Concealing a Catastrophe: ‘The Day the Music Burned’

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Back in 2008 when a backlot fire at Universal Studios Hollywood decimated a media vault containing music masters and film archives, the “UMG spokesperson pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: ‘We had no loss.'”

As Jody Rosen reports at the New York Times Magazine, this is “pure spin.” The fire consumed music masters for original recordings from the likes of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry to Guns N’ Roses, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana. “The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. ”

Rosen maintains that as music industry labels continue to consolidate — “most commercial recordings from the past century-plus are controlled by three gigantic record companies: UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group” — these giant companies bear a critically important responsibility to store and most importantly preserve and protect the irreplaceable musical treasures, by huge names and little-known artists alike, stored in their vaults.

“Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

The fire most likely claimed most of Chuck Berry’s Chess masters and multitrack masters, a body of work that constitutes Berry’s greatest recordings. The destroyed Chess masters encompassed nearly everything else recorded for the label and its subsidiaries, including most of the Chess output of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Little Walter. Also very likely lost were master tapes of the first commercially released material by Aretha Franklin…”

The list of destroyed single and album masters takes in titles by dozens of legendary artists, a genre-spanning who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music. It includes recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

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