Decades of Recordings Go Up in Flames in "the Biggest Disaster in the History of the Music Business"

Thousands of master tapes by Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Petty and countless others were lost in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios — and we're only learning about it now
Decades of Recordings Go Up in Flames in 'the Biggest Disaster in the History of the Music Business'
A massive fire tore through Universal Studios Hollywood over a decade ago, but we're only now learning of the massive loss to the world of music. According to a new investigation, 500,000 irreplaceable master recordings by the likes of Nirvana, R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, Tom Petty and countless others were forever lost in the blaze.

The investigation into the fire on June 1, 2008, comes from the New York Times, which has uncovered that "some of UMG's [Universal Music Group] most prized material" was destroyed in the fire.

According to the report, UMG had 118,230 "assets destroyed," along with the loss of "an estimated 500K song titles." This supposedly includes unheard material by the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, R.E.M., Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop, Beck, Sonic Youth, Hole and Joni Mitchell. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

While initial coverage of the fire — which burned for nearly 10 hours — focused on the impact to Universal's film and television properties, UMG's Vault Operations was hugely affected by the 2008 fire, with the department housing recordings from various record companies acquired by Universal over the years. The archive in Building 6197 was UMG's main West Coast storehouse of masters, including recordings from such famed labels as Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, Geffen, ABC, A&M and Interscope, as well as various subsidiaries.

As the NYT writes:

The archive in Building 6197 was UMG's main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or "flat" analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.

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.

From there, the list of lost works is truly astounding. The NYT writes:

The list of destroyed single and album masters takes in titles by dozens of legendary artists, a genre-spanning who's who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music. It includes recordings by 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 story calls the Universal fire as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business" — and by reading the extensive and incredibly lengthy list of irreplaceable recordings, it's hard not to agree with that.

You can read the entire New York Times piece over here.