One of the most common questions we receive at Ask iLounge is a variant on this theme: “my computer crashed and I lost all my music files; how can I copy my music back from my iPod to my computer?” While we’ve provided answers to that question, you’ll be much better off if you never need to resort to that good but imperfect option. The better solution: create a true backup of your iTunes music library, copied from your hard drive.
Even the best computer can fall victim to hard drive problems. While you can’t avoid losing something, you can protect almost everything by backing up your files regularly. We won’t go into the specifics of backing up your entire computer or your documents, but we’ll look closely at how to back up your iTunes music collection, your playlists, ratings and other information for your iTunes library.
The Files and Folders iTunes Needs
Unless you’ve specified otherwise, your computer has an iTunes folder that’s located in your My Documents > My Music folders if you are running Windows, or your Music folder (inside your home folder) if you use Mac OS X. The iTunes folder contains three items: two files, one called iTunes 4 Music Library and another called iTunes Music Library.xml (though you may not see this extension), and another folder called iTunes Music.
Let’s start with the files. It may seem strange that there are two files with such similar names, but these files contain different information. The iTunes 4 Music Library file contains the database of all the songs in your iTunes library. It also contains your playlists, your ratings, your play counts, last played dates and more. The iTunes Music Library.xml file contains some of this same information, but is used to provide access to your music to other programs. You need both of these files to use iTunes; however, if they get deleted, iTunes creates new empty files, and only adds to them when you import music. (In other words, if these files are deleted, especially the iTunes 4 Music Library file, your iTunes library will appear empty the next time you open iTunes.)
Your iTunes Music folder contains the music files in your iTunes library, unless you have chosen not to store them there. By default, iTunes copies all of your music files to this folder when you add them to your library. If this is not the case, you probably have turned off this option in the iTunes preferences.
It is best to leave this option checked unless you have a lot of music and use external hard disks to store it. With this option active, you always know where your music files are, and you can back them up more easily.
Why You Should Back Up Your Music
One of the key reasons iLoungers want to retrieve the music from their iPod is computer crashes; especially with Windows, the most common “solution” to problems is to erase your hard disk and re-install the operating system. Assuming you can even access any of the files on your hard disk before you wipe it, you may remember to copy off your documents, but forget about your music files.
While you can get the music files back from your iPod, that’s not a perfect process – especially if something goes wrong in the transfer process. Files you purchased from the iTunes Music Store may be lost for good; you can’t re-download your files to your computer unless you pay again. While you can always rip your CDs a second time, the labor and hours you’ll spend will be crushing. Finally, you’ll lose all of the playlists that you’ve worked so hard to set up, as well as play counts and last played dates. A simple backup once in a while can spare you all of this grief.
How to Back Up Your iTunes Music Files
There are several ways you can back up your iTunes music files, but the simplest is to simply make a copy of your entire iTunes folder (the one in Windows’ My Music or in your Mac’s Music folder). You can copy this to an external hard disk, if you have one – if not, we strongly recommend purchasing an external hard disk if you have a lot of music. At under $100, they are relatively inexpensive these days, and you can use one to back up both your music and the rest of your personal files, ensuring that if your computer fails you’ll be protected. If you have an external hard disk, simply drag your iTunes folder to the hard disk to copy all its contents. If your music is stored in another location, drag the folder containing your music files to your external hard disk as well.
If you don’t have and don’t want an external hard disk, the alternative is to burn CDs or DVDs with your music files. You can either do this directly from the Windows Explorer or the Mac OS X Finder, or you can use iTunes to do it for you. Here’s how to do so with iTunes.
First, go to iTunes’ Preferences menu (Edit > Preferences on Windows, iTunes > Preferences on Mac OS X) and click the Burning tab. Check Data CD. A data CD burns exact copies of your music files; it doesn’t create audio CDs, nor does it convert the files in any way. (If you later want to burn audio CDs, make sure to change this setting after your backup.)
For your first backup, start by making a note of the date; you’ll understand why later. Then click the Library icon in the iTunes Source list, select all your music (Control-A on Windows; Command-A on Mac), and select File > New Playlist from Selection. This creates a playlist with all your music. Select this playlist, then click the Burn Disc button to start burning your music.
iTunes will ask you to insert a disc; if you have a CD burner, insert a blank CD. If you have a DVD burner, insert a blank CD or DVD. (Remember, DVDs hold about the equivalent of 6 CDs, so it is much quicker to back up your files to DVD, if this is possible.) When iTunes has filled up the CD or DVD, it will eject the disc and ask you for another disc. It will continue until it has burned everything in the playlist.
After this has finished, make a new smart playlist (File > New Smart Playlist), and select Date Added Is After [the date you recorded earlier]. The next time you’ve added a fair amount of music to your iTunes library, enough to fill up a CD for example, select this playlist and burn it to disc. This will add all the files that you didn’t back up the first time.
After you’ve completed this backup, select the playlist, then select File > Edit Smart Playlist. Change the date to the new date on which you just backed up your more recent files. Each time you want to back up more files, use this playlist, then update its date. You’ll always have a playlist containing files you’ve added to your iTunes library since the last backup.
All that remains is to back up those two iTunes Library files somewhere as well; iTunes doesn’t copy them when you back up your music files. Find a safe place where you can copy them – another CD, for example – and burn them there.
Now, even if your computer crashes and you lose everything, you’ll be able to restore your iTunes library easily. After installing iTunes, drop those two files into the iTunes folder (again, the one located in your My Documents > My Music folders if you are running Windows, or your Music folder (inside your home folder) if you use Mac OS X), and then use your CDs or DVDs to copy all of your music back into the iTunes Music folder.