Did you know a fire swept through Universal Studios Hollywood backlot in 2008, destroying decades’ worth of master recordings? Maybe you heard about the fire — which raged for nearly 24 hours beginning before dawn on June 1, 2008 — but all the lost music was a closely guarded secret before today. The New York Times just published a huge feature on the fire, revealing the news to the public for the first time.
The Universal fire destroyed a number of movie sets, including one featured in Back To The Future. It took out the King Kong Encounter, a theme park attraction being stored there at the time. And eventually it made its way to a 22,320-square-foot warehouse known officially as Building 6197 and unofficially as the video vault. Although two thirds of the facility was dedicated to film archives, it also contained a 2,400-square-foot area housing hours and hours of historically significant master recordings belonging to Universal Music Group.
Reports on the fire focused on lost videotape and film reels. Most people didn’t realize the vault contained any music. When a few stray reporters wondered whether master recordings were lost in the blaze, UMG pushed back, insisting that losses were minor and most were backed up elsewhere. In fact, the extent of the damage was catastrophic, with UMG ultimately claiming 118,230 “assets destroyed” and the loss of “an estimated 500K song titles” in documents obtained by the NYT. Another document prepared for a company meeting admits, “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”
Here’s how reporter Jody Rosen sums up the scope of it:
UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.
Among the artists whose masters were substantially destroyed: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny And Cher, the Mamas And The Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight And The Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus And Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. And Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.
The loss of history is profound, but what stings even more is that a lot of the newer artists may never be able to release one of those deep archival collections of unreleased material. As Times editor Nitsuh Abebe elaborates on Twitter: “the loss of legendary recordings is stunning, but i also keep fixating on the stuff we would have been hearing and talking about more recently. 1980s stuff from REM. unheard Steely Dan or Nirvana or Janet Jackson. Interscope acts. the 00s reissues that won’t have much to reissue.” Rosen’s feature goes way deeper into the story, and I encourage you to read it here.