A 2008 fire at Universal Studios was “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business”, according to a New York Times feature released yesterday. The article, entitled ‘The Day The Music Burned’, claims that hundreds of thousands of master tapes from artists including Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Nirvana and Hole were lost, among many others.
According to the report, given that the fire destroyed a warehouse facility that primarily housed film archives, many didn’t realise the storage facility even contained any music. When reporters allegedly questioned whether recordings had been lost, Universal Music Group replied that losses to music properties had been small.
However, according to documents obtained by the Times, there were around 18,230 “assets destroyed”, and the loss of “an estimated 500K song titles” in the disaster.
“There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time,” writers journalist Jody Rosen in the piece.
“The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.”
As the LA Times points out, the loss of these master recordings makes “future sonic upgrades” to commercial releases a prohibitive task. “Working without the master tapes would be like a chef having to use precooked food” says Giles Martin, Beatles re-issue producer in the Times article.
Universal Music have disputed the extent of the damage reported. “Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” reads a statement from the company. “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.”