Legal and Management

Steve Earle Drops His Claims Against Universal Music Over 2008 Backlot Fire

Steve Earle
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Steve Earle performs at the Grand Ol Opry showcase during the 2019 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 13, 2019 in Manchester, Tenn.

Tom Petty’s widow Jane Petty now remains the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

Steve Earle is the latest artist to drop his claims against Universal Music Group regarding the 2008 fire on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood. Earle filed a voluntary request with the court on Monday (March 23) to dismiss his claims “without prejudice,” thereby reserving his right to litigate those claims in the future.

With Earle exiting, Tom Petty’s widow Jane Petty remains the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit against UMG regarding losses due to the fire. On March 13, Soundgarden and Tupac Shakur's estate also filed voluntary motions to drop their claims against UMG. Hole dropped out of the suit last August. The putative class action lawsuit was initially filed in June 2019.

These revelations follow the March 5 release of an internal memo from UMG senior vp recording studios and archive management Pat Kraus to staff providing an exhaustive update on the label's exhaustive, ongoing inventory survey efforts. In the memo, which was obtained by Billboard, he wrote that, contrary to reporting by The New York Times Magazine that first broke news of the fire's destruction in June 2019, “less than 0.1 percent” of the more than 150,000 assets he and his team have reviewed so far were “original recordings” destroyed by the fire.

"For the very few original recordings we believe were impacted, almost all had previously been commercially released and we have located safeties, copies or digital alternatives for every single album," he wrote. "In the one instance where an unreleased album was affected, we have located multiple copies and we could still release the album if the artist wishes. We are also currently working with a few artists and estates to locate masters and copies that may exist in their archives."

According to the memo, a team of more than 70 specialists have been undertaking the “exhaustive work” of reviewing assets, with Kraus noting that it can take “as long as several weeks” to analyze assets for a single artist. He added that they are prioritizing their work based on direct requests from artists or their representatives, with a total of 392 requests having been received and 209 responded to since the New York Times Magazine stories were published.

The memo continually downplays the scope of the losses suggested in the New York Times Magazine stories, which included a list of 830 artists whose original recordings may have been destroyed in the 2008 blaze, including Aretha Franklin, Nirvana and Elton John. Kraus noted only 5% of UMG’s total assets were stored in the Universal Studios vault that burned, and that the bulk of those materials were not master recordings. Of the 19 artists whose masters were confirmed by UMG to have been destroyed, he said, they have managed to track down secondary copies “for nearly all" of them.

Attorneys for Jane Petty have not responded to Billboard’s request for comment.