A number of musicians and artists are speaking out in despair after a report in the New York Times Magazine alleged that decades worth of records were destroyed in a fire back in 2008.
Eleven years ago, a fire destroyed part of Universal Studios Hollywood. The company claimed at the time that only some attractions and an unimportant video archive were destroyed, but the NYT claims that the blaze actually torched a Universal Music Group sound library, in what is described as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
A confidential 2009 report obtained by the NYT suggests that over 500,000 songs were lost, including recordings by some of the most prominent artists since the 1940s. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Elton John to Snoop Dogg and Nirvana were affected.
“Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,” one internal UMG assessment of the loss reportedly reads.
Why is this a devastating loss? Well, these are the master recordings. Obviously there have been transfers and digitisation efforts for the vast majority of the recordings, so these songs aren’t truly ‘lost’. 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.
Some artists have spoken out on social media about the loss of their master recordings. For example, here’s Questlove:
For everyone asking why Do You Want More & Illdelph Halflife wont get reissue treatment https://t.co/Vs0ykRcyAK— Questlove De La Rose (@questlove) June 11, 2019
But it looks like some artists literally have no idea if they were personally affected or not. R.E.M. are trying to find out if their music is lost:
REMHQ is receiving inquiries from many people concerned about the New York Times article on the Universal Music fire 11 years ago. We are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band’s music, if any. We will detail further as and when.— R.E.M. HQ (@remhq) June 11, 2019
Pitchfork reports that Courtney Love‘s band Hole were “not aware until this morning” that their music had been destroyed.
The full report in the New York Times Magazine is worth a look – it’s not only an exhaustive report of what happened, but also a musing on the importance of history, and what can happen when it isn’t properly safeguarded.