Eleven years ago this month, a fire ripped through a part of Universal Studios Hollywood.
At the time, the company said that the blaze had destroyed the theme park‚Äôs ‘King Kong attraction and a video vault that contained only copies of old works.
But, according to an article published on Tuesday by The New York Times Magazine, the fire also tore through an archive housing treasured audio recordings, amounting to what the piece described as ‚Äúthe biggest disaster in the history of the music business.‚ÄĚ
The fire started in the early hours of June 1st, 2008.
Overnight, maintenance workers had used blowtorches to repair the roof of a building on the set of New England Street, a group of colonial-style buildings used in scenes for movies and television shows. The workers followed protocol and waited for the shingles they worked on to cool, but the fire broke out soon after they left, just before 5 a.m.
The flames eventually reached Building 6197, known as the video vault, which housed videotapes, film reels and, crucially, a library of master sound recordings owned by Universal Music Group.
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‚Äôs greatest recordings, produced for Chess Records, as well as the masters of some of Aretha Franklin‚Äôs first appearances on record.
What are master recordings, and why do they matter?
A master recording is the one-of-a-kind original recording of a piece of music. It‚Äôs the source from which other vinyl records, CDs, MP3s and all other recordings are made.
According to the article, documents show that the vault contained masters dating back decades, including multitrack recordings on which individual instruments remained isolated from one another. There were also session masters, including recordings that had never been commercially released. The recordings within the vault came from to some of the most important record labels of all time.
Audiophiles and audio professionals view such recordings with special regard.
‚ÄúA master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,‚ÄĚ Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment‚Äôs catalog arm, told the magazine. ‚ÄúSonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.‚ÄĚ
Why are we only finding about this now?
At the time, the fire made news around the world, and the vault featured heavily in that coverage. But most articles focused only on the video recordings in the archive and, even then, news outlets largely characterized the disaster as a crisis averted.
Jody Rosen, the writer of the article, described the successful effort to play down the scope of the loss as a ‚Äútriumph of crisis management‚ÄĚ that involved officials working for Universal Music Group on both coasts. Those efforts were undoubtedly aimed at minimizing public embarrassment, 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 the magazine.
Mr. Rosen described the loss as historic, and even Universal Music Group itself ‚ÄĒ privately ‚ÄĒ viewed what happened in bleak terms: ‚ÄúLost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,‚ÄĚ reads one 2009 internal assessment.
Record companies have had a troubled history with such recordings and have been known to trash them in bulk. Decades ago, employees of CBS Records reportedly took power saws to multitrack masters to sell the reels as scrap metal. In the 1970s, RCA destroyed masters by Elvis Presley in a broader purge.
Because of that history, industry professionals have long questioned how committed the major music labels are to preserving what they see as priceless artifacts.
Today, most commercial recordings from the past century and beyond are controlled by only three giant record companies: Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and, of course, Universal Music Group.