Business

Universal Music Group Chief Lucian Grainge Addresses Vault Fire: 'We Owe Our Artists Transparency'

Lucian Grainge
Joe Pugliese

Lucian Grainge

"The loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking."

In a memo to staff on Tuesday (June 18), Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge addressed recent press reports and speculation sparked by a New York Times Magazine story about a 2008 fire in Universal City, California, that destroyed up to 500,000 master recordings in the record company's archive vaults. 

"Even though that event happened more than a decade ago, and while I’ve been somewhat relieved by early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate, one thing is clear: the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking," he wrote in the email, which was obtained by Billboard

While the fire's damage was initially downplayed by the label in 2008 (when it was run by Doug Morris), according to the Times, the losses were actually devastating. Among those recordings reportedly destroyed in the fire were original masters by Chuck Berry, Nirvana, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, Snoop Dogg, the Roots and many others. Since the Times article was published last week, UMG has contended it overstates the archive's destruction. 

In his letter to staff, Grainge related his own experience as a 17-year-old couriering Boomtown Rats masters and recalled being told repeatedly not to travel by subway with the recordings because they could be ruined by the magnetism. "It was then I first realized how precious these items were, and the care with which they needed to be treated," he said. "This is just one small anecdote. I know so many of you have your own individual stories about how and why you're working here. But all of us came into this business for one reason: a love of music. Our artists and songwriters count on us to be the stewards of their art -- today and for the future."

He also noted that the speculation around the fires has created confusion from artists and songwriters -- which he called "completely unacceptable." He continued, "Let me be clear: we owe our artists transparency. We owe them answers."

Grainge said the company has set up a special team specifically to field artist requests and will be "redoubling our efforts to be a leader in preserving the rich cultural legacy upon which our industry is based." 

"Again, none of this takes away the pain of losing any recording or video from our archives," he concluded. "But I want you all to be clear about how seriously we take this."

Read the full message below. 

Dear Colleagues, 

By now most of you have seen the articles relating to the fire in 2008 at the NBCUniversal Studios lot that destroyed archived recordings, videos and related materials. 

Even though that event happened more than a decade ago, and while I’ve been somewhat relieved by early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate, one thing is clear: the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking.   

When I was 17, I acted as a courier to pick up the 2-inch multitracks and quarter-inch Boomtown Rats masters just after they finished their album at Rockfield Studios in Wales.  I can still remember being repeatedly warned not to travel by subway to the mastering studio because the magnetic energy could destroy the recordings.  It was then I first realized how precious these items were, and the care with which they needed to be treated. 

This is just one small anecdote.  I know so many of you have your own individual stories about how and why you're working here.  But all of us came into this business for one reason: a love of music.  Our artists and songwriters count on us to be the stewards of their art – today and for the future.   

And that’s one reason why the stories about the extent of the 2008 fire have resonated with all of us.  Even though all of the released recordings lost in the fire will live on forever, losing so much archival material is nonetheless painful.  These stories have prompted speculation, and having our artists and songwriters not knowing whether the speculation is accurate is completely unacceptable. 

So, let me be clear: we owe our artists transparency.  We owe them answers. 

I will ensure that the senior management of this company, starting with me, owns this. 

If any of you hear from an artist asking about the status of archived assets, please immediately have them contact Pat Kraus (Pat.Kraus@umusic.com), our SVP of Recording Studios & Archive Management.  In the past few days, Pat has formed a special team specifically to field these requests and respond to them as promptly as we can.   

One final note: 

At UMG we have the greatest collection of musical recordings, videos and artwork in the world – millions of assets in total – dating back to the late 1800s.  We invest significantly in preserving and protecting those treasures around the world—in technology, in infrastructure and by employing experts.  I know how deeply committed our archival and catalog teams are to preserving our archives for generations to come.  Part of “owning this” is redoubling our efforts to be a leader in preserving the rich cultural legacy upon which our industry is based.   

Again, none of this takes away the pain of losing any recording or video from our archives.  But I want you all to be clear about how seriously we take this. 

Lucian