A 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed master tapes and other recordings by a staggering list of artists, according to a new report from the New York Times. The fire reportedly destroyed master tapes of recordings by a diverse range of artists and hitmakers like John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Nirvana, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Beck, Nine Inch Nails and other tapes owned by Universal Music Group.
At the time, Universal reps said that the fire had only destroyed part of the King Kong attraction and a video vault containing clips of television shows and movies dating back to the 1920s. However, an internal report reviewed by the Times stated that approximately 500,000 song titles were lost in the blaze. Aretha Franklin’s first recordings, Chuck Berry’s recordings for Chess Records, and the Decca Records collection masters of works by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington are all believed to have been lost in the fire. Masters from contemporary artists from a wide range of genres were also destroyed in the blaze, including recordings by Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Roots, Elton John, and more. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,” read a passage from Universal’s internal assessment of the damage, as reported by the Times.
To give a sense of the scale of the loss, the list of artists affected by the fire in the Times report includes “Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.”
The destruction of the master tapes mean that it will be more difficult to release high-quality reissues and reproductions of those recordings in the future.
“A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” former president of Legacy Recordings Adam Block told the Times. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”
Update (4:15 p.m.): In an email sent to various press outlets including Spin, a UMG spokesperson provided a statement that 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. Further, the story contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets. In fact, it conveniently ignores 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.”
A version of this first sentence was also provided to the Times. The third sentence implies that UMG believes it has released versions of music destroyed in the fire that are comparable in quality to the original recordings, while still tacitly admitting (“master-quality”) that the masters were indeed lost. As for the claim that the Times story “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets,” Spin has asked for specifics and will further update this post if we hear back.