iTunes: What to do when your Music folder gets too big

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh
June 2nd, 2004 • 12:37 am

I suppose I have too much music. I keep adding stuff to my iTunes music library, mostly from my own CD collection, just so that I have a central repository of all my music accessible with a click of the mouse button. But that means that my Music folder is getting bigger and bigger. Right now, it’s well over 15 GB, and I have only ripped a fraction of my CD collection.

Today’s hard drives are pretty big, but still… If you have a fair number of bloated applications installed, and dabble into video editing, it quickly adds up. So what if you want to relocate your Music folder on a different hard drive, like a big external FireWire hard drive, for example?

Well, Apple’s own documentation is not exactly clear on this. You can change the location of your iTunes music folder in the “Advanced” pane in iTunes’s Preferences dialog, but that only changes the destination of new files that you are going to add to your library from now on.

What if you want to change the location of your existing files as well? Can you just copy the existing music folder on the new hard drive, and then change the preference in the “Advanced” pane in iTunes’s Preferences dialog? It’s not quite clear. Each reference to an audio file you have in your iTunes music library actually refers to the physical file on your hard drive, which you can reveal in the Finder by selection the “Show Song File” menu in the contextual menu in iTunes.

And you can add music files to your library that are not located in iTunes’s Music folder, by just dragging them to the iTunes window. If you use iTunes’s default settings, iTunes will then add a copy of the files in its own Music folder, and the references to these songs in the library will actually refer to the copy in your Music folder—but if you uncheck the “Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library” option in the “Advanced” pane, the items in the library will actually refer to your other music files in their original location, wherever that is on your hard drive(s).

So, is that reference to the file on your hard drive “hard-wired” into the item in your iTunes library? What exactly happens when you change the iTunes music folder location setting?

I had to find out yesterday, because my Music folder was just getting too big, so I decided to move it to a 120 GB external hard drive, so that I would have lots of extra room and could reclaim the space on my internal hard drive for other purposes.

I first copied my entire iTunes Music folder to the external hard drive. Then I launched iTunes, went to the “Advanced” pane and changed the folder location to the folder on the external hard drive.

Then I control-clicked on a song in my library and chose “Show Song File.” It showed the song file in the old location. Mmm.

Then I figured I would try the good old trick of quitting and relaunching the application. After I had done that, I control-clicked on the same song in the library and chose “Show Song File“. And it showed the song file in the new location! Phew.

In other words, in addition to what the Apple documentation says, you can not only use the “iTunes Music folder location” setting in the “Advanced” pane to change the location of new files added to the library from now on, but also to change the location of your existing files.

This is definitely not clear in the iTunes interface or documentation, and the very fact that you have to quit and relaunch iTunes for the change to “take” is an indication that this is a feature that hasn’t quite made it into the iTunes user experience. But for people in my situation (and I suspect that, as people add more and more music to their collections, this is going to become more and more common), it’s a useful thing to know.

I can now safely erase the Music folder on my internal hard drive and reclaim the disk space—and I haven’t lost a single music file. Of course, all my music files that were outside the iTunes Music folder before I moved it are still in the same place, and moving them to the external hard drive as well would be another issue altogether. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it!

22 Responses to “iTunes: What to do when your Music folder gets too big”

  1. ssp says:


    While I haven’t tried this myself, I thought the ‘merge library’ (or whatever it is in English) menu command was supposed to move all your songs into the the library folder.

    Hence, setting a new library folder and then selecting that command might do all the copying for you. Just guessing, though, as I said.

    Now on to the next question that my colleague keeps asking: What if you have a portable computer that you want some music on and an external hard drive that you still want to store your excess music on? What if you want iTunes to do its neat renaming and organising on both? As far as I can tell you’re screwed in that situation – which shouldn’t be all that uncommon regarding the average size of laptop hard drives.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    The command is called “Consolidate Library“. I wasn’t aware of it until you mentioned it :).

    It looks like it copies all the music that is part of the library but not located in the Music folder into the Music folder (and presumably updates the file references to use the new location instead of the old one). So yes I could have used that to copy my music from the old Music folder to the new. However, this command would also have copied all my music that was not in my old Music folder and put it in the new Music folder, which would have been an unwanted effect as far as I am concerned.

    See, I want to restrict the contents of my Music folder to the music that I have on CD, and keep other music files (online purchases and downloads — all legal, of course :-)) elsewhere on my hard drive. The reason for this is that I want an easy way to do backups of the stuff that I do not already have on CD. I don’t need to backup on CD or DVD the stuff that I already have on CD — especially considering that it already takes up over 14 GB and it’s only a fraction of my music collection.

