You might’ve heard about the Universal Studios fire when it happened back in June of 2008. But just yesterday, an investigative New York Times article revealed that the number of master records lost was originally downplayed by UMG and that “an estimated 500,000 song titles” were incinerated.Sad!
The incident made headlines around the world, but in an attempt to understate their losses UMG had reported to newspapers and tabloids that, “At this point, it appears that the fire consumed no irreplaceable master recordings, just copies” and that only a “small number of tapes and other material by “obscure artists from the 1940s and ’50s” were affected in the fire. Unfortunately the material lost was more than just backup copies of releases by obscure artists and closer to a painstakingly long list of legendary artists whose analog masters are now gone forever.
The list includes legendary names such as Ray Charles, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and Papas, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Tupac Shakur, amongst many others.
Although UMG had begun a digitization initiative back in 2004 known as the Preservation Project, which they initially cited as having saved the originals, records show that only a small amount of records had been transferred before the fire. As the New York Times put it, “the recording industry is a business of copies; often as not, it’s a business of copies of copies of copies,” with each iteration of a song at least one “sonic step away” from the master copy. Henry Sapoznik, a celebrated producer says “It’s the audio equivalent of the game of ‘Telephone.’ Who really would be satisfied with the sixth message in?”
June 1, 2008 was a huge loss to music lovers and audiophiles the world over, more so than originally thought. In a day where streaming is taking over, and physical copies remain on the decline, we’re stepping even further and further away from the true artists’ intent of recorded music.