In response to a New York Times (NY Times) article recounting a 2008 fire described as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business”, Universal Music Group has issued a statement disputing the classification of the damage it caused to the company. UMG said the article contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” NY Times claimed that thousands of master recordings were destroyed in the fire.
“Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the UMG statement reads in part. “While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBC Universal 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 goes on to cite “the tens of thousands of back catalog recordings that we have already issued in recent years – including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed,’” and says “UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music,” listing several restoration and preservation projects.
The NY Times article
The NY Times’ published a story alleging that Universal Music Group lost roughly 500,000 master recordings by iconic artists in the 2008 fire that scorched Universal Studios’ Hollywood lot. At the time, UMG downplayed the damage done, having told Deadline that there “was little lost from UMG’s vault.” Drawing upon legal documents and internal records, as well as Randy Aronson, a former UMG employee, the New York Times Times pokes holes in their public statements, declaring that this was “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
Citing UMG documents, the article says the structure in question, Building 6197, was UMG’s main west coast storehouse of masters and a primary storage facility for the company, holding “analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or ‘flat’ analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.” The loss included recordings from the archives of labels UMG acquired or partnered with over the years, including Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope, and many others.
Aronson “recalls hearing” that the company estimated the value of the loss at $150 million, but such damage is impossible to value, due to the imprecise records of what exactly was on the tapes and hard drives in the vault.
While the fire may well have been the single greatest loss of recorded music assets in contemporary history, it is hardly the first. In 1978 a vast number of classic Atlantic and Elektra recordings were lost in a warehouse fire. Nor would it be the last, a flood several years ago at Universal’s storage facility in New Jersey damaged many recordings. Recordings from Prince’s “vault” at his Paisley Park compound were also found to have water and mold damage, although they have been restored and moved to a facility in Los Angeles.