'The Day The Music Burned' - The story behind the 2008 Universal Fire [NYTM]


Oct 25, 2017
This is the full story here:

The Day The Music Burned [NYTM]

Shortly after the fire broke out, a 50-year-old man named Randy Aronson was awakened by a ringing phone at his home in Canyon Country, Calif., about 30 miles north of Universal City, the unincorporated area of the San Fernando Valley where the studio sits. Aronson had worked on the Universal lot for 25 years. His title was senior director of vault operations at Universal Music Group (UMG). In practice, this meant he spent his days overseeing an archive housed in the video vault. The term “video vault” was in fact a misnomer, or a partial misnomer. About two-thirds of the building was used to store videotapes and film reels, a library controlled by Universal Studios’s parent company, NBCUniversal. But Aronson’s domain was a separate space, 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.

Aronson let the phone call go to voice mail, but when he listened to the message, he heard sirens screaming in the background and the frantic voice of a colleague: “The vault is on fire.”
The Times’s report was typical in another way: It contained no mention of a music archive in the devastated warehouse. The confusion was understandable. Universal Studios Hollywood was a movie backlot, not a record-company headquarters. What’s more, a series of mergers and acquisitions had largely severed the ties between Universal’s film and music businesses. In 2004, Universal Studios was purchased by General Electric and merged with G.E.’s television property, NBC, to become NBCUniversal; UMG was cast under separate management, and in 2006 fell wholly under the ownership of Vivendi, the French media conglomerate. When the fire struck in June 2008, UMG was a rent-paying tenant on NBC Universal’s lot.
One of the few journalists to note the existence of the UMG archive was Nikki Finke, the entertainment-industry blogger and gadfly. In a Deadline.com post on the day of the fire, Finke wrote that “1,000’s of original ... recording masters” might have been destroyed in the warehouse, citing an anonymous source. The next day Finke published a “clarification,” quoting an unnamed representative from the record company: “Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come.” The same day, in the music trade publication Billboard, a UMG spokesperson again pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: “We had no loss.”

These reassuring pronouncements concealed a catastrophe. When Randy Aronson stood outside the burning warehouse on June 1, he knew he was witnessing a historic event. “It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson says. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.”
and then a shortened form of the story here

Recordings by Elton John, Nirvana and Thousands More Lost in Fire [NYT]

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.

The lost works most likely included masters in the Decca Records collection by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland. The fire probably also claimed some of Chuck Berry’s greatest recordings, produced for Chess Records, as well as the masters of some of Aretha Franklin’s first appearances on record.
Almost of all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost, as were most of John Coltrane’s masters in the Impulse Records collection. The fire also claimed numerous hit singles, likely including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Etta James’s “At Last” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.”

The list of artists affected spans decades of popular music. It includes recordings by Ray Charles, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.
a truly substantial loss to the music world. unfathomable.


Oct 25, 2017
a small bump because this story deserves traction and some anger

"That same June 3 Daily News article included a direct quotation from LoFrumento: “In one sense it was a loss. In another, we were covered,” he said. “It had already been digitized, so the music will still be around for many years.” The claim about digital backups, which was reported by other news outlets, also seems to have been misleading. It is true that UMG’s vault-operations department had begun a digitization initiative, known as the Preservation Project, in late 2004. But company documents, and testimony given by UMG officials in legal proceedings, make clear that the project was modest; records show that at the time of the fire approximately 12,000 tapes, mostly analog multitracks visibly at risk of deterioration, had been transferred to digital storage formats. All of those originals and digital copies were stored in a separate facility in Pennsylvania; they were not the items at issue in the fire. The company’s sweeping assurance that “the music” had been digitized appears to have been pure spin. “The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story,” Aronson says. “They did an outstanding job of keeping it quiet. It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.”"
it was all a coverup


Oct 25, 2017
Behind you.
I read this earlier and its devastating.

The gall of UMG to try and hide this from estates is stunning. If I were handling the estate of anyone signed to or retroactively signed to UMG, I'd be raising hell. All that music lost...


