Reeling from devastating media reports about a 2008 fire that reportedly destroyed hundreds of thousands of crucial master recordings, from The Who to Busta Rhymes to Elmore James, Universal Music Group’s top archivist issued a statement to staff on Wednesday (July 17) about the extent of the losses that the company has seen in the archival material it has reviewed thus far.
Pat Kraus, the company’s senior vp recording studios and archive management, says his team so far reviewed 26,663 assets and just 424 of those “could be missing or lost due to the fire,” including 349 audio recordings and 22 original masters associated with five artists. “For each of those lost masters, we have located high-quality alternate sources,” he writes. “As we complete new work and we fill in gaps of work we’ve already done, these tallies will continue to evolve by the hour.”
Since The New York Times Magazine reported in early June that a 2008 fire at the Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood had been far more devastating than the label initially had let on, artists have questioned whether their master tapes exist anymore. Soundgarden, Hole and Tupac Shakur’s estate, among others, have filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and requested $100 million in damages. “Many of the artists who have spoken out did so based on their concerns after reading their names in the New York Times Magazine,” Kraus wrote. “We have subsequently communicated with many of these artists following their public comments and in many cases we’ve been able to reassure them about the status of masters of their performances.”
But Randy Aronson, a former UMG vp archives and mastering studios, who has been a central source in the Times‘ stories, tells Billboard he believes the label is continuing to play down its damages. He confirms the previously reported figure of 118,000 to 175,000 lost assets — which includes crucially historic catalogs from Chess, ABC, Impulse, A&M and many others — and calls the 424 estimate “very, very low.”
“By now they should have a fairly decent macro view of what happened with the fire,” he says. “It’s all there, it’s all been documented, it’s been 11 years. Yes, [current UMG officials, including Kraus] are new to this. But the fire isn’t new and they’re in charge of it. That’s disappointing.”
In his 1,400-word statement addressed to label colleagues at chairman Lucian Grainge‘s request, Kraus says there is no “definitive list” of what master recordings and other assets were destroyed in the fire and calls the hundreds of assets published in The Times “misleading.” Aronson disagrees, saying he did, in fact, put together a master “god list” of the company’s inventory, although it was flawed due to computer systems and technology of the time. Of Kraus’ suggestion that there is no list, he responds: “It should be a definitive list. ‘Twenty-two losses,’ to me, is as insulting as ‘we really didn’t lose anything. Nothing to see here.'”
However, Universal’s review of what assets were lost is still in its early stages. “Our work is just beginning,” Kraus writes.
He closes on a reassuring note: “Our assets are safely housed in temperature-controlled, secure facilities strategically located near our key operations centers. Our global team of archivists regularly and continuously care for our masters and other recorded media, to ensure the music will be available to fans today and for generations to come.”