Fix the iTunes Album Ratings Bug (& Bemoan the Sorry State of Digital Music)

February 09, 2021

Ryan McGinness, Mindscapes, Miles McEnery, NYC

First of all, Fuck Apple, for how it screwed over the music business.

For those of you wondering how to fix the problem of the proliferating "shadow" Album Ratings that has been a problem in iTunes for a good decade now -- ostensibly the purpose of this tutorial -- Imma get to that in a minute.

But first I want to say Fuck Apple for promising in 2001, with its newly launched iPod, to save the music industry -- then drowning in the morass of illegal mp3 downloads -- only to have relegate music playback to just another neglected feature on the iPhone two decade later.

Apple fans remember the story of how Steve Jobs, when, after being ousted in 1985 from Apple -- the company he built -- he took solace playing his Bob Dylan albums. I get that. Dylan's music can alter the direction of listeners' lives.

But what if that were to happen to today? Having no income, perhaps Jobs couldn't afford the $10/month Apple Music subscription. He could switch to a free Spotify account, only to find after a Dylan song or two, he would be presented with similar though greatly inferior music, perhaps John Denver or Bon Jovi. Without Dylan to inspire him, perhaps he wouldn't have started to plot his re-control to Apple?

This is the roughly the same feeling of helplessness you get from Album Ratings, the way it algorithmically autoranks something very personal to you, and then uses these indifferent ratings to choose the music to listen to for you.

Indeed, the problem here is one of control. In the old days, people would own music. They would buy records or CDs that they could take with them through their life's journey, a scratchy Simon & Garfunkle album that gets handed down through the generations. Today's accessibility to music is provisional, subject to the legal whims of large corporations.

Despite the ease and speed at which you can call up a specific song on Alexa, I still stick with mp3 downloads, preferably those not copy protected (copy protected tracks have been nearly impossible to maintain over the decades). There is just too many good songs that aren't available on the premium music services, such as bootlegs of live Roiling Stones shows from the 70s, or the fascinating outtakes of the Beach Boys or Beatles, or just the many obscure bands that failed to make it to the digital age (Norfolk-Va. punk rockers Antic Hay, or the Phoenix band the Sidewinders, for instance.)

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why I still use Apple's iTunes, infamous as it is for its awful usability. For the time being, it remains the best interface for managing my mp3 files, even though it is slowly being phased out, at least for Macs. It's pretty clear by now that most people, even music fans, do not have the time or patience to curate their own collections. But the world is full of hardcore music fanatics, such as myself, and right now they don't really have the tools to manage their collections -- beyond this failing monolith of a multimedia player app.

Ryan McGinness, Mindscapes, Miles McEnery, NYC One of the most notorious bugs in iTunes is the feature of Album Ratings, or, more specifically, the strange behavior of iTunes to randomly assign shadow stars to entire albums. It is a mind-bogglingly bad feature, beyond the control of the user and maybe even Apple itself. It is no mere bug but an existential horror standing on the dark side of free will vs. determinism, of man vs machine, intuition vs. the algorithm.

Being able to rate songs themselves has been one of the best features of digital music. I have entire playlists built around this star rating system. For instance, all my favorite tracks are given ratings between three and five stars, and compiled into a single monster playlist of goodness. I'm sure many DJs rely on the star rating system as well.

Those are song ratings, but Apple also introduced "Album Ratings," in which every track on an album gets the same rating. I'm not sure what original the point was for album ratings, as Apple has provided pretty much no literature on the feature. Apparently, though, if you rate one or two songs from an album, iTunes will "rate" each song on the album with a similar rating, though one with gray stars rather than blue stars. So you rate one or two songs with four stars, then all the songs get four (shadow) stars.

Apple iTunes Ratings

Unfortunately, Album Ratings, when overlaid on the space for Song Ratings, mesh with the regular Song Ratings in the worst possible ways.

For instance, if you build a playlist based on star ratings, then the playlist recognizes the shadow ratings as part of its criteria. As a result, playlists based on songs with, say 3 or 4 stars, are suddenly populated with extraneous, oherwise unrated songs.

Apple iTunes Ratings

At the same time, Album Ratings are pretty much entirely impossible for the user to control. They appear mysteriously, without user input of any sort. There's not even a switch somewhere in the menu that can turn Album Ratings off. It just cranks up in the background, and "helpfully" rates random albums.

Remember in 2014, when Apple unilaterally add a copy of a U2 album to everyone's music collection -- and how many people hated it? They hated it because Apple made the choice to add unwanted music into their collection -- without their permission. Apple just decided what was best for their users, without their input.

Album Ratings pretty much comes from the same school of thinking, namely that Apple knows better than you what you should be listening to. Personal agency is removed from the very personal activity of choosing what music fits your current mood.

Album Ratings feels like an early, and very much failed, attempt to add personalization to iTunes. It's a clunky algorithm, choosing albums to rate seemingly at random. The worst part, however, is that as soon as you remove one set of unwanted ratings, another set maddeningly shows up.

Judging from the lack of guidance in the help forums, Apple may itself not even know how disable this feature. I suspect the programmer who wrote it has has long since moved on, and at this point, as iTunes grows ever more decrepit, it is easier for Apple to ditch iTunes altogether instead of trying to figure out how to fix this ghost in the code.

But you came here to learn how to fix the Album Ratings problem.

You can't. You can, however, mitigate the damage, by unrating the Album Ratings for each album, by hand.

There's only one extremely round-about way to do this, I've learned. Find the album in your collection, then go to View-->View As and pick the "albums" option. Then, for Windows, click on the album, there will be a rating next to the name of the album and the artist, along some stars, which will actually be blue.

Apple iTunes Ratings

Remove the blue stars by sliding the mouse cursor across the rating, moving to the left. You know you've done it correctly if the blue stars will be replaced by gray stars.

Apple iTunes Ratings

Don't worry about the gray stars. They will disappear. Go to "Songs" view then and check to see the ratings have been removed.

I mean, the whole process is screwy, amirite?

Apple iTunes Ratings

And that's it. Though, fair warning once you go down this path it will be a never-ending chore, as the iTunes will soon enough rate some other random albums to replace the ones you've just cleansed. You will forever be battling a machine in its programmed incompetence. It will make you hate the act of maintaining your music collection, which, of course, was the very thing that Steve Jobs promised wouldn't happen all those years ago.

So, yeah, fuck Apple.

All the art: Ryan McGinness, Mindscapes, Miles McEnery, NYC