Oct 25, 2017
The amount of important music lost by this is staggering, reading down the list of artists made me feel sick.

Just the loss of the Chuck Berry masters alone is a full on tragedy, but it gets so much worse from there.


Oct 25, 2017
Some interesting notes coming from this story now

I'll try and peruse for some more. R.E.M. and Hole are also trying to figure out just what was lost from their catalogue as well

It definitely throws a huge wrench into these "Mastered From The Original Tapes" vinyl sets that have been released since 2008.


Oct 25, 2017
It's insane that they thought they could cover it up, and are even now acting like it isn't a big deal because you can still buy their stupid mp3s on itunes.


Oct 28, 2017
It’s crazy how bad that fire was. Things could have been a lot worse too since thousands of people go to Universal Studios Hollywood daily. So thankfully it happened before the park opened.

Also, it still bums me out we lost the King Kong ride. Now we have the shitty 3d screen “ride”.


Oct 25, 2017
Behind you.
Update: The Times has found that almost 700 artists had masters of their work destroyed in the fire.

Full list here:

Some notable ones:

  • 50 Cent
  • Bryan Adams
  • Aerosmith
  • Paul Anka
  • Adam Ant
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Audioslave
  • Burt Bacharach
  • Joan Baez
  • Chet Baker
  • Count Basie
  • Beck
  • Captain Beefheart
  • Bell Biv Devoe
  • Chuck Berry
  • Art Blakey
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Blink 182
  • Dave Brubeck
  • Jimmy Buffett
  • Carol Burnett
  • T-Bone Burnett
  • Busta Rhymes
  • Cab Calloway
  • The Carpenters
  • Ray Charles
  • Cheech & Chong
  • Cher
  • Eric Clapton
  • Ornette Coleman
  • Alice Coltrane
  • John Coltrane
  • Common
  • Cookie and the Cupcakes
  • David Crosby
  • Crosby & Nash
  • David Crosby
  • Bing Crosby
  • Sheryl Crow
  • Tim Curry
  • Rodney Dangerfield
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Neil Diamond
  • DJ Shadow
  • Fats Domino
  • The Eagles
  • Danny Elfman
  • Duke Ellington
  • Eminem
  • Eric B. and Rakim
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Glenn Frey
  • Nelly Furtado
  • Barry Gibb
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Whoopi Goldberg
  • Al Green
  • Guns N’ Roses
  • Merle Haggard
  • Don Henley
  • Hole
  • Billie Holiday
  • Buddy Holly
  • Engelbert Humperdinck
  • Janet Jackson
  • Joe Jackson
  • Etta James
  • Keith Jarrett
  • Jawbreaker
  • Jimmy Eat World
  • Jodeci
  • Johnnie Joe
  • Elton John
  • K-Ci & JoJo
  • Al Jolson
  • Quincy Jones
  • Jurassic 5
  • Toby Keith
  • Gene Kelly
  • Chaka Khan
  • B.B. King
  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Eartha Kitt
  • Gladys Knight and the Pips
  • Patti LaBelle
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Liberace
  • Limp Bizkit
  • Lisa Loeb
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • The Mamas and the Papas
  • Groucho Marx
  • Hugh Masekela
  • Reba McEntire
  • Gary McFarland
  • Barry McGuire
  • The McGuire Sisters
  • Meat Loaf
  • Liza Minnelli
  • Charles Mingus
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Ennio Morricone
  • Mos Def
  • Martin Mull
  • Olivia Newton-John
  • Leonard Nimoy
  • Nine Inch Nails
  • Nirvana
  • No Doubt
  • Ric Ocasek
  • The O’Jays
  • Yoko Ono
  • Dolly Parton
  • Les Paul
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • The Police
  • Iggy Pop
  • Primus
  • Puddle Of Mudd
  • The Pussycat Dolls
  • Queen Latifah
  • Sun Ra
  • R.E.M.
  • Debbie Reynolds
  • Buddy Rich
  • Chris Rock
  • The Roots
  • Rufus and Chaka Khan
  • Tupac Shakur
  • Shel Silverstein
  • Smash Mouth
  • Snoop Dogg
  • Sonic Youth
  • Sonny and Cher
  • Soundgarden
  • Spinal Tap
  • Steely Dan
  • Gwen Stefani
  • Cat Stevens
  • Sting
  • Styx
  • Sublime
  • Temple of the Dog
  • The Three Stooges
  • The Tragically Hip
  • The Trapp Family Singers
  • Ike Turner
  • Conway Twitty
  • Rufus Wainwright
  • Weezer
  • Barry White
  • The Who
  • Paul Williams
  • Bobby Womack
  • Lee Ann Womack
  • Neil Young
  • Rob Zombie


