The Slow Erosion of “The Day The Music Burned”

photo: pinguino k

It was June 11th, 2019, and the music world was left in shock and anger after the publishing of an investigative report by The New York Times detailing the loss of an estimated 175,000 master tapes, and some 500,000 total songs in a fire on the grounds of Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. Though the fire had occurred over 10 years before on June 1st, 2008 after a roofing contractor accidentally touched off the blaze with a blowtorch, the extent of the loss of the musical assets had been hidden from the public, or so the investigative report asserted.

Titled The Day The Music Burned, the story was written by Jody Rosen, known by some as the man who coined the term ‘Bro-Country.’ The assertions were staggering. 45 single master tapes, phonograph master discs, lacquers, acetates, as well as reams of documentation were all reported to be lost in the fire, including many outtakes and unreleased recordings from music legends that were irreplaceable. Catalogs from record labels such as Chess, Decca, MCA, Geffen, Interscope, A&M, and Impulse! were all affected.

Two weeks after the original article, The New York Times and Jody Rosen reported that even more information had been revealed, and listed an additional 700 artists beyond the original 130 whose works had likely been destroyed or affected in the fire. It soon became easier to name the performers whose works were not destroyed by the fire than the ones who were, while the music community was sent reeling from the sheer scope of the loss, and the malfeasance perpetrated by Universal by covering it up. Music Business Worldwide called it the “music business story of the year.” Jody Rosen himself described it as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

Everyone in the music industry was left angry and agog, as article after article from across the music world attempted to convey just how serious the matter was, listing off the artists, songs, and albums thought to be part of the loss. Widespread public outrage boiled over. Many of the artists named in the investigation took to social media to express their anger, whipping up their fan bases into a frenzy.

But something didn’t sit right with the story from the very start. Certainly the fire happened, and it wasn’t a stretch to believe that some master music recordings may have been damaged at the time, along with the 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies that Universal fessed up to losing. But if they were transparent upon the loss of the films, why wouldn’t they do the same with the music archive?

One of the main criticisms levied towards Universal was poor stewardship of such important assets in allowing them to be lost in the fire. But the fire was a complete accident, started by a roofing contractor. It was not like these masters were misplaced, or mismanaged. Also, despite the masters containing original works from music artists, these were assets that were the property of Universal Music, not the artists. The company had just as much, if not more to lose as the artists and the estates themselves by not caring for them properly.

Also the attitude and tone of The New York Times article seemed a little bit off. It felt more like a hit piece, or a salacious exposé as opposed to a cool-minded account of this catastrophic fire and a subsequent coverup. It felt similar to the takedown of #MeToo characters or the attitude of cancel culture, hoping to drive clicks and stir public outrage for attention. And nearly all the information in the article was coming from one side. The primary source of the information was Universal’s former Director of Vault Operations, Randy Aronson. Though Mr. Aronson appeared to be a credible source, when speaking to former employees, sometimes there can be bad blood and embellishment, while getting accounts or verification from active employees is often necessary to paint the bigger picture.

For its part, Universal said at the time that it was took the accusations seriously, but also felt like The New York Times was grossly overstating the amount of musical assets lost in the fire, saying the story “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” Universal also said the report “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.'”

In an internal memo to Universal employees, Sir Lucian Grainge, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group, said,

By now most of you have seen the articles relating to the fire in 2008 at the NBCUniversal Studios lot that destroyed archived recordings, videos and related materials. Even though that event happened more than a decade ago, and while I’ve been somewhat relieved by early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate, one thing is clear: the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking.

I know how deeply committed our archival and catalog teams are to preserving our archives for generations to come. Part of “owning this” is redoubling our efforts to be a leader in preserving the rich cultural legacy upon which our industry is based. Again, none of this takes away the pain of losing any recording or video from our archives. But I want you all to be clear about how seriously we take this. 

Obviously one way to verify if the reporting by The New York Times was false, embellished, or otherwise inaccurate was simply to take an inventory of the recordings, and figure out what was lost. However it wasn’t quite that easy for a number of reasons. Primarily, many of the physical records of what the vault contained were also destroyed in the fire.

