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Artists Plan to Sue Universal Music Group Over Destroyed Recordings

At least 10 artists whose master recordings may have been destroyed in a 2008 fire at a storage facility on the grounds of Universal Studios Hollywood plan to sue Universal Music Group, the Los Angeles Times reports. Attorney Howard King told the newspaper that his firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano plans to file lawsuits on behalf of individual clients, saying, “Claims of the people who have lost their futures in some respects are far more significant than would be dealt with in a class action.”

The New York Times Magazine reported earlier this week that the fire destroyed as many as 500,000 recordings from a variety of genres. These include works by dozens, if not hundreds, of popular music’s biggest acts, including Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Chuck Berry, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Janet Jackson, Eminem, Nirvana, Mary J. Blige, Ray Charles, Guns N’ Roses, Ella Fitzgerald, the Eagles, Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails, Billie Holiday, and many more. The lost masters in question were the only original copies of recordings sourced for commercial releases and reissues.

Universal led a coordinated effort to cover up the extent of the fire’s damage at the time, according to the New York Times Magazine’s report, and several acts have said in recent days that they were kept in the dark. Hole said they previously unaware that their masters were destroyed, and Steely Dan’s manager said the band knew their recordings were missing but were never given a “plausible explanation” from UMG about how this came to be. The Roots’ drummer Questlove credited the fire with why the band has not reissued their second and third albums Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife, saying unreleased songs from those projects’ sessions were destroyed.

King did not say which artists might sue but said he expects to file lawsuits next week. Ed McPherson, of the prominent entertainment law firm McPherson LLP, told the Los Angeles Times that they too have heard from musicians concerned about lost masters and are “definitely exploring all options,” adding, “It is inconceivable to me that the largest record label [group] in the world could be in this situation, with masters going back to the 1940s, which are irreplaceable, and they did not put them in a vault that’s fireproof or otherwise tamper-proof. It just blows my mind.”

After the New York Times Magazine’s story was published, UMG issued a statement saying, in part, “The incident – while deeply unfortunate – never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation.” Read the latest report here.