The Day the Music Burned

It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew. This is the story of the 2008 Universal fire.

By Jody Rosen featured on June 11, 2019

‘The Vault Is on Fire’

The fire that swept across the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood on Sunday, June 1, 2008, began early that morning, in New England. At 4:43 a.m., a security guard at the movie studio and theme park saw flames rising from a rooftop on the set known as New England Street, a stretch of quaint Colonial-style buildings where small-town scenes were filmed for motion pictures and television shows. That night, maintenance workers had repaired the roof of a building on the set, using blowtorches to heat asphalt shingles. They finished the job at 3 a.m. and, following protocol, kept watch over the site for another hour to ensure that the shingles had cooled. But the roof remained hot, and some 40 minutes after the workers left, one of the hot spots flared up.

The fire moved quickly. It engulfed the backlot’s famous New York City streetscape. It burned two sides of Courthouse Square, a set featured in “Back to the Future.” It spread south to a cavernous shed housing the King Kong Encounter, an animatronic attraction for theme-park visitors. Hundreds of firefighters responded, including Universal Studios’ on-site brigade. But the fire crews were hindered by low water pressure and damaged sprinkler systems and by intense radiant heat gusting between combustible structures.

Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault.

Shortly after the fire broke out, a 50-year-old man named Randy Aronson was awakened by a ringing phone at his home in Canyon Country, Calif., about 30 miles north of Universal City, the unincorporated area of the San Fernando Valley where the studio sits. Aronson had worked on the Universal lot for 25 years. His title was senior director of vault operations at Universal Music Group (UMG). In practice, this meant he spent his days overseeing an archive housed in the video vault. The term “video vault” was in fact a misnomer, or a partial misnomer. About two-thirds of the building was used to store videotapes and film reels, a library controlled by Universal Studios’s parent company, NBCUniversal. But Aronson’s domain was a separate space, a fenced-off area of 2,400 square feet in the southwest corner of the building, lined with 18-foot-high storage shelves. It was a sound-recordings library, the repository of some of the most historically significant material owned by UMG, the world’s largest record company.

Aronson let the phone call go to voice mail, but when he listened to the message, he heard sirens screaming in the background and the frantic voice of a colleague: “The vault is on fire.”

[Musicians mourned the fiery destruction of their recordings.]

Aronson dressed and steered his car to Interstate 5. A few minutes later, the air picked up a harsh scent: the acrid odor of the fire, riding the early-morning breeze into Santa Clarita, roughly 20 miles from the backlot. Aronson sped south. When he turned onto the Hollywood Freeway, he saw clouds of greenish-black smoke pouring into the sky. It was 5:45 a.m. when he gained access to the lot and made his way to the vault.

There, he found an inferno. Fire was blasting out of the building as if shot from giant flamethrowers. The heat was extraordinary. There were at least a dozen fire engines ringing the vault, and as Aronson looked around he noticed one truck whose parking lights seemed to be melting.

The vault lay near Park Lake, a man-made body of water that appeared in the classic B-movie “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Fire crews began drafting water from the lake. They rained water from the tops of ladders; they doused the building with foam fire retardant. These efforts proved futile. “It was like watching molten lava move through the building,” Aronson remembers. “Just a huge blob of fire that flowed and flowed.”

Before long, firefighters switched tactics, using bulldozers to knock down the burning warehouse and clear away barriers to extinguishing the fire, including the remains of the UMG archive: rows of metal shelving and reels of tape, reduced to heaps of ash and twisted steel. Heavy machinery was still at work dismantling the building as night fell. The job was finished in the early morning of June 2, nearly 24 hours after the first flames appeared.
The fire made news around the world, and the destruction of the video vault featured prominently in the coverage. But nearly all news outlets characterized the vault fire as a close call, in which worst cases were averted. The New York Times reported that “a vault full of video and television images” had burned up, but added that “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work,” a claim attributed to Universal Studios officials. Subsequent articles focused on the fire’s impact on film festivals, which relied on prints from Universal’s library. But journalists moved on from the story, and there has never been a full accounting of film and video losses in the fire.

The Times’s report was typical in another way: It contained no mention of a music archive in the devastated warehouse. The confusion was understandable. Universal Studios Hollywood was a movie backlot, not a record-company headquarters. What’s more, a series of mergers and acquisitions had largely severed the ties between Universal’s film and music businesses. In 2004, Universal Studios was purchased by General Electric and merged with G.E.’s television property, NBC, to become NBCUniversal; UMG was cast under separate management, and in 2006 fell wholly under the ownership of Vivendi, the French media conglomerate. When the fire struck in June 2008, UMG was a rent-paying tenant on NBC Universal’s lot.

