In stark contrast to official statements offered more than a decade ago, a 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed a staggering number of original master recordings stored there by the Universal Music Group, according to an investigation published Tuesday by the New York Times Magazine.
The devastation, which company officials downplayed or outright dismissed after the fire was extinguished 11 years ago this month, is breathtaking in scope, amounting to what the new report describes as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music industry."
"This is a tragedy," Elliot Roberts, longtime manager to Neil Young, told The Times. Young did not lose any master recordings in the fire. "You can yell, you can jump up and down, you can look to insurance, you can sue," said Roberts, "but if you lose a master, you're 1/8sunk3/8."
UMG quickly disputed the New York Times report, citing "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets."
"Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record," said the statement issued Tuesday. "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."
These first generation master recordings spanning more than half a century's worth of music may total 500,000 individual tracks, the report says, including such cultural touchstones as Bill Haley & His Comets' genre-launching hit "Rock Around the Clock," the Kingsmen's garage-rock classic "Louie Louie," Etta James' immortal ballad of romantic reconciliation "At Last" and quite possibly the entire recorded catalogs of artists including Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly.
Other artists whose master recordings were destroyed include jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie; blues masters Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Little Walter; and most of the original rock-defining recordings made at Chicago's Chess Records label by Chuck Berry.
Some of Aretha Franklin's earliest recordings also are believed to be among those destroyed, along with outtakes and never-released recordings by hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians, among them Elton John, Cat Stevens, Nirvana, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Ray Charles, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Soundgarden, Hole, Eminem, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.
Among the record labels whose master recordings were housed at the lot were Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope.
Although a good percentage of those recordings remain in circulation, the loss of the original master recordings precludes future sonic upgrades to the commercially available versions.