Here’s Everything You Need To Know About One Of The World’s Biggest Musical Tragedies

In 2008, a fire ripped through a Universal Music vault and destroyed over 500,000 masters. And almost nobody knew until yesterday.

Universal Music Fire photo

Way back in 2008, a fire spread across several buildings in downtown Hollywood, California, some of them owned by Universal studios.

Beginning in the early hours of the morning due to maintenance work involving blowtorches and an overheated shingle, the blaze burned for 24 hours. Over that time, more than a 100 Californian firefighters tried to contain the inferno, at one point using pumped water from a nearby artificial lake, built to feature in the classic horror movie Creature From The Black Lagoon.

But it was no use. By the time the flames were under control, several buildings had been burned to the ground.

News of the fire quickly hit the international media, where, aided by quotes from Universal execs, the inferno was painted as a kind of “near miss” scenario. As The New York Times outline in an explosive report released this week, at the time, no journalist expected that the fire might have destroyed anything of significant creative value. After all, the blaze hit a movie studio backlot — and those rarely contain anything that can’t be replaced.

But, unbeknownst to many, the fire had claimed one of the single most precious vaults owned by the Universal Music Group. Nicknamed the “video vault”, one of the warehouses damaged was filled with hundreds upon thousands of priceless master tapes; a plethora of irreplaceable material from some of the most beloved artists of history.

By the time the fire was done, almost half a million antique tapes were destroyed. It was one of the great tragedies of contemporary music archiving. And most of the public had no idea it had even happened.

What Makes Master Tapes So Valuable?

A master tape is an original recording — the highest fidelity, highest quality version of a song. Every copy made from that master is slightly worse quality; tracks are compressed when ported over to say, Spotify, and lose a little depth and richness in the process.

Indeed, many high profile remasters of albums and songs involve going back to the original tapes. Without those tapes, there’s no opportunity to properly remaster music for new formats.

Basically, they’re priceless. And that’s what makes the Universal fire such a staggering tragedy — over 500,000 masters were destroyed. As The Smithsonian Magazine reports, masters from artists as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Etta James, Neil Diamond, Loretta Lynn, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Janet Jackson, 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 and Tupac Shakur have all been claimed by the fire.

Not only that, but so have thousands upon thousands of masters by obscure artists. Unless there are copies of such masters from lesser-regarded musicians — which in some cases is doubtful — then huge swathes of music has been completely stricken from the record.

As the Times report, some have tried to calculate the loss at over US$150 million. But, given the sheer blow to music history and preservation, the loss is much, much greater than that.

Nevermind Universal Music

The ‘Nevermind’ masters were lost in the 2008 fire.

The Music Industry Mourns

Since the Times report has been released, a number of bands have commented on the loss of the masters. Krist Novocelic, responding to a question from a fan on Twitter, has asserted that he believes that the Nevermind masters are “gone forever”, while Questlove of The Roots has confirmed that the fire has put a pin in plans to remaster two of his band’s records.

Meanwhile, a representative of the band Hole has confirmed that the group had no idea that the masters had been lost until the Times story went live. Needless to say, the music community has reacted strongly to the revelations.

The fire has been revealed to be one of the biggest blows to contemporary music archiving. Like that, a whole period of musical history went up in flames — and nobody even knew to mourn for 11 whole years.

Read the full The New York Times article here.