In 2008, the music world suffered a loss that, until now, went almost entirely unacknowledged: the master recordings of an estimated 500,000 songs by many of the past century’s marquee musicians burned in a day-long blaze at a Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood, California, according to claims in a new report published in The New York Times Magazine by Jody Rosen. For the past 11 years, the article alleges, Universal Music Group kept this "open secret," obscuring "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business."
On the morning of June 1, 2008, following maintenance work that involved the use of blowtorches, the roof of the backlot’s “New England Street” set ignited. The fire spread to the “video vault,” a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that stored film reels but also housed a sound-recordings library containing master recordings from the many labels under the UMG umbrella. The 3.5-acre fire took a full day to contain; after drenching it with water and foam fire retardant proved unsuccessful, firefighters had to raze the warehouse.
At the time, media outlets reported on the damage to the King Kong theme park attraction and warehouse’s “video vault,” but not to the sound-recordings library, a real treasure trove that was almost entirely destroyed. It contained the master recordings from an array of artists spanning over 60 years and a variety of genres. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Etta James, Neil Diamond, Loretta Lynn, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Janet Jackson, No Doubt and Tupac Shakur are among the long list of artists whose master recordings may have gone up in flames.
A master recording, or “master,” as it is often called, is the original sound recording of a song. Without it, you can still listen to an Ella Fitzgerald track on Spotify, but the sound you’re hearing is a lower fidelity copy. That means the most sonically rich versions of the songs that went up in flames—not to mention any unreleased music or multitrack recordings containing, say, an isolated drum line or piano melody–are irretrievably gone. One such loss, suggests Rosen, may be a master of Aretha Franklin’s first commercial recordings, made when the Queen of Soul was still a teenager. Other songs from lesser-known artists signed to the many labels UMG swept up might be gone entirely if lower-quality copies of their music weren't stored elsewhere.
Internally, UMG acknowledged how catastrophic the fire had been: “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,” reads a company document cited in Rosen’s article. At the time, however, the entertainment industry heavy-hitter downplayed the damage. The New York Times’ coverage of the backlot blaze, like many others, didn’t mention that music recordings might have been among the ashes. UMG officials led the Times to report that “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work,” while a spokesman told Billboard that no master recordings had been lost, a statement that The New York Times Magazine report shows to be false. Former UMG employee Randy Aronson, who was UMG's senior director of vault operations in 2008, tells Rosen, “The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story…It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.”
UMG is pushing back against The New York Times Magazine’s account of the fire. In a statement to Variety, the label does not deny that the sound-recording library was damaged in the fire, but does allege that the report contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”
“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,” the statement continues.
After the fire, UMG started a two-year project to try to replicate its library, which resulted in about a fifth of the lost music being “recovered” by obtaining sonically inferior copies, according to Aronson’s estimate. But the exact nuances of the high notes, the bass riffs, the vibrato and cymbals preserved on the master recordings that did burn that June day—those have gone quiet.