Oct 25, 2017
Sheryl Crow: Universal Studios fire destroyed all my master tapes

The singer told the BBC "all her masters" were destroyed when an archive in Los Angeles burnt down in 2008.

She only discovered the loss this month, after her name was mentioned in a New York Times report that uncovered the extent of the damage.
"It absolutely grieves me," said Crow. "It feels a little apocalyptic.

"I can't understand, first and foremost, how you could store anything in a vault that didn't have sprinklers.

"And secondly, I can't understand how you could make safeties [back-up copies] and have them in the same vault. I mean, what's the point?

"And thirdly, I can't understand how it's been 11 years," she added. "I mean, I don't understand the cover-up."
I wonder if there's a level of insurance fraud with this cover-up? there's gotta be a reason why UMG fought so hard to keep this hidden for so long.


Oct 25, 2017
Behind you.
Oh wow. That’s a lot of potential money lost due to sheer incompetence. The cover-up seems to be the real criminal act here, especially if UMG knowingly misled artists.

It worries me what other Masters were lost in the fire.


Oct 25, 2017
Boise, Idaho
worst part isn't all that was lost, worst part is no one said anything in over a decade about it. We've increasingly been pushing to preserve as much as possible since the 1970s, did they think no one would eventually figure this out?


Oct 27, 2017
Gentrified Brooklyn
worst part isn't all that was lost, worst part is no one said anything in over a decade about it. We've increasingly been pushing to preserve as much as possible since the 1970s, did they think no one would eventually figure this out?

Like pretty much every failing in todays corporate society (climate change, finance corruption, etc).

If you’re an executive its best to kick the ball down the line and hope for that when the story breaks you’ve moved onto the next company and thus not your problem or have accumulated a big enough golden parachute to make the fall sweet.

People love trotting out shareholders but ultimately there’s really nothing to force corporations to do the right thing for society or even the capitalists that invest in them the way the system is set up. You might as well always chose the 100% morally wrong, but not painful at all choice when you’re a CEO


Oct 25, 2017
worst part isn't all that was lost, worst part is no one said anything in over a decade about it. We've increasingly been pushing to preserve as much as possible since the 1970s, did they think no one would eventually figure this out?
for awhile there no one was really asking. the only people who knew some of the story were those that would have access to these masters on a professional level (record engineers, masterers and anyone who would request them for re-release and reissuing on vinyl).

I know the record labels will probably never have to answer for all of these misleading "re-mastered from the original masters" releases since after the fire, but they should.


Oct 25, 2017
This is a really fucked up story and it's crazy that they covered it up for 10 years. I remember that fire, and everyone thought the worst thing that was lost was a portion of the Back To The Future set. Why they didn't duplicate or at least digitize them, I'll never know (hint: $$$). I see Tupac on the list and have to imagine there's some unreleased stuff that's just gone forever.



Oct 27, 2017
Derby, UK
Peter Buck was on this week's R U Talkin' REM RE ME and the Scotts asked him about whether masters had been lost. He's pretty sure that nothing's been lost as the masters are with the band.

Here's hoping!


Oct 29, 2017
I remember this story and relieved at the time that the losses were largely mitigated... How arrogant did they have to be think think this wouldn't come out? Sue them into oblivion.