Recordings by Buddy Holly, Elton John, Chuck Berry and thousands more lost in fire

music news 16/06/2019

Back in June 2008, 11 years ago this month, a fire burned through Universal Studios in Hollywood. At the time Universal Studios confirmed the fire had burned through the theme park's 'King Kong' attraction as well as a video vault that contained only copies of old works. 

According to an article by the New York Times Magasine this week though, the fire also destroyed an archive housing treasured recordings, amounting to what was described as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business".

The fire began after overnight maintenance workers used blowtorches to repair the roof of a building used in scenes for movies. The workers followed all protocol, but the fire broke out after they left just before 5am. 

Eventually the fire reached the video vault, which housed videotapes, film reels and, crucially, a library of master sound recordings owned by Universal Music Group. Hundreds of firefighters responded to the fire which was eventually put out, unfortunately not without loss.

Almost all of the master recordings stored in the vault were destroyed in the fire, including those produced by some of the most famous musicians since the 1940s. In a confidential report in 2009, Universal Music Group estimated the loss at about 500,000 song titles.

Some notable lost works include masters by Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Sting, and many many more. 

The 'master' recordings are one-of-a-kind original recordings of a piece of music, the source from which other vinyl records, CDs, MP3s and all other recordings are made, so the loss is devastating. 

"A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music. Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away," Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm said. 

So why are we only hearing about this now? The fire itself was well documented and covered heavily across the media, but it was widely categorised as a crisis averted.

Jody Rosen, the writer of the NY Times article, described the successful effort to play down the scope of the loss as a "triumph of crisis management" that involved officials working for Universal Music Group on both coasts. Those efforts were undoubtedly aimed at minimising public embarrassment for Universal, but some suggest the company was also particularly worried about a backlash from artists and artist estates whose master recordings had been destroyed.

The real extent of the loss was laid out in litigation and company documents obtained by Mr. Rosen, a contributing writer for New York Times.

Below are some reactions from artists effected: