Nearly 500,000 classic song recordings were destroyed in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios
Everything from "Rock Around the Clock" to Tupac went up in flames.
Image: AP Photo/Juan Guerra
You'd be forgiven for not remembering the news. The headlines ran eleven years ago this month. "Large Fire Strikes Universal Studio Lot," The New York Times declared on June 1, 2008. The story primarily focused on the blaze itself, which was sparked by repairmen wielding blowtorches on a rooftop. The fire raged for hours. At the time, Universal reported damages to its video vault and the popular King Kong attraction from its studio tour. That included film and images dating back to the 1920s.
"But in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work," the officials reported at the time.
A decade later, the story is far different. The losses are incalculable.
Today, The New York Times printed a much deeper, far more tragic report on the Universal Studios fire. The title this time? "The Day the Music Burned."
If that headline has echoes of the Day the Music Died — the infamous date on which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and "The Big Bopper" all perished in a plane crash — it is with good reason. Because we now know that nearly all of Buddy Holly's master recordings were destroyed in that 2008 fire. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Or, well, a single deck chair on this Titanic loss.
As the Times wrote:
There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.
That includes classic rock & roll tunes like Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" (famously used as the original theme song to Happy Days) and Etta James' "At Last." That includes classic rock recordings by Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, Cher, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Aerosmith, Barry White, The Eagles, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Buffett, Al Green, Elton John, Eric Clapton and the Four Tops. That includes alternative favorites by R.E.M., Nirvana and Beck. That includes jazz by Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. That includes vintage blues by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. We could go on. The list is extensive. You can bet some TV theme songs were in there.
Just a brief background on what exactly a master recording is. These are — well, were — the original, unique recordings of a piece of music, what is used to manufacture the CD, vinyl and digital reissues. It included the multitrack recordings — with each instrument isolated — and session recordings that contained heretofore unheard material. Yeah, the outtakes are gone.
Such a loss rocks the entire music industry. A 2009 internal report from Universal admitted, “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”
We can only hope that Warner and Sony, the other two conglomerates that hold the bulk of modern popular music, learn from the loss.
UPDATE: In a response to the New York Times articles, Universal has issued a statement citing "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets," according to Variety. The statement continued, "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."