One of the few journalists to note the existence of the UMG archive was Nikki Finke, the entertainment-industry blogger and gadfly. In a Deadline.com post on the day of the fire, Finke wrote that “1,000’s of original … recording masters” might have been destroyed in the warehouse, citing an anonymous source. The next day Finke published a “clarification,” quoting an unnamed representative from the record company: “Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come.” The same day, in the music trade publication Billboard, a UMG spokesperson again pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: “We had no loss.”

These reassuring pronouncements concealed a catastrophe. When Randy Aronson stood outside the burning warehouse on June 1, he knew he was witnessing a historic event. “It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson says. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.”

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. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or “flat” analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.

UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. 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.

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost.

The monetary value of this loss is difficult to calculate. Aronson recalls hearing that the company priced the combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” at $150 million. But in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering. It’s impossible to itemize, precisely, what music was on each tape or hard drive in the vault, which had no comprehensive inventory. It cannot be said exactly how many recordings were original masters or what type of master each recording was. But legal documents, UMG reports and the accounts of Aronson and others familiar with the vault’s collection leave little doubt that the losses were profound, taking in a sweeping cross-section of popular music history, from postwar hitmakers to present-day stars.

Among the incinerated Decca masters were recordings by titanic figures in American music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

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, recorded when she was a young teenager performing in the church services of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who made dozens of albums for Chess and its sublabels.

Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire. Most of John Coltrane’s Impulse masters were lost, as were masters for treasured Impulse releases by Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz greats. Also apparently destroyed were the masters for dozens of canonical hit singles, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

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.

Then there are masters for largely forgotten artists that were stored in the vault: tens of thousands of gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word records that may now exist only as written entries in discographies.

Today Universal Music Group is a Goliath, by far the world’s biggest record company, with soaring revenues bolstered by a boom in streaming music and a market share nearly double that of its closest competitor, Sony Music Entertainment. Last year, Vivendi announced a plan to sell up to 50 percent of UMG. The sale is the talk of the music business; rumored potential buyers include Apple, Amazon and the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba. The price tag is expected to be hefty: In January, Deutsche Bank raised its valuation of UMG to more than $33 billion.

The label’s dominance rests in large part on its roster of current chart toppers — stars like Drake, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. But UMG’s reputation is also based on the great swaths of music history it owns, a canon that includes Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Queen and many more artists and labels whose catalogs came under the UMG umbrella during decades of acquisition and consolidation. A key part of that legacy — the originals of some of the company’s most culturally significant assets — went up in smoke in 2008.

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”

  1. The Truest Capture
    The recordings that burned up in the Universal fire — like the songs that are blasting from car windows on the street outside your home, like all the records that you or I or anyone else has ever heard — represent a wonderment that we have come to take for granted. For most of human history, every word spoken, every song sung, was by definition ephemeral: Air vibrated and sound traveled in and out of earshot, never to be heard again. But technology gave humanity the means to catch sounds, to transform a soprano’s warble, a violin’s trill, Chuck Berry’s blaring guitar, into something permanent and repeatable, a sonic artifact to which listeners can return again and again.
    The act of listening again has defined music culture for a century. It is also the basis of the multibillion-dollar record industry. Today a stupefying bounty of recordings is available on streaming audio services, floating free of the CDs, LPs and other delivery systems that once brought them to audiences. The metaphors we use to describe this mass of digitized sound bespeak our almost mystical sense that recorded music has dematerialized and slipped the bonds of earth. The Cloud. The Celestial Jukebox. Something close to the entire history of music hovers in the ether, waiting to be summoned into our earbuds by a tap on a touch-screen.

This is the utopian tale we tell ourselves, at least. In fact, vast gaps remain between the historical corpus of recorded music and that which has been digitized. Gerald Seligman, executive director of the National Recording Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Library of Congress, estimated in 2013 that less than 18 percent of commercial music archives had been transferred and made available through streaming and download services. That figure underscores a misapprehension: the assumption that the physical relics of recorded sound are obsolete and expendable. “It feels as if music has evolved beyond the reach of objects,” says Andy Zax, a Grammy-nominated producer and writer who works on reissued recordings. “In fact we are as dependent on irritating physical stuff as we ever were.”

The objects in question are master recordings: millions of reels of magnetic tape, stored in libraries like the one that occupied the backlot vault. These archives hold other masters of various vintages: the lacquer, glass and metal masters that predated tape, and disk drives and digital tapes from the past few decades. They comprise, as Zax said at a music conference, “a bewildering array of formats: albums, singles, demos … the entire careers of artists we know everything about and artists we know nothing about. … The future of all of the recorded music that we have ever heard — and, for that matter, all of the recorded music that we haven’t heard yet — depends on our ability to maintain these artifacts.”

It is sonic fidelity, first and foremost, that defines the importance of masters. “A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

This is not an academic point. The recording industry is a business of copies; often as not, it’s a business of copies of copies of copies. A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. That file was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD, which itself may have been created from a suboptimal “safety copy” of the LP master — or even from a dubbed duplicate of that dubbed duplicate. Audiophiles complain that the digital era, with its rampant copy-paste ethos and jumble of old and new formats, is an age of debased sound: lossy audio files created from nth-generation transfers; cheap vinyl reissues, marketed to analog-fetishists but pressed up from sludgy non-analog sources. “It’s the audio equivalent of the game of ‘Telephone,’ ” says Henry Sapoznik, a celebrated producer of historical compilation albums. “Who really would be satisfied with the sixth message in?”

The remedy is straightforward: You go back to the master. This is one reason that rereleases of classic albums are promoted as having been painstakingly remastered from the original tapes. It’s why consumers of new technologies, like CDs in the 1980s, are eager to hear familiar music properly recaptured for the format. Right now, sound-savvy consumers are taking the next leap forward into high-resolution audio, which can deliver streaming music of unprecedented depth and detail. But you can’t simply up-convert existing digital files to higher resolution. You have to return to the master and recapture it at a higher bit rate.

But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.”

The comparison to paintings is instructive. With a painting, our task as cultural stewards is to hang the thing properly, to keep it away from direct sunlight, to guard it from thieves. A painting must be maintained and preserved, but only in rare cases will a technological intervention improve our ability to see the artwork. If you were to stand before the Mona Lisa in an uncrowded gallery, you would be taking in the painting under more or less ideal circumstances. You will not get a better view.

In the case of a recording, a better view is possible. With recourse to the master, a recording’s “picture” can, potentially, be improved; the record can snap into sharper focus, its sound and meaning shining through with new clarity and brilliance. The reason is a technological time lag: For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. “Most people don’t realize that recording technology was decades more sophisticated than playback technology,” Sapoznik says. “Today, we can decode information off original recordings that was impossible to hear at any time before.”

The process of revisiting and decoding can transfigure the most familiar music. In May 2017, a new box set of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released to mark the album’s 50th anniversary. “Sgt. Pepper’s” is one of the most famous recordings in history, but the version most listeners know is the stereo mix, which was of secondary importance to the Beatles, their producer George Martin and his engineer, Geoff Emerick. It was the mono mix that consumed the Beatles’ attention, and it is to those materials that the box set’s producer, Martin’s son Giles, returned, creating a fresh stereo mix from the mono masters. “The job was to strip back layers, to get back to that original sound and intent,” he says. “The detail we can garner from the mix compared to what they could have done 50 years ago is fantastic.”

The result is a vivid new “Sgt. Pepper’s.” In certain quarters, the album has been regarded as twee, but Giles Martin’s mix reveals a burlier rock ’n’ roll record. The box set opens new vistas on the album’s themes and adds force to its pathos. The opus “A Day in the Life” sounds more ominous than ever, a portent of late ’60s chaos, of the storm gathering on the other side of the Summer of Love. These epiphanies would not have been possible without masters. “Working without the master tapes,” Martin says, “would be like a chef having to use precooked food.”

The “Sgt. Pepper’s” masters are kept in a secure location in London. The tape boxes are marked with recording notes that helped guide Martin’s mixing decisions. The tapes themselves feature additional recordings — alternate versions, overdubs, studio chatter — that were included on the rerelease. Tens of millions of copies of “Sgt. Pepper’s” have been sold over the years; it may seem precious to place special value on the original of a record that is so well known and ubiquitous. But the masters in the London archive are unique. They have greater fidelity than any copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s” that is out in the world. They have more documentation than any version anywhere. And the masters contain more Beatles music too.

The same is surely true of many masters destroyed in the Universal fire. John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot. But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape.

There is another defining characteristic of masters — the “Sgt. Pepper’s” tapes, the tapes stacked on the shelves of Building 6197 and countless other masters as well. They are corporate assets. In 2019, most commercial recordings from the past century-plus are controlled by three gigantic record companies: UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group. These “big three” labels get to exploit this material for profit. But they are also the warehousers of millions of cumbersome master recordings. They’re in the storage business.

That task is expensive and complex, and if the past is an indication, it may be a job for which record companies are ill suited. The Universal fire brought losses on an unprecedented scale, but it was only the most recent disaster to strike the masters holdings of American record labels. These disasters include not only events like fires but also instances of neglect and even willful destruction by the labels themselves, a hair-raising history that reaches back to the beginnings of the music business.

Today industry professionals familiar with archiving practices question the big three labels’ commitment to preservation. (A number of these insiders, including individuals with knowledge of the backlot fire, spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned they could face professional consequences with UMG and other labels.) One audio specialist said: “Labels need to see payoff: ‘We have a release next year from this artist.’ But as far as, ‘We have this inventory on the shelves, let’s preserve it’ — that’s not the attitude. An old recording that’s deteriorating on the shelf is not causing alarm.”

The result is a crisis, a slow-motion assault on our musical heritage that is poorly understood by many within the record industry, to say nothing of the public at large. Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability. Yet the conservation mission faced by record labels may be no less vital than those of museums and libraries. Recorded music is arguably America’s great artistic patrimony, our supreme gift to world culture. How should it be safeguarded? And by whom?

  1. An Open Secret
    I met Randy Aronson for the first time on a spring day in 2016. He was living in the same three-bedroom house where he had been jolted awake by a phone call on the morning of the fire. It was a small house, and it was a full one, occupied by Aronson and his wife, one of their two adult daughters, the daughter’s boyfriend, three dogs and a cat.

As a young man, Aronson did some acting, and he recently returned to the stage, starring in a community-theater comedy about the 1930s golden age of radio. Aronson has the look of a guy who can do a good screwball turn. He is tall and husky, with an elastic face and eyes that hold a gleam. When I arrived at his house, he led me into the living room, where I noticed a BB gun. “There are coyotes around here,” he said. “I don’t shoot at them — I shoot around them.” Aronson was adopted as an infant. His father worked as a repairman for the Otis Elevator Company for 35 years. “That’s where I got my loyalty to one company,” Aronson said. “I know that sounds funny, under the circumstances.”

In January 2016, Aronson lost his job at UMG. He had continued to direct the company’s vault operations following the fire, overseeing approximately 1.5 million master tapes that UMG maintained in storage facilities around the United States. He said he was never given a reason for his dismissal but chalks it up to differences of “archiving philosophy.” “I wasn’t speaking their language,” he said.

I sought out Aronson more than a year after learning about the vault fire. His account of events and knowledge of the vault’s contents confirmed the picture that had emerged from my review of legal documents and UMG’s internal records. Aronson admits he would not have consented to interviews were he still with UMG. But he insists he is not motivated by animus toward the company. He agreed to talk, he said, because he hopes the story of the fire will lead to a broader conversation about preservation. He expressed anxiety about his job prospects in light of his participation in this article. “I am a man of strong convictions on what I think is proper storage and preservation standards of music tape,” he wrote in an email in 2016. “I am also a 58-year-old man who is seeking employment with one of the few remaining music companies.”

There’s no mistaking Aronson’s strong convictions, and strong emotions, about the Universal fire. In dozens of conversations and email exchanges, he described the event as a personal trauma. “Sometimes I forget that there was life before the fire,” he said. “Even now, it gets me choked up, thinking about all those tapes.”

The fate of all those tapes has been an open secret for years. It hides in plain sight on the internet, popping up on message boards frequented by record collectors and audio engineers. In a 2014 interview, Richard Carpenter, one-half of the superstar 1970s duo the Carpenters, stated that masters for the group’s multimillion-selling A&M albums were lost on the backlot. “A lot of those masters … they went up in the fire at Universal,” Carpenter said. References to the loss of Decca and Chess masters in the fire appeared more than three years ago in the Wikipedia entry for Universal Studios Hollywood and were still on the page at the time of this writing.
Yet the news has never reached the broader public. In part, this represents a triumph of crisis management. In the days following the fire, officials at UMG’s global headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., and in New York scrambled to spin and contain press coverage.

In an email sent to UMG executives and P.R. staff members on June 3, 2008, Peter LoFrumento, the company’s spokesman, reported on efforts to downplay the story, attaching articles from The New York Times, The New York Daily News and The Los Angeles Times that reflected UMG’s account of events. The officials copied on the email included Zach Horowitz, UMG’s president and chief operating officer. Horowitz, who has since left the company, declined to comment for this article.

“We stuck to the script about physical backups and digital copies,” LoFrumento wrote in the email. The company, he claimed, had steered Jon Healey, a Los Angeles Times writer, toward a more favorable view: “We were able to turn Healey around on his L.A. Times editorial so it’s not a reprimand on what we didn’t do, but more of a pat on the back for what we did.” That editorial, published in the paper’s June 3 edition, offered comforting news: “At this point, it appears that the fire consumed no irreplaceable master recordings, just copies.”

Other newspaper accounts described damage to master recordings by little-known artists, whose names may have been cherry-picked by UMG in an effort to downplay the gravity of the loss. A New York Times article on June 3 cited recordings by “pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw” as examples of the “small number of tapes and other material by ‘obscure artists from the 1940s and ’50s’ ” that were affected by the fire. The Times ascribed these assertions to a UMG spokesman. The Daily News article also invoked the loss of “original recordings from organ virtuoso Lenny Dee and 1950s hitmaker Georgie Shaw.” A possible explanation for the highlighting of Dee and Shaw comes from Aronson: He says that a UMG executive asked him, the day after the fire, for the names of “two artists nobody would recognize,” to be furnished to journalists seeking information on lost recordings.

That same June 3 Daily News article included a direct quotation from LoFrumento: “In one sense it was a loss. In another, we were covered,” he said. “It had already been digitized, so the music will still be around for many years.” The claim about digital backups, which was reported by other news outlets, also seems to have been misleading. It is true that UMG’s vault-operations department had begun a digitization initiative, known as the Preservation Project, in late 2004. But 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 multitracks visibly at risk of deterioration, had been transferred to digital storage formats. All of those originals and digital copies were stored in a separate facility in Pennsylvania; they were not the items at issue in the fire. The company’s sweeping assurance that “the music” had been digitized appears to have been pure spin. “The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story,” Aronson says. “They did an outstanding job of keeping it quiet. It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.”

Doug Morris, UMG’s chairman and chief executive at the time of the fire, declined to comment for this article; he left the company in 2010. In a statement provided to The New York Times last month, a current UMG spokesman said that the company was unable to comment on the 2008 fire. “In this case, 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 statement read. “However, in the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments — in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts — in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings.”

Back in 2008, UMG undoubtedly feared the public embarrassment that news of the losses could bring. But Aronson and others suggest that UMG was especially concerned about repercussions with the artists, and the estates of artists, whose recordings were destroyed.
Record contracts are notoriously slanted in the favor of labels, which benefit disproportionately from sales and, in most cases, hold ownership of masters. For decades, standard artists’ contracts stipulated that recordings were “work for hire,” with record companies retaining control of masters in perpetuity. It is a paradox of the record business: Labels have often been cavalier about physically safeguarding masters, but they are zealous guardians of their ownership and intellectual-property rights.

Certain musicians, usually big stars, negotiate ownership of masters. (“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you,” quipped Prince in 1996, at the height of a high-profile standoff with Warner Brothers.) It is unclear how many of the artists whose work was lost in the Universal vault had ownership of their physical masters, or were seeking it. But by definition, artists have a stake in the intellectual property contained on those masters, and many artists surely expected UMG to safeguard the material for potential later use. Had word of the fire’s toll emerged, many of the biggest names in pop music, and many profitable artist estates, would have learned that UMG had lost core documents their catalogs rest on — a source for everything from potentially lucrative reissues to historical preservation to posthumous releases. That scenario could have exposed UMG to a storm of questions, threats and reputational damage from across the industry.

But in the decade since the fire, UMG has faced little apparent blowback from artists or their representatives. It is probable that musicians whose masters were destroyed have no idea that a vault holding UMG masters had burned down. (A UMG spokesperson, asked if there has been any systematic effort to inform artists of the losses, said the company “doesn’t publicly discuss our private conversations with artists and estates.”)

It is probable that musicians whose masters were destroyed have no idea.

The closest UMG came to a public imbroglio may have been in 2010, when, Aronson says, he was sent on an unusual business trip to Pennsylvania. He had been told by a UMG executive that one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Irving Azoff, was asking questions about the loss of Steely Dan masters in the fire. Azoff, the former chairman of MCA Inc., is now the chairman and chief executive of Azoff MSG Entertainment, a live entertainment conglomerate, as well as the “supermanager” chairman of Full Stop Management, whose roster of clients includes Steely Dan and the Eagles. A quarrel with Azoff was an unwelcome prospect. Luckily, the tapes he was concerned about, multitrack masters of Steely Dan’s first releases, turned out to have been moved to UMG’s Pennsylvania tape vault before the fire.

Azoff sent Elliot Scheiner, a celebrated record producer and mixer who had worked with Steely Dan, to confirm the tapes were intact. Aronson accompanied Scheiner to the Pennsylvania facility, the tapes were pulled, the matter was dropped. (Asked about this incident, both Azoff and Scheiner declined to comment.) In fact, UMG documents suggest that Steely Dan masters — different tapes than those sought by Azoff — were in Building 6197 when the fire hit. According to Aronson, these likely included certain album masters, as well as multitrack masters holding outtakes and unreleased material. “Those songs,” Aronson says, “will never be heard again.”

UMG avoided bad publicity, but in the months after the fire, the feelings of shock and chagrin remained acute for Aronson and his vault operations colleagues. As for senior executives, it is unclear how engaged they were in the questions debated, and the decisions made, in the fire’s aftermath. “I got the sense they felt the less top executives knew, the less accountable they’d be,” Aronson says. “I felt I was being shielded from top execs and carted in for insurance and legal meetings.”

There were many such meetings. In December 2009, UMG filed a lawsuit against NBCUniversal, its former landlord at the vault, seeking compensatory damages for losses suffered in the fire. (Much of what we know about the event comes from depositions and documents that emerged from this litigation.) The suit claimed that NBCUniversal, which leased the backlot vault to UMG, “breached their duty of care,” resulting in the destruction of the warehouse and its contents. Legal wrangling ensued for more than three years, until February 2013, when UMG dropped the suit and the parties settled for an undisclosed sum. (Spokespeople for UMG and NBCUniversal declined to comment.)

The position staked out by UMG in the lawsuit was the opposite of that in its public statements. Rather than minimizing the fire’s impact, the company sought to prove the gravity of the event and the loss incurred. Aronson’s knowledge of the fire’s toll made him valuable to that cause. He was deposed multiple times and asked by UMG lawyers to submit declarations to the court on four occasions. “Although it was never said to me, I was certain that they loved my candor for legal reasons,” Aronson says. “I was the perfect counter to news releases that said the whole thing was a minor event.”

  1. Cathedral of Sounds
    The history of music-archiving misfortunes extends far beyond UMG’s ruined vault. It stretches back decades and encompasses nearly every significant record label. That history was detailed by a journalist, Bill Holland, in a two-part exposé, published in Billboard in July 1997. Holland revealed the loss and destruction of “untold numbers of recordings, old and not so old.” Record companies have tossed masters in bulk into dumpsters and buried them in landfills. During World War II, labels donated metal parts masters to salvage drives. Three decades later, employees of CBS Records carved up multitrack masters with power saws so the reels could be sold to scrap metal dealers.

Catalog material by top stars sometimes suffered the same fate as obscure recordings. Holland discovered that a purge of multitracks at RCA in the 1970s included tapes by the best-selling act in the label’s history, Elvis Presley. Countless more recordings have been lost to shoddy storage practices. Tapes have been mislabeled, misplaced and misfiled; tapes have been marooned on high shelves in disorderly warehouses, left at loading docks, abandoned at shuttered recording studios. In 1972, decades before the Universal inferno, a fire struck an MGM Records warehouse. Holland reported that masters for MGM and the jazz label Verve were damaged or destroyed in the fire and in the months following, when surviving recordings were kept in an open shed.

The preservation laxities were dictated by what seemed at the time to be common sense. For decades, the music industry was exclusively a business of now, of today’s hot release, of this week’s charts — of hits, not history. “Nobody cared about catalog,” says an industry veteran. “Stuff that was five years old might as well have been 1,000 years old.”
One insider said, “Most senior executives in the record business have no understanding of what masters are, why you need to store them, what the point of them is.” Crucially, masters were not seen as capable of generating revenue. On the contrary: They were expensive to warehouse and therefore a drain on resources. To record-company accountants, a tape vault was inherently a cost center, not a profit center.

