Universal Fire in 2008 Estimated to Have Destroyed 500,000 Iconic Master Recordings

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Aretha Franklin performs onstage in circa 1969. 

New reports contradict statements UMG made at the time about how much was lost.

The 2008 Universal Studios fire that wiped out the Back to the Future courthouse square and a mechanical King Kong also destroyed thousands of original recording masters from some of the most influential artists of the 20th century, The New York Times is reporting.

According to legal and internal documents seen by The Times, UMG put the number of music tapes destroyed when flames reached Building 6197 -- home to both film reels and the sound recordings -- at nearly 120,000. Randy Aronson, who was senior director of vault operations for UMG, told the publication that the tally was more like 175,000. In all, UMG estimated internally that roughly 500,000 songs were lost.

The irreplaceable master tapes originated from several labels, including Decca, MCA, ABC and Chess, and featured songs from jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to rock n' roll architect Chuck Berry to the earliest material by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. According to The Times, virtually all of Buddy Holly's masters were lost, along with most of the masters from John Coltrane's time at the legendary Impulse imprint. The list of destroyed works spans several genres and generations, including music by B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden and the Roots.

The destruction of master tapes contradicts official statements at the time, including from a Universal spokesperson who told Billboard "we had no loss," adding that the company had recently moved "most" of the stored material on the movie lot to other facilities. Elsewhere in its statements, the company did infer that some physical items didn't make it, but that digital copies were already made. "Of the small amount that was still there and awaiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years," the rep told Billboard at the time.

In a statement shared with Billboard, UMG cited "constraints" preventing them from publicly addressing certain details of the fire, but said investments have since been made "in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings." The company also stated The Times report "contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets." Read UMG's full response below. 

 

Master tapes are large reels of magnetic tape containing the original audio recordings, from which all subsequent copies are derived. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time," former Legacy president Adam Block told The Times. "Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away."

In addition to the Universal backlot, UMG had tape archives in a separate location in Los Angeles, in Pennsylvania, near Nashville and in upstate New York. Another warehouse in Edison, New Jersey, housed most of the masters for PolyGram Records, which had been sold to then-UMG parent Seagram in 1998.

Five years before the Universal lot fire, UMG averted another catastrophe at its warehouse in New Jersey when overloaded pallets of salad dressing rained down from an upstairs tenant, rupturing pipes as they fell through the ceiling and spreading water and dressing in a vault holding 350,000 master tapes, notably including the entire Motown catalog. A $12 million rescue and restoration operation that included hiring a dozen refrigerated trailers -- to quick-freeze the wet master tapes -- was successful.

Following the Jersey incident, Aronson said he was successful in urging UMG to move the majority of the backlot's session reels and multitracks -- roughly 250,000 tapes -- to the Pennsylvania archives. The 120,000 to 175,000 masters that remained in Building 6197 were the recordings that went up in flames in June 2008.

While UMG worked to downplay the fire's damage to the press, internally the staff knew it was bad. Very bad. In a March 2009 memo for a meeting on vault losses, the company didn't mince words: "The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety... Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage."

Read UMG's full response to the New York Times article here:

Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record.  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.  Further, the story contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.  In fact, it conveniently ignores 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 it even goes so far as to praise some of our initiatives but does not attribute them to us.

UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music.  In the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments – in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts – in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings.  In the last five years alone, we have more than doubled our investment in storage, preservation and metadata enrichment while developing state-of-the-art systems to support our global efforts around capturing, preserving and future-proofing our many media assets.  Additionally, the company has initiated a global effort to increase the availability of “out of print” and deep catalog recordings through a range of initiatives.  Some examples include:

EMI Archive Trust – Wholly supported by Universal Music Group, the Trust includes, 800,000 recordings and 1.8 million photographs, among many other assets.

University of Calgary – in 2016, Universal Music Canada donated more than 21,000 audio recording and 18,000 video recordings from the EMI Music Canada archives to the University of Calgary and the National Music Centre.

The Shellac Project – a collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, to restore treasures from Deutsche Grammaphon’s historic archives.

US Library of Congress – in 2011, in what was the largest single donation ever received by the Library of Congress’ audio-visual division – and the first major collection of studio master materials ever obtained by the U.S.’s oldest cultural institution – UMG donated more than 200,000 historic master recordings (many long out-of-print or never released, including recordings by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and many more) to the Library’s Recorded Sound Section. 

UPDATE: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. EST to include UMG's statement.