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Universal Music Group Confirms Masters by Soundgarden, Sonic Youth & More Lost in 2008 Fire

Soundgarden's attorneys have accused the Universal Music Group of "improper discovery gamesmanship" after being told that only 19 artists had masters destroyed or damaged in the fire.

Soundgarden‘s attorneys have accused Universal Music Group of “improper discovery gamesmanship” after being told that only 19 artists — including Nirvana, Beck, R.E.M, Sheryl Crow, Bryan Adams and Elton John among others — had masters destroyed or damaged in the fire. The small figure, they say, is in stark contrast to the 17,000 artists UMG reported to its insurance company that had property destroyed or damaged after the 2008 Universal backlot fire, according to the latest motion filed by the band’s attorneys on Thursday.

Accusing UMG of trying to have it “both ways,” Soundgarden attorneys argue that UMG previously reported it “conducted a substantial investigation of assets lost in the fire” and that its investigation found “UMG lost more than 118,000 original music recordings dating back decades.” They say that UMG and NBC Universal subsequently reached a confidential settlement and UMG also settled an insurance coverage dispute related to the fire with AXA insurance company. But attorneys for Soundgarden say they are now being told by UMG that only 19 artists had property affected by the fire.


UMG says that certain original digital master recordings of performances for Nirvana, Beck, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Eat WorldSuzanne VegaWhite Zombie and Yesterday & Today were affected, but that it also has replacements or digital clones of these assets. R.E.M had one song from a soundtrack affected but UMG has copies in the same format. 

But artists such as Peter FramptonMichael McDonaldLes PaulSlayerSonic Youth and Soundgarden may not be so fortunate. UMG confirms those acts all had original master recordings affected and court papers make no mention of copies or replacements of those destroyed assets.  

Additionally, UMG says it is still working with Elton John — who had certain original master recordings of performances affected — to determine the extent of the impact to his assets. And the label confirms that certain tapes are missing from ’60s surf rock band The Surfaris, but that have not determined definitively whether those were affected by the fire. 

In the same joint filing, UMG accuses Soundgarden attorneys of misleading the facts and pointing out that just because an artist’s name was on “then-contemporaneous working lists of potentially lost assets” does not mean that they suffered any “irreplaceable loss of original masters.” UMG says it later learned there was a vast difference between what was on their post-fire investigation working lists and what was later determined actually lost or destroyed. UMG says that the lists were just “well-informed estimates of what overall assets might have been destroyed” and that “UMG knows today that those post-fire working lists were definitively wrong.” The lists were needed at the time because the records of the vault’s assets were also destroyed in the fire. UMG says some of the works that it originally believed might have been lost were later determined to be still on the UMG archives’ shelves.


UMG said class action attorneys are “willfully and irresponsibly conflating lost assets (everything from safeties and videos to artwork) with original album masters, in a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case.”

“Over the last eight months, UMG’s archive team has diligently and transparently responded to artist inquiries, and we will not be distracted from completing our work, even as the plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue these baseless claims,” says a UMG spokesperson.

However, Soundgarden attorneys are adamant in their position. 

“For almost 10 years, UMG concealed from their artists that their most precious assets were lost in the fire and that UMG had collected millions of dollars for those losses, money that should have been shared with the creators of those master recordings,” Howard King, attorney for Soundgarden, tells Billboard. “Once UMG cashed in, they apparently discontinued efforts to confirm the magnitude of lost assets… at least until this lawsuit was filed.”

The filing is just the latest development in the ongoing dispute against UMG in the class action lawsuit brought by Soundgarden, Tom Whalley (trustee of the Afeni Shakur Trust), Jane Petty and Steve Earle, who say their master recordings were destroyed or damaged in the June 1, 2008, fire at the Universal Studios backlot. In June, the group filed the suit agains UMG for breach of contract, negligence, reckless conduct, misrepresentation by omission as well as other causes of action. In August, UMG confirmed in court documents filed that no original masters for Tom Petty, Tupac and Steve Earle were affected by the fire.

In December, the California federal judge overseeing the case ruled that UMG must comply with the band’s discovery requests. 


After filing their lawsuit against UMG in June, seeking to recover half of any settlement proceeds and insurance payments received by UMG along with half of any remaining loss of value not compensated by such settlement proceeds and insurance payments, attorneys for the band Soundgarden have been demanding the label giant hand over key discovery evidence. In addition, they asked that UMG provide definitive information that shows which music artists lost their original masters and whether the company collected insurance money from the loss from the vault blaze. The band’s attorneys filed court papers demanding what they called an end to UMG’s “discovery games” and are asking the court to order UMG to produce the information they requested. In response, UMG has accused the class action attorneys of merely using discovery as a fishing expedition “for a new angle and new plaintiffs.”

A judge will hear from both sides regarding these latest allegations at a court hearing set for March 5.