Universal accused of covering up extent of 2008 fire that destroyed recordings

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Universal has been accused of downplaying the extent of a 2008 fire that actually destroyed tens of thousands of iconic music recordings by dozens of legendary artists.

The fire destroyed parts of the Universal Studios film and TV studio in Hollywood when it broke out back in June 2008.

At the time, it was reported that the blaze had torn through about five structures, including a movie set, and destroyed up to 50,000 videos and reels stored in a vault.

Universal officials implied at the time that the videos destroyed were related to films and some TV shows produced by the company – but that duplicates were stored in a different location. 

The New York Times reported on Tuesday, however, that a huge catalog of iconic music recordings also perished in the fire and described it as the ‘biggest disaster in the history of the music business’. 

Among the recordings that were lost included almost all of Buddy Holly’s masters, as well as single and album masters of dozens of other artists like Bing Crosby, Quincy Jones, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Elton John, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Barry White, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Eminen and 50 Cent.

‘The vault fire was not, as Universal Music Group suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse,’ NYT reporter Jody Rosen wrote.

‘It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.’

Citing dozens of previously unreported internal company documents and confidential reports, the NYT reports that Universal’s internal assessments of the fire was in stark contrast to its public statements it made about the damage. 

In a 2009 report for a ‘Vault Loss Meeting’, Universal wrote that it ‘perished, in its entirety’. 

‘Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,’ the document read. 

In another report, Universal estimated that 500,000 song titles had been lost in the fire. 

Randy Aronson, who was a senior director of vault operations at the time of the fire, said he recalled hearing at the time that Universal had estimated the combined figure for lost tapes and ‘loss of artistry’ was $150 million.

It is not clear if that artists whose work was destroyed were made aware by Universal. 

There was no reported backlash from artists or their representatives against Universal in the wake of the fire. 

Universal told the NYT they could not comment on private conversations with artists or their estates and were unable to comment on the 2008 fire. 

In a statement after the report was published on Tuesday, Universal said: ‘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 catalog 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.’  

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