Universal allegedly concealed loss of 500,000 recordings in fire

NEW YORK • They were red-hot hits, but a fire 11 years ago this month, which ripped through part of Universal Studios Hollywood, destroyed the master recordings.

At the time, the company said the blaze destroyed the theme park's King Kong attraction and a video vault that contained only copies of old works.

But, according to an article published on Tuesday by The New York Times Magazine, the fire also tore through an archive housing treasured audio recordings, amounting to what the piece described as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business".

A master recording is the source from which other vinyl records, CDs, MP3s and all other recordings are made.

The fire started in the early hours of June 1, 2008.

Overnight, maintenance workers had used blowtorches to repair the roof of a building on the set of New England Street, a group of colonial-style buildings used in scenes for movies and television shows.

The workers followed protocol and waited for the shingles they worked on to cool, but the fire broke out soon after they left, before 5am.

The flames eventually reached Building 6197, known as the video vault, which housed videotapes, film reels and, crucially, a library of master sound recordings owned by Universal Music Group.

After trying to douse the fire, emergency crew decided to dismantle the warehouse containing the vault to more easily put out the fire.

Almost all the master recordings stored in the vault were destroyed in the fire, including those produced by some of the most famous musicians since the 1940s.

In a confidential report in 2009, Universal Music Group estimated the loss at about 500,000 song titles.

The lost works most likely included masters in the Decca Records collection by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland.

The fire probably also claimed some of Chuck Berry's greatest recordings, produced for Chess Records, as well as the masters of some of Aretha Franklin's first appearances on record.

Almost all of Buddy Holly's masters were lost, as were most of John Coltrane's masters in the Impulse Records collection.

The fire also claimed numerous hit singles, likely including Bill Haley And His Comets' Rock Around The Clock, Etta James' At Last and The Kingsmen's Louie Louie.

The list of artists affected spans decades of popular music. It includes recordings by B.B. King, Four Tops, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny & Cher, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Police, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Tupac Shakur and Eminem.

At the time, the fire made news around the world, and the vault featured heavily in that coverage.

But most articles focused only on the video recordings in the archive.

Jody Rosen, the writer of the article, described the successful effort to play down the scope of the loss as a "triumph of crisis management".

Those efforts were aimed at minimising public embarrassment, but some suggest the company was also worried about a backlash from artists and artist estates whose master recordings had been destroyed.

Rosen described the loss as historic and even Universal Music Group - privately - viewed what happened in bleak terms.

"Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage," reads one 2009 internal assessment.

Record companies have had a troubled history with such recordings and have been known to trash them in bulk.

Decades ago, employees of CBS Records reportedly took power saws to multi-track masters to sell the reels as scrap metal. In the 1970s, RCA destroyed masters by Elvis Presley in a broader purge.

Because of that history, industry professionals have long questioned how committed the major music labels are to preserving what they see as priceless artefacts.

Today, most commercial recordings from the past century and beyond are controlled by only three giants: Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and, of course, Universal Music Group.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2019, with the headline 'Universal allegedly concealed loss of 500,000 recordings in fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe