Digital music has continued to evolve since Apple released the first iPod back in 2001. Back then MP3 was the popular format and then Apple switched gears to AAC. The AAC format promised better sounding music at smaller or the same file sizes as the .MP3s they were replacing. Once the iTunes Music Store launched we saw the introduction of "Protected" AAC files (.m4p). These are the files types that were originally sold on the iTunes Store that had DRM (Digital Rights Management) copy protection in them. This of course limits them to only play on your "Authorized" computers and devices. Of course there were ways around this like burning an Audio CD and then re-ripping it back into iTunes.
Luckily those days are behind us as Apple now only sells "iTunes Plus" (.m4a). Legally you're still obligated not to distribute this music to all your friends, but music in this format is not physically restricted to only play on your authorized computers or only on Apple devices. The iTunes Plus music is also encoded at a higher bit rate (256kbps vs 128kbps). The files are larger but should sound better.
My quest to rid my library of All Protected DRM Music
I'm looking forward to the day where 100% of the songs in my library are FREE from DRM Protection. Let's start with the songs I already own that I ripped from Audio CDs. These are already DRM Free. I ripped my music CD collection into iTunes years ago. Back then I ripped them all into .mp3 format. Of course when AAC came along I wanted the benefits of better sounding digital music. Luckily iTunes allows you to put those same CDs in and "re-rip" them into AAC format. It will gracefully replace the .mp3 files with .m4a files keeping all your playcounts and the songs in their respective playlists. I haven't had time to re-rip them again into the higher quality iTunes Plus AAC format, but I will do so eventually. So the music from my CDs was always DRM FREE and just needs to be re-ripped at some point to have higher quality sound of the iTunes Plus format. Great! What's Next?…
Upgrading My iTunes Purhcases – The iTunes Store will allow you to "Upgrade" some of your music into iTunes Plus DRM Free format. The cost averages about 30¢ a song. It's an option of course and you don't have to do it unless you want to. I want to! The problem is that this option is not available for all of my purchased music. In order to offer this option the music lables have to "allow" Apple to offer it. New contracts have to be signed and as a result any band/label that didn't agree to the iTunes Plus format from the beginning was removed from the store. Even if the record label allows for NEW iTunes Plus purchases of songs, that doesn't mean they allow for upgrades of existing songs. With this being the case some of my music has been upgraded. Some of my music can't be upgraded and some of my purhased music is no longer even on the iTunes Store because the label/artist never agreed to the iTunes Plus format to begin with. When you have upgrades available they will appear on the main iTunes Store page in the upper right corner.
How to Replace a Track Manually
Up until this point your upgrading can be done automatically if you are re-ripping from your Audio CDs to get higher quality tracks or if you use the available iTunes Plus upgrades offered by the iTunes Store. That's great, but what if you want to bite the bullet and upgrade a song to DRM FREE at full quaility by buying it again? I know that that sounds like crazy talk right? Why would you re-buy something that you already own? For me it's not that crazy at all and it's not the first time it has happened. I started with 45's and Vinyl Albums. I rebought my favorite albums when CDs came along. I have bought several movies on VHS and yes I rebought some of my favorite ones on DVD and guess what, I'll buy some of them again on Blu-ray. So the concept of rebuying content to increase the quality of it or play it back on different devices is not that strange, at least not for me. If there is a song that I really really really like and play all the time and I want it in a higher quaility format not to mention no longer having DRM restrictions on it, then I'm willing to entertain the thought of buying it again. Once you get past the mental block of re-buying content, the next thing you'll want to know is how to do it in a way that doesn't create a duplicate in iTunes. Also I want to maintain that song's playcount as well as star ratings and of course I want it in all the playlists that it was already in. Sadly when you buy the same song in iTunes without doing an iTunes Plus upgrade, iTunes just downloads it as a duplicate in your library not maintaining any of the stats, playlist locations, etc.
iTunes is just a database. Your music is in folders
iTunes keeps track of all the above information about your music in a database. It references the actual media from your hard drive in the folders that the media is really stored in. Knowing this, it's not that hard to replace the media while keeping all the information intact. Here's how:
1) Launch iTunes and find the song in your Music section that you want to replace. In my case that's the DRM Protected one. It may help you to keep things straight by going up to View->View Options and enabling the "Kind" checkbox. This way you'll be able to easily see the Protected one vs. the "Purchased" one – Apple denotes iTunes Plus DRM Free Music as "Purchased" instead of "Protected".
2) Select the song and you can use the little Ping menu to "Show in iTunes Store". If the song is still available this will search for it. If it finds the song go ahead and buy it. Note that it may bring up the song but from a different album or even a slightly different version. This happens when the original song that you purchased is no longer available on the iTunes Store because it never came back as iTunes Plus.
3) Once you buy the song, go back to your Music library and search for it. They should now both appear.
sadly the new one is a shorter version of the song I originally purchased, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
4) Now you need to delete the song you just bought (the Purchased one) from iTunes. Make sure you KEEP the media file. All you're effectly doing is telling iTunes to forget about it/remove it from the database while you actually keep the downloaded song file in your iTunes Music folder.
5) After deleting the Purchased one you should be left with just the Protected one and this is the one with all your playcount information and playlists locations that you want to retain. Right click on this song and choose Show in Finder. This will take you to the folder on your drive that has the protected music file. Now delete it (.m4p) by putting it in the trash and emptying the trash! If this freaks you out, make a backup copy of it somewhere. Just make sure it's no longer on this drive after you back it up.
6) Next go back to iTunes and double click on the song to play and it should come up and say that it can't find the file (that's because you just deleted it in the previous step). At this point click the Locate button and goto your iTunes Music Folder to find the song you just purchased. Once find it and click OK, iTunes will update and point to that song from here on out while maintaing all your stats about that song and all the playlists that it's in.
7) When you look at the song in iTunes now it should say "Purchased" for the Kind instead of "Protected" and it should have your playcount, ratings and still be in all the playlists that you originally had it in.
The Bottom Line
I don't relish the fact of having to buy something that I have over again, but in some cases I'm willing to do so to gain features/quality. I hate DRM'd music and am working on eliminating all of them from my Library so that I have the flexibility of using that Music anyway that I choose including using it in Apps that don't work with DRM'd music. I also want the higher quality and while ripping DRM'd tracks via the Audio CD method works, you're effectvely doing 2 conversions and you're going to lose something quality wise in the process. If you ever do want to replace a track while keeping all the info you've built up on it, the steps above should help you.
As a bonus tip you can see how much DRM/Protected music you have by creating a Smart Playlist. I've got about 250 of these left. I even went as far as to delete the ones that had a playcount of ZERO. No need in replacing something that I've never listened to. I may even delete the ones with a Playcount of 2 or less. I've also prioritized the replacement of these protected files by replacing the ones with the highest playcounts/ratings first.