The Day The Music Burned

The New York Times recently exposed what could be possibly the most devastating cover-up of the music industry in recent history. In 2008, there was a massive fire at Universal Music… and no one knew about it until now. Thousands upon thousands of original masters were obliterated leaving many well-known artists at a loss with their original masters missing.

Here’s a timeline according to what the NYTimes uncovered:

June 1, 2008

The night prior, maintenance workers had been doing work on the roof using blowtorches on the asphalt roof shingles. The typical protocol is to stay back and watch for an hour after completing the work to ensure that the shingles had cooled before leaving. They finished the work at approximately 3AM, and stayed the obligatory time to 4AM and then packed up to leave. But, at 4:43AM, the security guard on duty saw flames rising above the building, likely one of the hotspots had not cooled enough, causing the flare-up.

The fire spread extremely quickly obliterating the entire backlot including a New York City skyscape, a courthouse featured in Back to the Future, and a King Kong theme park attraction that had been stored there.

As the fire spread, it reached a warehouse made of corrugated metal entitled “Building 6197.” About two-thirds of this building was used to house videotapes and film reels, a library controlled by Universal Studios’s parent company, NBCUniversal. However, in Building 6197 was “a fenced-off area of 2,400 square feet in the southwest corner of the building, lined with 18-foot-high storage shelves. It was a sound-recordings library, the repository of some of the most historically significant material owned by UMG, the world’s largest record company”, explains the NYTimes.

Firecrews were on-site, but they couldn’t get their job done because of low water pressure and a damaged water sprinkler system. “Before long, firefighters switched tactics, using bulldozers to knock down the burning warehouse and clear away barriers to extinguishing the fire, including the remains of the UMG archive: rows of metal shelving and reels of tape, reduced to heaps of ash and twisted steel.”

June 2, 2008

24 hours after the fire had began, everything was finally under control. News of the fire had spread to media around the world, but no one – including the NYTimes, they admit – had reported anything about the sound-recordings. Media outlets were reporting “video and television images” as the only items damaged. The NYTimes, themselves, even reported “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work,” which were the details that were provided to them by Universal officials.

There was no reason for this to be questioned, after all, this property was owned by NBCUniversal, why would there be any music there at all? In fact, UMG was just paying rent for the space. No one really knew it was there.

Nikki Finke, an entertainment-industry blogger, did mention the UMG vault, originally reporting that “1,000’s of original … recording masters” may have been destroyed in the fire. But, less than 24 hours later, she posted a clarification quoting an unnamed source from UMG saying that very little was lost. This source also reported that what was lost had been digitized, so it wasn’t as big a deal as it seemed. The same day, music media giant, Billboard, reported that according to a UMG source, “nothing had been lost.”

The New York Times explained better than I ever could what was actually in Building 6197:

The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or “flat” analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.

The news of what actually had been lost was kept extremely quiet. In a March 2009 document that had been marked “Confidential”, they noted that the loss was approximately 118,230. But, Randy Aronson, Operations Manager for that fenced-off corner of the warehouse says that the number was extremely under-reported. When taking into consideration songs on albums plus singles, the number was moreso into the “hundreds of thousands.” The confidential report was later amended to correct that “approximately 500,000 song titles” had been lost.

The monetary value of what was lost is low, but what’s not taken into consideration is the loss of history and work, as some masters lost in the fire dated back to the 1940s.

In the vault were original and unreleased masters by some of the greatest artists of all history including Etta James, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Sammy Davis Jr., Merle Haggard, and some of the greatest recordings ever from the legendary, Chuck Berry. NYTimes: “Also very likely lost were master tapes of the first commercially released material by Aretha Franklin, recorded when she was a young teenager performing in the church services of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.”

And it wasn’t just older recordings, there were thousands of more recent recordings lost from artists such as, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynrd, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, Iggy Pop, Sting, Janet Jackson, R.E.M, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Roots… as so much more.

So what about Universal Music Group?

They’re the biggest music label in the world, by a long shot. Their revenues more than double their next largest competitor, Sony Music Entertainment. Their legacy is not only carried by the hottest artists of today like Taylor Swift, Drake, and Ariana Grande, but also the legendary acts that they’ve always had including so many of those that were lost in this fire. Reports earlier this year said that Vivendi, majority stakeholder of UMG, would be selling up to 50% of the label. In January, Deutsche Bank valued UMG at more than $33 billion.

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.

We’ve put together a small Spotify playlist of artists whose masters may have been lost in the fire. Listening to this playlist, what a shame…

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