Based on new reporting from the New York Times, the Universal Studios fire from 2008 may have been “the biggest disaster in the history of the music industry.” In a feature called “The Day the Music Burned,” it is alleged that hundreds of thousands of master tapes from recording artists — among them dozens of legends — may have been destroyed in the fire, with some catalogues being wiped out entirely. And the list of music figures possibly affected by the blaze reads like a Hall of Fame induction ballot, with icons like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Guy, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Elton John, Chuck Berry, and Aretha Franklin losing work alongside contemporary artists including Nirvana, Eminem, Hole, Snoop Dogg, and Soundgarden.
According to the Times, a court document from 2009 estimated the “assets destroyed” at 118,230. But another confidential report obtained by the paper has Universal Music Group saying “an estimated 500K song titles” were destroyed. Specific tracks that were reportedly burned up include Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” The vault where the blaze occurred also housed more than artists immediately associated with UMG. As the Times explains, “There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time,” including big names like Decca, Chess, and Impulse. There were also masters from the labels MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen, and Interscope. Amid the incalculable loss of music history, it’s possible Billie Holiday’s entire Decca catalogue was lost.
UMG disputes the Times reporting, saying there were “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets,” and the company issued a statement today that said, “Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record.” UMG added, “While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident — while deeply unfortunate — never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation.”
It is unknown whether or not artists have been made aware of potential losses. R.E.M., for one, has said they are looking into the matter. Asked on Twitter if Nirvana’s Nevermind masters were indeed lost in the fire, bassist Krist Novoselic responded, “I think they are gone forever.” Questlove also insinuated in a tweet sharing the Times story that the fire is the reason why the Roots can’t reissue two of their classic albums.
Update, Jun 12, at 12 a.m.: Irving Azoff, Steely Dan’s manager, has issued a statement regarding potential losses: “We have been aware of ‘missing’ original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now. We’ve never been given a plausible explanation. Maybe they burned up in the big fire. In any case, it’s certainly a lost treasure.”
Update, June 12, at 12 p.m.: Universal Music Group wrote in a statement that the Times story “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” The statement did not include evidence to support these claims. They added that the Times “conveniently ignores the tens of thousands of back catalog recordings that we have already issued in recent years — including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed.’” UMG did not dispute the damage to the archives.