- On June 1, 2008, a fire broke out at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.
- One of the buildings that burned down on the lot contained a priceless collection of master recordings owned by the Universal Music Group.
- On Tuesday, the New York Times published a report detailing how UMG went into crisis mode to downplay the loss.
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Eleven years ago this month, a fire swept through Universal Studios Hollywood. One of the back lot buildings that burned down included a large collection of recordings held by the Universal Music Group (UMG), the world’s largest record company.
The New York Times published a report on Tuesday detailing how UMG downplayed the fire and the company’s losses, in an apparent attempt to contain artist blow-back and avoid a big public embarrassment.
The vault was the main West Coast storage space for UMG’s master recordings, the original recordings upon which all subsequent copies are copied from. A master recording is a song in its original form. Losing it means that all re-releases of a track will be based on a copy, if one exists, with lesser-quality audio. In some cases, a copy of a copy of a copy.
The vault also included multi-track recordings, the version of a song which includes all of the isolated instruments and vocals, as well as session recordings that were never released.
Times reporter Jody Rosen described it as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business,” but you wouldn’t know that by the reporting on it at the time.
A PR offensive
First off, few news articles even mentioned the loss of the UMG vault, which was no doubt a reflection of the fact that it only occupied a third of a building that was mostly used to store film reels for their landlord NBCUniversal.
But what stories did get out were successfully downplayed by UMG’s crisis managers.
The Times reports that Deadline’s Nikki Finke was one of the few reporters to draw attention to the UMG catalogue stored there, writing that “1,000’s of original…recording masters” might have been destroyed. The following day, Finke published a clarification of the article after an unnamed UMG representative told her that “little was lost” from the 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 digitised so the music will still be around for many years to come,” the statement said.
While UMG had indeed started a digitization project, court documents and testimony obtained by The Times shows that just 12,000 tapes had been transferred to digital storage formats. And all of those originals and digital copies were stored at a separate facility in Pennsylvania and therefore were not the recordings at stake in the fire.
‘We stuck to the script’
Another part of UMG’s tactic was citing obscure artists as examples of some of the recordings that were lost. Even The Times, reporting in an article on June 3 said that recordings by “pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw” were some of the recordings lost in the fire. The New York Daily News printed a similar line about the loss of “original recordings from organ virtuoso Lenny Dee and 1950s hitmaker Georgie Shaw.”
Randy Aronson, the former senior director of vault operations for UMG, told The Times he played a role in this deception. The day after the fire he said a UMG executive asked him for the names of “two artists nobody would recognise” to be handed out as examples to journalists asking about which recordings were lost.
“The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story,” Aronson said. “They did an outstanding job of keeping it quiet. It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.”
In reality, the vault included the work of world-famous artists spanning decades and genre – from Nirvana to Duke Ellington, the Carpenters to Tupc Shakur. The Times reports that it’s believed that all of Billie Holiday’s tape masters from Decca Records were lost.
An internal email obtained by the Times shows then UMG spokesman Peter LoFrumento boasting about successful efforts to downplay the story.
“We stuck to the script about physical backups and digital copies,” he wrote.
INSIDER reached out to UMG for comment Tuesday evening, and received the following response:
Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record. 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. Further, the story contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets. In fact, it conveniently ignores the tens of thousands of back catalogue 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.” And it even goes so far as to praise some of our initiatives but does not attribute them to us.
UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music. In the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments – in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts – in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalogue recordings. In the last five years alone, we have more than doubled our investment in storage, preservation and metadata enrichment while developing state-of-the-art systems to support our global efforts around capturing, preserving and future-proofing our many media assets. Additionally, the company has initiated a global effort to increase the availability of “out of print” and deep catalogue recordings through a range of initiatives. Some examples include:
- EMI Archive Trust – Wholly supported by Universal Music Group, the Trust includes, 800,000 recordings and 1.8 million photographs, among many other assets.
- University of Calgary – in 2016, Universal Music Canada donated more than 21,000 audio recording and 18,000 video recordings from the EMI Music Canada archives to the University of Calgary and the National Music Centre.
- The Shellac Project – a collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, to restore treasures from Deutsche Grammaphon’s historic archives.
- US Library of Congress – in 2011, in what was the largest single donation ever received by the Library of Congress’ audio-visual division – and the first major collection of studio master materials ever obtained by the U.S.’s oldest cultural institution – UMG donated more than 200,000 historic master recordings (many long out-of-print or never released, including recordings by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and many more) to the Library’s Recorded Sound Section.
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