An extensive report published this week in The New York Times Magazine alleged that a fire that broke out on a Universal backlot in June 2008 destroyed master recordings spanning decades of popular music from icons including Elton John, Billie Holiday, Nirvana, Chuck Berry, Judy Garland, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, among other prominent artists whose recordings were owned and stored by Universal Music Group (UMG). These included session masters for recordings that had never been commercially released.
A master recording is an original recording of a piece of music that is used as a source for commercially-released secondary recordings including vinyl records, CDs and MP3s. They are also often used as the source material for legacy releases including box sets and reissues.
King declined to name specific artists who have reached out to his firm regarding possible representation, stating only that they include a mix of existing and new clients. Despite the large number of artists affected, he said he will not be filing a class action suit due to the excessive amount of potential damages involved.
“A class action is cumbersome, doesn’t often result in a big recovery for the individual class members, and is typically used when you have a lot of people who have had a little bit of damages,” said King. “We don’t need to go through that cumbersome process, because ... presuming that the [New York Times] article is correct and these irreplaceable master recordings have been lost, the damages don’t necessitate a class action because they’re so significant.”
The New York Times report states that in December 2009, UMG filed a lawsuit against NBCUniversal, its landlord at the warehouse that contained the recordings, claiming the studio “breached their duty of care” by failing to adequately protect its assets held there. At that time, UMG reportedly went to great lengths to stress the significant loss the company suffered due to the fire, with one internal memo stating that “a huge musical heritage” was lost.
“I mean, nobody can question what they did in this litigation and what they said,” said King. “They certainly said that they had suffered a devastating loss as a result of the fire, and that included the destruction of these irreplaceable master recordings.”
UMG and NBCUniversal reportedly settled for an undisclosed amount in February 2013, though it doesn't appear that any of that money was ever distributed to artists whose master recordings were lost.
“To my knowledge, Universal Music didn’t share any of that money with the artists who were affected,” said King. “And even worse, never notified anybody that their masters were gone.”
King declined to discuss any legal theories that might underpin potential litigation, other than to say it will be based upon “factual allegations that [UMG was] entrusted with protecting the future of these artists and they breached that trust by allowing these valuable assets to be destroyed.”
A UMG spokesperson had no comment for this story.
Reaction to the New York Times article was swift, with a number of artists coming out on social media to comment on the implications. The official Twitter account for R.E.M. said the band was attempting to find “good information” on whether its music was affected, while Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic said that masters for the group’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind were likely “gone forever.” Roots bandleader Questlove also came out to confirm that masters for the group’s early albums Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife had been destroyed by the blaze.
Universal Music Group is the world’s largest recorded-music company. Labels falling under the UMG umbrella include Capitol, Def Jam, Interscope, EMI, Virgin, Island and Motown.