for you or not. The settings you need to tweak here can be found in your iTunes Preferences, on the Advanced tab:
The simplest (and recommended) approach is to change your “iTunes Media folder” path to point to the external hard drive. This is where iTunes will store all of your content by default, including files you add, downloads from the iTunes Store and tracks imported from CD. By pointing this to the external hard drive, anything you import will be copied to this folder.
Note, however, that the emphasis here is on copied—tracks imported from outside of the iTunes Media folder are copied into that folder with the original file left wherever it was to begin with. On the other hand, if you’re importing files that are already IN the iTunes Media folder, iTunes will by default move these files around into its preferred organizational structure rather than making copies. The concept is relatively straightforward: Files that are in the iTunes Media folder belong to iTunes and it can do what it pleases with them, files outside of the iTunes Media folder are left alone as they’re considered outside of iTunes’ control.
The advantage of this approach is that you don’t need to worry about the underlying file system as iTunes manages your file and folder locations for you and you simply access your music through the iTunes application.
An alternative approach is to turn OFF the setting Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library. In this scenario, anything you import into iTunes is added to the library database but otherwise left in its original location. Note, however, that this setting only applies to existing media files that you add to iTunes; tracks imported from CD or downloaded from the iTunes Store are still placed in the iTunes Media folder.
The approach has the advantage of allowing you to preserve your own file and folder organization, but it comes with the price of less flexibility should you want to move your library in the future to another computer or hard drive, and you have to be extremely careful as iTunes doesn’t track changes to file names or locations, so it’s much easier to end up with broken links in your iTunes library if you decide to move things around in the file system yourself.
Many users are hesitant to give up control of their manually-organized file layout, but there’s rarely a good reason to worry about letting iTunes manage the file and folder layout for you unless you’re using other media management applications in addition to iTunes. Once you have everything in your iTunes library, you can simply access everything from there without worrying about exactly where each file is, and iTunes even allows you to perform operations like copy tracks simply by dragging them from the iTunes window straight into the Finder window, again without needing to know or care where the files are actually stored.
You can find much more detailed information on how all this works in our tutorial on Transferring your iTunes Library.