Music

Universal Music Disputes Severity of 2008 Fire Cited in New York Times Article

In response to a New York Times article recounting a 2008 fire described as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business” in which thousands of Universal Music Group master recordings were destroyed, the company has issued a statement disputing the characterization of the damage it caused to the company’s archives, saying the article contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”

“Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the statement reads in part. “While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident – while deeply unfortunate – never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation.”

The statement goes on to cite “the tens of thousands of back catalog recordings that we have already issued in recent years – including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed,’” and says “UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music,” listing several restoration and preservation projects.

A rep for the TImes did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.

However, UMG’s statement does not dispute that the damage to the archives —  which saw the destruction of 500,000 recordings, according to an estimate in a 2009 confidential UMG report cited in the article — was extreme. According to the article, the fire, which took place on June 1, 2008 on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, destroyed “almost all of the master recordings stored in the vault … including those produced by some of the most famous musicians since the 1940s, [likely including] masters by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland; as well as some of Chuck Berry’s greatest recordings, the masters of some of Aretha Franklin’s first appearances on record, almost of all of Buddy Holly’s masters and John Coltrane’s masters in the Impulse Records collection. Also lost were recordings by Ray Charles, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.”

A source close to the situation confirmed that the damage from the fire was severe and that initial comments from representatives of the company, which was under different management at the time, were not entirely up-front about the extent of the damage. But the source took issue with the assertion that priceless recordings have been “lost forever,” the “breathless” tone of the article, and some comments by Randy Aronson, a former UMG employee quoted in the article.

The author of the article, Jody Rosen, described the loss as “historic, and even Universal Music Group itself — privately — viewed what happened in bleak terms,” he says, citing a 2009 internal document: “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”

Citing UMG documents, the article says the structure in question, Building 6197, was UMG’s main west coast storehouse of masters and a primary storage facility for the company, holding “analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or ‘flat’ analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.” The loss included recordings from the archives of labels UMG acquired or partnered with over the years, including Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope, and many others.

Aronson “recalls hearing” that the company estimated the value of the value of the loss at $150 million, but such damage is impossible to value, due to the imprecise records of what exactly was on the tapes and hard drives in the vault.

A March 2009 internal document titled  “Vault Loss Meeting” and cited in the article reads, “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety. Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”

While the fire may well have been the single greatest loss of recorded music assets in contemporary history, it is hardly the first; in 1978 a vast number of classic Atlantic and Elektra recordings were lost in a warehouse fire. Nor would it be the last: a flood several years ago at Universal’s storage facility in New Jersey damaged many recordings, and recordings from Prince’s “vault” at his Paisley Park compound were found to have water and mold damage, although they have been restored and moved to a facility in Los Angeles. In the past, record companies and studios were notoriously cavalier with historic recordings, particularly when storage became an issue. In the mid-1990s a number of high-quality bootlegs by the Rolling Stones, the Who and others hit the market after Olympic Studios in London closed down and discarded the tapes in garbage bins.

Despite its at-times dramatic tone, the article does contextualize the assets that were lost, which are primarily historic in value. “John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot,” it reads. “But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape.”

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