Master recordings of legendary artists lost in 2008 fire

Carla Harmon
June 15, 2019

Numerous recordings stretch back to the 1940s, and include masters from legendary singers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland.

Almost 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. "Rock Around the Clock" from Bill Haley and the Comets. For the past 11 years, the article alleges, Universal Music Group kept this "open secret", obscuring "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business".

As an artist, owning your masters - the first recording of a song or other sound, from which all the later copies are made - puts you in a very powerful position when it comes to earning royalties, but a huge fire in Hollywood has wiped out a number of recordings from some music legends.

Representatives for Eminem released a statement saying the tape reels containing his master recordings were digitally backed up just months prior to the 2008 blaze.

That's because, while UMG had started what they called "The Preservation Project" to digitize its music, "company documents, and testimony given by UMG officials in legal proceedings, make clear that the project was modest; records show that at the time of the fire approximately 12,000 tapes, mostly analog multi-tracks visibly at risk of deterioration, had been transferred to digital storage formats".

The list of artists affected includes recordings by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Joan Baez, Duke Ellington, Neil Diamond, Bing Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Cat Stevens, Al Green, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur and many more.

The fire claimed the recordings of artists spanning decades of music.

"We've never been given a plausible explanation", Azoff said. Maybe they burned up in the big fire. "In any case, it's certainly a lost treasure".

"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". He wrote: "I think they are gone forever".

When a fire broke out at Universal Studios in Los Angeles in June 2008, a lot of Hollywood movie magic was lost.

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