Also, though Universal was claiming the amount of loss was marginal, this was partly due to claiming they had doubles, copies, or other assets of some, if not many of the assets destroyed in the fire that would work just as well as the original archived material. Though this might be true, that still doesn’t replace the originals. According to former vault manager Randy Aronson, Universal was only able to recover about one fifth of the assets lost in the fire via other available copies by the time he departed the company.

In the midst over the horror over the loss of the Universal music archive, multiple artists banded together and launched a $100 million class action lawsuit against the company. The plantiffs included Steve Earle, Hole, Soundgarden, and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur. Something else damaging to Universal was the revelation that the company had taken out insurance claims for the loss of the assets, and sought and settled a lawsuit for compensatory damages from the vault’s former landlord NBCUniversal without cutting in artists through that compensation. The insurance claims of what had been lost were part of the verification process The New York Times used for the story.

But as time has gone on, the severity of the claims of The Day The Music Burned have slowly eroded. Some of the specific masters The New York Times and Jody Rosen claimed were destroyed in the fire were found to be safe. Some were in other locations at the time being remastered for new releases or out on loan when the fire occurred.

Meanwhile Universal launched a 70-person team to determine what assets were destroyed, what assets were recovered, and which ones they had duplicates of that could be used to replicate the originals. Soon a clearer picture began to emerge about the extent of the June 2008 Universal fire. Though some musical assets had been lost, it was not nearly to the degree The New York Times reported.

On August 16, 2019, Hole dropped out of the class action lawsuit against Universal after their masters had been verified to be unaffected by the fire. The masters of Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and Tupac Shakur were also found to be fine at that time. As the investigation continued, the only masters confirmed to have been destroyed in the fire that were part of the class action lawsuit were those belonging to Soundgardern’s album Badmotorfinger—something the band had already been notified about in 2015.

On March 13th, 2020, it was announced that Soundgarden had dropped out of the class action lawsuit against Universal as well, along with the estate of Tupac Shakur. Then on Tuesday, March 24th, Steve Earle also dropped out of the lawsuit. As for now, the only plaintiff left in the lawsuit is the estate of Tom Petty, which is currently in its own internal dispute. The sole reasoning behind the lawsuit was the reporting of The New York Times, not evidence that the masters had been lost. Now that the reporting has been found to be either incorrect or embellished, there are no grounds for a lawsuit.

Meanwhile as the inventories of the Universal fire continue to come in, the bleak and devastating picture painted by The New York Times continues to become more rosy. Universal’s current archivist, Pay Kraus, said in an internal memo released in March that Jody Rosen’s reporting had been flawed because it was based off of incomplete records—some of which were destroyed in the fire—as well as accounts based off of memory that were used in the fire insurance claims that ultimately turned out to be inaccurate. If Universal was misleading in any way, it may have been in these insurance claims, hoping to receive more compensation than they deserved.

“The Times published a list of 830 artist names and stated or implied that those artists lost original recordings in the fire,” archivist Pay Kraus said in the memo. “Of the 392 inquiries that we’ve received so far, my team and I have reviewed more than 150,000 assets and responded to 209 of those artists. So far, less than 0.1 percent of those assets might have been original recordings affected by the fire.”

Undoubtedly, important music masters were likely lost in the 2008 Universal fire, and if the company was not forthright with that information to artists, it’s a very troubling pattern of behavior, and it’s not that The New York Times or anyone else should have not reported on it. But whether the amount of assets affected ends up being 0.1 percent or something greater, it’s very likely to fall well below the breathless, and at this point, reckless reporting from The New York Times that captured the zeitgeist of the music world and became one of the biggest stories of the year, angering millions of fans, and inspiring dozens of articles and think pieces that are unlikely to be counterbalanced or corrected now that we have a clearer picture, and the investigation and inventory taking by Universal continues. Now the most troubling part of this story appears to be the reporting on it, not the loss of assets.

But beyond criticizing The New York Times, the continued revelations that the musical losses in the 2008 Universal fire were not as severe as originally reported should be a great relief to the music world. These important assets should be protected, archived, duplicated redundantly, and well cared for with complete records so that if a similar incident happens again, misunderstanding of the losses does not prevail, and no injury is experienced by the artists who put their heart and soul into this music.

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