Over a decade ago, on June 1st, 2008, a massive fire scorched Universal Studios’ Hollywood lot, including its theme park, Universal Music Group’s vault, and more. As a new investigation by Jody Rosen of the New York Times has uncovered, 500,000 master recordings of iconic albums by some of music’s biggest artists were destroyed in the fire.
At the time, coverage of the fire focused on what was lost in the film and television realm, particularly at the Universal Studio theme park. A representative for UMG told Deadline that there “was little lost from UMG’s vault.” The representative said the majority of the music stored in UMG’s vault had been moved earlier in the year “to our other facilities” and had “already been digitized, so the music will still be around for many years to come.”
But Randy Aronson, the Senior Director of Vault Operations at the time, had the real numbers, mentioned above. “It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” he told the Times. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.”
The Vault Operations department housed recordings from iconic record companies that Universal absorbed over the course of its existence, including Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, Geffen, ABC, A&M, Interscope, and smaller subsidiary labels. Among the material destroyed in the fire were “almost all” of Buddy Holly’s masters, most of John Coltrane’s Impulse Records releases, and an original master of Etta James’ “At Last”.
Also lost were classic records by Al Green, Ray Charles, Elton John, B.B. King, The Four Tops, Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Eric Clapton, R.E.M., The Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, The Police, Sting, Steve Earle, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Roots. It hurts just reading that list.
Rosen characterizes the fire as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business,” as many of the items lost are irreplaceable. She writes: “Aronson recalls hearing that the company priced the combined total of lost tape and ‘loss of artistry’ at $150 million. But in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering. It’s impossible to itemize, precisely, what music was on each tape or hard drive in the vault, which had no comprehensive inventory. It cannot be said exactly how many recordings were original masters or what type of master each recording was. But through legal documents, internal UMG reports, and the accounts of Aronson and others familiar with the vault’s collection leave little doubt that the losses were profound, taking in a sweeping cross-section of popular music history, from postwar hitmakers to present-day stars.”
You can read the full article here.
Update – June 12th: Several current or former Universal artists have since reacted to the story’s publication and provided additional details on some of the lost treasures. Notably, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic revealed that the original masters to Nevermind are believed to be “gone forever.”