In a recent court filing from the ongoing lawsuit against Universal Music Group (UMG), additional light was shed on the extent of the damage caused by the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
Many masters, including those of Slayer, Soundgarden, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, and Sonic Youth, were “affected” — i.e., lost — in the fire, according to the filing. Additionally, these masters were apparently not backed up and/or duplicated to UMG’s knowledge.
Other artists’ master tracks, including those of Beck, Bryan Adams, Jimmy Eat World, Nirvana, R.E.M., Suzanne Vega, and Sheryl Crow, to name most, were also destroyed in the fire. However, Universal Music indicated that physical and/or digital copies of these works were preserved.
Also worth noting is that nearly 12 years after the fact, Universal Music seems to be unaware of — or unwilling to acknowledge — the destruction’s reach. For instance, Surfaris’s masters “may have been affected by the fire,” and Suzanne Vega’s aforementioned works “may have been original flat masters,” according to the filing.
Universal’s reluctance to be upfront about the fire’s impact could be attributable to both damage control and a genuine lack of understanding — with an emphasis on the former. The industry giant initially claimed that just 22 masters had been lost in the blaze, which took over 500 firefighters more than half a day to extinguish. A New York Times exposé placed the actual figure somewhere in the ballpark of 500,000 master recordings.
Between Universal President Ron Meyer’s (apparently false) claim that nothing irreplaceable was lost in the fire, to Universal’s unwillingness to share insurance money with artists, the tragic episode has been rendered more troubling and more frustrating by a series of seemingly inconsiderate statements and actions.