For much of last week, Universal Music Group archivist Patrick Kraus sent members of his team into the ten vaults the company keeps around the world to verify the location and condition of its more than 3.5 million assets, from original session recordings to photographs. The world’s biggest music company has been in crisis mode since the New York Times Magazine ran “The Day the Music Burned,” reporting that a 2008 Hollywood, California, fire destroyed up to 500,000 master recordings, including historical originals by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Snoop Dogg, the Roots and many others.
The Times story brought unprecedented attention to a little-known part of the recording business — storing and preserving masters, the “first-generation tapes,” in Kraus’ words, used as sources for vinyl, CD and digital releases. The Times described them as “the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music,” which is why they’re vital for ambitious reissue projects and indispensable for historians. They could also now be the subject of litigation: Prominent artists are considering filing lawsuits against Universal based on the destruction of their masters.
Kraus, UMG’s senior VP of recording studios and archive management, didn’t work at Universal at the time of the fire, but he spent part of last week reassuring panicked artists and responding to outraged music fans – and he explained to Billboard why the Times story “overstated” the losses. “Mind you, we’ve had two days!” he says. (Universal has allocated additional resources to Kraus’ tem and established an email address for artists to communicate with the company about this issue: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Kraus, who started in music selling records at Licorice Pizza in LA, worked in Warner Music Group’s archives operation for 17 years before coming to Universal in 2015.
Universal won’t say how many archival assets were lost in the fire at Universal Studios backlot, which at the time of the fire, Universal Music Group rented from NBC Universal. “There are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details,” the company said in a statement. But Kraus, who spoke with frustration and wonky passion, discussed what he could about the extent of the damage and how the the label now archives the recordings it owns.
The Times story says the fire far worse than was reported at the time. Is that assessment fair?
Based on what we know, to me [the article] was surprisingly overstated. The article painted a picture of an archive being a place where every asset is a master – which isn’t always true. In fact, it’s never true. The things we collect range from reference cassettes, reference reels of tape, CD-Rs, production masters, multi-track tapes, flat-mix masters, EQ’ed production masters – it runs a gamut of items, formats and purposes.
How many of the millions of UMG archival “assets” are considered masters? And how many are early-generation copies? And how important is that difference?
It’s not always as simple as just saying, “Oh, we’re going to do a reissue, give me the master tape.” We look at everything we have. Sometimes the master source is not the best source to work from. Sometimes it’s a “protection copy,” because it’s been played less, for example. It’s a nuanced world we live in.
Can you characterize what was in fact lost in the 2008 fire?
There is no dispute that the fire caused serious loss, and we never said otherwise. Any loss of any asset, master or otherwise, is painful for us. What was lost? There are many things that were in these archives — master tapes, protection copies, boxes of paperwork, etc.
The story suggests that masters for many major catalogs, from Chuck Berry to Aretha Franklin, were destroyed. Is that true?
The extent of the losses was overstated. Many of the masters that were highlighted as destroyed, we actually have in our archives — the Impulse [Records]/[John] Coltrane stuff, Muddy Waters, [jazz pianist] Ahmad Jamal, [gospel label] Nashboro Records, Chess Records, to name a few. Those are some of the things we’ve gone through. Just in the last two days, we’ve found those examples in the archives.
What can you tell me about Building 6197, the facility where Universal stored its archival material on the Universal Studios lot back then, and how much damage was done in the fire?
All I know about that lot is what I saw as a visitor on the tour, to tell you the truth.
When did you go as a visitor?
I’m talking about the Universal Studios tour. When I lived in Burbank, in my Warner days, my kids were little, so we would go to the Nickelodeon Splash zone on a regular basis.
Do you think Universal and other labels learned anything from the fire about how to protect archival assets?
Well, you know, it’s 11 years ago, right? Anytime you have a fire — any time you lose an asset — it’s a terrible event. We know we have to put these assets into secure facilities that have fire protection and we have to work quickly to preserve some of this stuff digitally to make sure it’s around for the ages. Beyond that, I don’t know that I could say we learned anything specifically from this particular event.
How much have you changed the archiving process since you started at UMG four years ago? How do you store masters and other assets today?
We have a mix of our own facilities around the world, and partner facilities, and that partner in many cases is Iron Mountain. We’re pretty deliberate about geographic separation. We have things on the West Coast, in the center of the country, on the East Coast, in and around London, in the U.K., and various local vaults around the territories we operate in around the world.
The story quotes a source describing Iron Mountain, where Universal stores many of its master recordings in Boyers, Pennsylvania, as a “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style warehouse that contains rows and rows of objects that are hard to identify. Is that true?
That was grossly overstated. Iron Mountain has been a great partner for us in terms of not only storage but also helping us to understand what we have better. Things are marked and we have databases that contain as much data as we’ve been able to capture around those assets.
How much of an issue is finding an identifying recordings?
It’s my sense that, across the board, music archiving has improved greatly over the last 20-plus years. I have not run across situations where it’s wildly out of control and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-like.
The Times story paints a pretty dark picture about how masters have been cared for over the years.
There are lots of tales of terrible things that have happened to archival assets across the entertainment industry over the decades, and people love to tell them. They’re probably all true. But we’re not fighting a battle against the elements here on a daily basis. There are some real threats that we deal with all the time, like decaying physical carriers and tapes. Where do you find a wax-cylinder player that does justice to the content? Same with analog tape.
After the article, some artists have publicly said that they believe their masters have been destroyed, including Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Irving Azoff, who spoke on behalf of Steely Dan, which he manages. Can you respond?
Every artist who’s reached out to us with concerns, we’re working closely with them and/or their representatives to give them insight into the status of all of the assets we hold.
Could any good come from this in terms of people paying some attention to this issue more broadly?
It’s a good opportunity for us to say, “Look, we’re not a bunch of bean counters who don’t give a shit about these assets.” We actually literally spend most of our waking moments devising strategies for how to best take care of this stuff. There’s an endless list of stunning artifacts that we have that we treasure and that we work hard to preserve. And being able to talk about that is always a good thing.