Master recordings of legendary artists lost in 2008 fire

Bessie Dean
June 13, 2019

The list of artists whose recordings were destroyed reads like a musical hall of fame roll call: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Elton John, the Eagles, Aerosmith, the Police, Janet Jackson, Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Eminem and many others.

The blaze made headlines in June 2008, as it destroyed parts of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, as well as several sets used for filming and a large warehouse that stored videotapes and film reels.

Original sound recordings of numerous greatest names in popular music since the 1940s - from Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland to Tom Petty and 50 Cent - are believed to have gone up in smoke in what the article described as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business". In taking stock of the fire's damage, Rosen notes that it wasn't just original music that burned up. The New York Times revealed, however, that more than 118,000 "assets" were destroyed, containing half a million individual recordings. Even the first appearances on record by Aretha Frankin were lost. "There were demos in the vault and there were various types of master recordings".

Though the fire was widely reported at the time, the head of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, said there had been no major losses. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels.

After the fire, UMG started a two-year project to try to replicate its library, which resulted in about a fifth of the lost music being "recovered" by obtaining sonically inferior copies, according to Aronson's estimate.

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"The incident. never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists' compensation", it said. "I think they were especially concerned about the reaction of artists".

But it looks like some artists literally have no idea if they were personally affected or not. But the masters are the truest capture of a recording of music, and are essential to future remastering - not to mention valuable pieces of history.

So far, musicians like Questlove of The Roots and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana have already reacted to the report.

Following the article's publication, REM said they were "trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band's music, if any".

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