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Nirvana, Aretha Franklin, Tupac, Elton John & Hundreds More Lost Masters in Universal Music Fire: Report

universal music group fire
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Smoke rises over burning structures at Universal Studios on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, Calif.

Janet Jackson, The Eagles, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and more are also included in a new list compiled by the New York Times Magazine.

A more complete picture of the losses incurred in the 2008 Universal Music Group (UMG) fire has been revealed in a new article published in The New York Times Magazine.

The report includes a list of hundreds of artists whose tapes were seemingly lost in the blaze, from musical icons such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Dolly Parton to historically-significant but lesser-known figures like Les Paul, Captain Beefheart and Alice Coltrane. The list which was compiled from three separate UMG lists obtained by the Times that were prepared for an initiative entitled Project Phoenix, which the company mounted in an attempt to track down replacement copies and duplicates of destroyed masters.

The UMG lists were procured from a series of emails and documents the Times obtained in the course of their investigation into the fire, which broke out on the backlot of Universal Studios and eventually destroyed a warehouse containing a treasure trove of master recordings from UMG’s archives. UMG subsequently sued NBCUniversal for negligence over the fire; the case was ultimately being settled out of court in 2013.

The list published by the Times covers a broad spectrum of musical acts and cultural icons. Modern megastars such as 50 Cent, Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Mary J. Blige, Nine Inch Nails, Common, Elton John, No Doubt, Beck, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Sheryl Crow and Guns N’ Roses share space with musical pioneers like Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Bing Crosby, Aretha Franklin, Slim Harpo and B.B. King.

Tapes from several notable comedians were also reportedly lost, including Carol Burnett, Chris Rock, Cheech & Chong, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Hope and Rodney Dangerfield. Additionally, the recording of a keynote address given by Martin Luther King Jr. called "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" was also reportedly stored in the warehouse.

The Times notes the UMG lists they obtained organized the acts by letter grade in an effort to determine what priority each would be given in recovery efforts, and that artists who were “top-sellers with thin discographies” (i.e. Captain and Tennille, Whitesnake, Sublime, the Pussycat Dolls and Nelly Furtado) were often graded higher than such historical figures and innovators as Merle Haggard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Neville Brothers and the Roots. It addiitionally states that the list (which you can read in full here) represents “many -- but not all" of the acts whose tapes were lost, and that it is impossible to determine whether all of the listed acts lost primary-source masters.

In the wake of the Times’ blockbuster report “The Day the Music Burned” -- which revealed the extent of the musical losses that UMG had allegedly tried to conceal -- several affected artists have expressed shock and indignation on social media and in interviews.

UMG responded with a statement claiming the Times article contained "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets" and went 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." 

In a subsequent memo to staff, UMG CEO Lucian Grainge said that while he was "somewhat relieved" by "early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate," the losses were "painful" and "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."

The fallout over the Times exposé continued last week with a putative class-action lawsuit filed against UMG by grunge icons Soundgarden and Hole, Tom Petty’s ex-wife Jane Petty, a representative of the Tupac Shakur estate and country-rock singer Steve Earle. The group, which accuses UMG of breaching a duty of care with artists "through its negligence in storing the Master Recordings in the firetrap that was the Universal Studios backlot warehouse,” is seeking to recover half of any settlement proceeds and insurance payments received by UMG, as well as half of any remaining loss of value not compensated by those proceeds and payments. The lawsuit values UMG’s litigation and insurance claims following the fire at a reported $150 million, none of which was shared with the affected artists.

UMG is concurrently facing a separate class-action lawsuit filed by singers John Waite and Joe Ely (among others) that accuses the company of refusing to honor notices of termination to reclaim rights to their music under the Copyright Act of 1976. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in that case tell the Times that any losses suffered by artists due to the fire are “a natural component" of their suit, stating, “The destruction of the master recordings caused by the 2008 fire, and UMG’s subsequent failure to notify recording artists that their works were tragically lost, further underscores how little regard UMG has for the rights and property of musicians."

While UMG has continued to downplay losses from the fire since publication of the original Times article, people familiar with the matter -- including Randy Aronson, UMG’s senior director of vault operations at the time of the fire -- have told the paper that “vast numbers” of the masters stored in the warehouse were “irreplaceable primary-source originals.” The Times also cites internal UMG documents and testimony given in the wake of the company's lawsuit against NBCUniversal to back up these claims.

Aronson additionally told the Times that the Project Phoenix initiative lasted two years, during which time they tracked down duplicates of roughly one-fifth of recordings lost in the fire. As Billboard previously reported, UMG responded to outcry over the original Times article by undertaking a second recovery project in an attempt to “verify the location and condition of its more than 3.5 million assets” by sending UMG archivists into 10 vaults the company has around the world.

This story has been updated to include previous statements from UMG and the company's CEO Lucian Grainge.


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