A fire that ravaged Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008 may have destroyed some of Universal Music Group’s “most prized material,” including masters by legendary musicians such as Tupac Shakur, Etta James, John Coltrane, Eminem, and many others, according to an in-depth report published by the New York Times on Tuesday. The report, titled “The Day Music Burned,” details the possible extent of damage caused by the flames, including the loss of an estimated 500,000 song titles, some dating as far back as the 1940s.
The vault’s contents went beyond UMG artists, as the company absorbed smaller labels throughout the years, like the blues giant Chess, whose library housed recordings from James, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy. The Decca label included irreplaceable music by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Nearly all of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly’s masters may have been lost in the 24 hours it took the fire department to control the fire, according to the Times report, which cites litigation and company documents that contrast UMG’s public statements about the extent of the damage. Other names mentioned as possibly affected include contemporary artists like Sheryl Crow, Snoop Dogg, Aerosmith, New Edition, Beck, Nirvana, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, and Sting.
Universal Music Group disputed the accuracy of Times report in a statement to EW.
“Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the statement reads. “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.”
The statement continues: “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.”
The Times notes that while the Universal Studios vault known as Building 6197 was not the label’s only storage facility, it was the main location. With multiple locations, the possibility exists that duplicate recordings or flat lays exist for at least some of the songs.
Universal Music Group would not confirm the number of actual losses due to the fire, nor would it confirm the status of masters for specific artists.
EW reached out to artists reportedly affected by the 2008 fire for comment.
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