The Universal Music Group is pushing back on a New York Times Magazine report that, contrary to official statements made more than a decade ago, a 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed a staggering number of original master recordings stored there.
The devastation, which company executives downplayed or dismissed outright after the fire was extinguished 11 years ago this month, is breathtaking in scope, amounting to what the new report describes as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music industry.”
“This is a tragedy,” Elliot Roberts, longtime manager to Neil Young, told the Los Angeles Times. Young did not lose any master recordings in the fire. “You can yell, you can jump up and down, you can look to insurance, you can sue,” said Roberts, “but if you lose a master, you’re [sunk].”
UMG disputed the New York Times report, citing “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,” said the statement issued Tuesday. “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.”
These first generation master recordings spanning more than half a century’s worth of music may total 500,000 individual tracks, The New York Times Magazine reported, including such cultural touchstones as Bill Haley & His Comets” hit “Rock Around the Clock,” the Kingsmen’s garage-rock classic “Louie Louie,” Etta James’ ballad of romantic reconciliation “At Last” and quite possibly the entire recorded catalogs of artists including Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly.
Other artists whose master recordings were destroyed include jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie; blues masters Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Little Walter; and most of the original rock-defining recordings made at Chicago’s Chess Records label by Chuck Berry.
Some of Aretha Franklin’s earliest recordings also are believed to be among those destroyed, along with outtakes and never-released recordings by hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians, among them Elton John, Cat Stevens, Nirvana, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Ray Charles, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Soundgarden, Hole, Eminem, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.
At the time, Universal Music officials dismissed concerns about what had been stored there, saying most of the recordings were copies, not originals, and that any originals had been converted to digital copies and therefore were safely backed up.
“In a sense, nothing was lost,” a UMG spokesman told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the June 1, 2008, blaze had been extinguished by fire crews. Most reports centered on contents of the facility’s movie and video archive.
The loss to the audio contents, in fact, was incalculable, “yet the news has never reached the broader public,” reporter Jody Rosen writes in The New York Times Magazine. “In part, this represents a triumph of crisis management.”
Rosen cites internal emails in which a UMG spokesman informed his superiors, “We stuck to the script about physical backups and digital copies.”
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