    The problem with using the Music folder for everything is that there is no easy way to distinguish between the music you have on CD and the music you have obtained from other sources. When it comes to backups, that’s a problem, at least as far as I am concerned.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    As for your colleague’s question, the answer is that iTunes cannot keep two different Music folders organized at the same time. iTunes only has one Music folder. If you change the location of this folder (using the preference in “Advanced”), then iTunes leaves the stuff in the old location organized as it is, and starts organizing the new stuff that you will be importing to your library from now on in the new location. But iTunes is unable (as far as I can tell) to keep two Music folders organized simultaneously.

    If it were able to, each time you import some new stuff, it would have to ask you: do you want to add this new music to Music folder #1 or Music folder #2. Obviously it doesn’t do that :).

  4. ssp says:

    Pierre, I see your point about backups. That’s actually a good idea. (My own music is a mess in terms of stuff I have on CD, stuff I haven’t, stuff I have on my computer only and stuff I have on my iPod only. I never got round to sorting everything out – although I try to dump everything onto the iPod :)

    As for my colleague, of course we are aware of those limitations in iTunes, but he keeps insisting that this is severely limiting. Particularly now that iTunes is a few years old and used ‘seriously’ this shortcoming becomes apparent as such.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, I agree that iTunes is several short on advanced features such as this one. After all, it’s obviously able to maintain the organization of one folder, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get it to maintain the organization in more than one. It might add a bit of complexity to the process of importing files, but it could be optional and only add complexity for those who want it.

    It doesn’t seem to be a priority for Apple at this point, though…

  6. ssp says:

    Waiting for xTunes after all?

    To be honest, I don’t blame iTunes too much for this. It would probably add quite a bit of extra confusing UI if you could manage a whole range of libraries etc.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Adding more complexity while maintaining the interface’s simplicity would be a balancing act. But there are many ways that iTunes could be improved and we haven’t made much progress lately.

  8. Josh says:

    I recently went through the same process, Pierre. First I backed up my “iTunes 4 Music Library” file … that’s the big file that has all of my 50+ playlists, star ratings, “last played” data, playcounts, etc. In fact, I try to back this file up as often as possible. This file can easily go corrupt and lose lots and lots of work! (It happened to a friend when the power went out… and iTunes was running on his Mac. Upon restart, the file was corrupt. Ouch.) The music files can always be reimported, but finely tuned playlists, and “date added” info, and star ratings… would be a major pain to lose. So yeah, I backup that particular file often.

    Then I used the Advanced preference to move my iTunes library to another volume, and used the “Consolidate” command… which promptly copied everything over for me. As far as keeping track of what was imported off my own CD versus what I acquired from elsewhere, that’s what I use the “Comments” tag for. I label each imported album’s tracks with a “Ripped from Josh’s CD” tag. I created an AppleScript to make this step painless. I suppose when it comes down to selective backups, I could just use a Smart Playlist to segregate. As it stands now, I just backup everything… hard drives are cheap enough these days and ripping a CD represents work to me… work I don’t want to ever have to do again!

    It was a long while before I finally entrusted iTunes to completely organize my iTunes files for me via its “Keep iTunes Music Folder Organized” preference. Initially I preferred my own directory structure (based on genre, compilation, whatever.) When I finally felt comfortable with all of my tags however (which took quite a few months of Smart Playlisting for blank tags, and googling for missing info) I bit the bullet and let iTunes go auto-pilot. I haven’t looked back since… it’s a much saner way to organize my music, just using iTunes as the front-end and never paying attention to the structure “behind the scenes.” That said, I make sure the default app that launches when I double-click .MP3 files is QuickTime Player… this way files I downloaded just to “preview” don’t get automatically inserted into iTunes and copied into my iTunes Music Folder.

    Speaking of an incomplete iTunes user experience, I was shocked to see this as a TechNote with instructions on how to transfer a user’s Playlists from one Mac to another:
    …so I upgrade my Mac and they expect me to export each and every one of my 50+ playlists individually and then import then back, one by one? No thanks. There’s got to be an easier way… at least on a product that’s at version 4.5! I have yet to see an Applescript to address this, as I’m told by Doug (of Doug’s Applescripts for iTunes fame) that AppleScript wouldn’t be able to handle this currently in iTunes.
    So here’s hoping there’s something in the works for version 5.

    As far as multiple iTunes libraries, check out these 3rd party add-ons:
    I haven’t used any of them, but they appear to just work just like the iPhoto Librarians of old used to work, by managing multiple folders that can switch back and forth as your “main” media library file.

    As to why Apple doesn’t prioritize that PowerBook scenario… well I guess they’re hoping that road warrior will just breakdown and buy an iPod already.

  9. Pierre Igot says:

    Josh: I too backup my iTunes Library file all the time. In fact, it’s included in my automatically scheduled backup every day.

    I am aware of the ability to use third-party add-ons to manage multiple libraries, but I think what ssp’s friend is looking for is different. He wants to have everything in a single library (and so do I), but spread over two (or possibly more) Music folders.

  10. Chris says:

    I’ve copied my entire iTunes folder to the external hard drive and tried various tricks, including making an alias for the iTunes music folder in the Music directory, and then the iTunes folder when that didn’t work, to get iTunes to look for the songs on the external drive. Even though I’ve used the Advanced preference to tell it to move the folder, it keeps telling me it can’t find the songs (with the ! symbol next to each song). I’m at wit’s end. I have way too many songs to import them all again. It shouldn’t be this hard. Solutions?
    ~ Chris

  11. Pierre Igot says:

    Chris: Hard to help you from here :-/. You definitely don’t have to rip all the songs again. What you can if no other suggestion works is start from scratch (trash the prefs and move your current music files outside of the iTunes folder on your internal HD), instruct iTunes to use a folder on your external HD as the iTunes Music Folder, instruct iTunes to copy when adding to library, and then take your entire folder of songs and add it to the library. iTunes will then copy all the files to your external HD in one fell swoop and after that the library will refer to the files on the external HD, so you can trash the files on your internal HD.

    All the MP3 tag information will be preserved. It’ll just take a little while for iTunes to copy all the files.

    Once this is done, you can uncheck the option to copy when adding to library, if you don’t want this option on all the time.

  12. Chris says:

    Thanks … I think I figured it out. I moved the entire iTunes folder to the external drive; I made sure I selected the new iTunes MUSIC folder as the location of the music folder (I know, it seems obvious, but initially I chose the iTunes folder as the location for the music folder); and I put an alias of the new iTunes folder in the old location in my home directory. It seems happy now.

  13. Kev says:

    I recently got a 160 gb external hardrive and moved my 33 gb music collection to it. I think that I have formatted my hard drive wrong, as it finds the songs intermittently and sometimes itunes skips the rest of the song during playback. Lucky I kept a backup on my internal hard drive.

    Does anyone have ideas on how the hard drive should be formatted or how to do this etc. I had a try and though I had, but I’m not sure.

  14. Pierre Igot says:

    Kev: What kind of external HD is it? FireWire or USB? It’s hard to format a hard disk using the wrong format… It’s not like there are many choices. HFS+ — a.k.a. “Mac OS X Extended” — is the one. Journaled or not journaled probably doesn’t matter much for a HD used for song files.

    You can check the format of your HD with Disk Utility, by selecting the volume and clicking on the “Info” toolbar button.

  15. Kev says:

    It’s a firewire 400 hard drive and I think it’s successfully formatted in HFS +, but the problem still persists. If it is a hardware problem, then i guess I can claim it on warruntee.

  16. Pierre Igot says:

    Kev: Have you tried other applications as well? Have you tried copying a huge file to this HD? Have you tried playing a huge .mov file stored on that hard drive? This might help identify whether it’s hardware or not. Also, remember that some FW cables can be defective. It’s worth trying with a different cable.

  17. Kev says:

    If you have a lacie design by F.A. Porsche hard drive, download the latest firmware and you problems will be solved. Update 1.02 seems to be useful.

  18. Breeze says:

    I’ve successfully transferred all my music onto an external drive recently, and itunes is quite happy playing from it. However, whenever I rip a new CD, it’s there to play for that session, but after quitting and relaunching, it disappears from the itunes window. It’s still definitely on the external hard drive because I can see it in the Finder. I’m assuming I’ve got a setting wrong somewhere, but I can’t see it which. Similarly, I used third-party software to retrieve old stuff from my ipod, and that is also on the external drive, but not showing up in itunes (which is reading from the drive). Any ideas?

  19. Pierre Igot says:

    Breeze: You could try to recreate your iTunes library.

  20. markfb says:

    i have recently transfered all of my music onto another internal drive to free up memory. the transfer was succesful. however my i tunes application now appears empty when i want to play music. i attempted to install itunes on the drive that all my music is now in but itunes wont install as it is not the scratch disk/startup disk . if i play a song on the drive my music is on now it plays in the itunes application on my start up drive and stores the song there (in the library)….my ? is is it reimporting the song and starting to occupy the space i just evicted it from, and secondly how can i organize and play music as it doesnt link to where the music is backed up ….i have read all of the above and still have no clue, im panicking , the genius bar at the mac store has a two day wait and imy music is in disarray, please help

  21. Pierre Igot says:

    Mark: Did you change the location of your iTunes folder in the “Advanced” pref pane in iTunes? As far as I know, that’s how iTunes determines the location where it’ll store newly imported sound files.

    As this point, you probably need to reimport all your files from the other internal hard drive as well.

  22. markfb says:

    thanks man. i changed the Advanced pref location but i was not seeing the entire library until i reimported the files… all’s good. thank you!!!!

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