These attitudes prevailed even at visionary labels like Atlantic Records, which released hundreds of recordings by black artists beginning in the late 1940s. In his Billboard exposé, Holland mentioned a 1978 fire in an “Atlantic Records storage facility in Long Branch, N.J.” Holland did not reveal that the “facility” was the former home of Vogel’s Department Store, owned by the family of Sheldon Vogel, Atlantic’s chief financial officer. Late in the 1970s, Vogel told me, Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic’s president, complained about tapes cramming the label’s Manhattan office. Vogel suggested moving the material to the empty Long Branch building.

Vogel was on vacation on Feb. 8, 1978, when he learned the building had burned down. The 5,000-plus lost tapes comprised nearly all of the session reels, alternate takes and unreleased masters recorded for Atlantic and its sublabels between 1949 and 1969, a period when its roster featured R.&B., soul and jazz luminaries, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Today the importance of those tapes is self-evident: thousands of hours of unheard music by some of history’s greatest recording artists. But to Atlantic in 1978, the tapes were a nuisance. According to Vogel, Atlantic collected “maybe a couple of million dollars” in insurance on the destroyed masters. It seemed like a good deal.

“We thought, Boy, what a windfall,” Vogel says. “We thought the insurance was worth far more than the recordings. Eventually, the true value of those recordings became apparent.”

When Randy Aronson began working as a music archivist in the mid-1980s, he had no idea what a master was. He grew up in central Los Angeles and, like many L.A. kids, his ambition was to get into show business. He did some theater during the years he attended college and continued acting into his early 20s, performing in dinner theater while making ends meet with odd jobs.

In 1983, when he was 25, Aronson took a full-time position on the Universal Studios lot, in the mailroom. To work on the lot was to bask in Hollywood history and Hollywood kitsch. The site was opened in 1915 in a rural stretch of northern Los Angeles. Gradually, that pastoral site became the lot, a bustling maze of offices, sets and soundstages. In 1958, the Music Corporation of America (MCA Inc.) bought the lot from Universal Pictures. In 1964, MCA executives, seeking a new source of revenue, developed a studio tour, which soon expanded into a full-fledged amusement park, with rides and attractions.
After two years in the mailroom, Aronson sought new work on the lot. In the spring of 1985, he got a temporary position in the tape vault of MCA Records, the music conglomerate that would later be renamed Universal Music Group. It wasn’t a glamorous gig. The archive was huge and poorly organized, with thousands of tapes misshelved or improperly labeled. Aronson’s task was to impose order on the chaos.

He had no previous experience with preservation work; he was fuzzy on the basics of sound recording. He learned, he says, “tape by tape.” Aronson was a rock fan with a deep appreciation for the musical past. He was tickled when he stumbled on tapes for favorite albums, like the Mamas and the Papas’ “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.” The work was tedious, but Aronson had a strong sense of mission and of his own good fortune. When he arrived at the vault each day, he had the feeling he was entering a cathedral stocked with relics.

Less than a year after taking the temp job, Aronson was asked to run the archive. It was a period of sea change in the music industry. In the early 1980s, the first compact discs had appeared in American record stores. Over the next decade and a half, CDs would turbocharge the business, a run that climaxed in 1999, when revenue from recorded music in the United States reached $14.6 billion. LPs had dominated for more than 30 years, but the arrival of CDs encouraged listeners to replace record collections at huge markups, paying up to three times the price for an old album in a crisp new format. The avidity with which consumers snatched up even poor-quality CD reissues was a revelation: proof that catalogs could be cash cows.

The result was a reissue boom. Master tapes were essential to this new line of business. But at the MCA vault, Aronson and his colleagues faced challenges, the consequences of archiving failures dating back decades. Aronson grew accustomed to finding gaps in the collection, “tapes that should have been there and were not,” he says.

The vault facility itself was problematic. MCA’s music tapes were stored on the ground floor of the film-archive building. The temperature in the vault was 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the correct conditions for storing film, but too cold for music tapes. When masters were pulled and transported to recording studios, they emerged from the frigid vault into the Southern California heat. Aronson received reports that tapes were arriving at studios in bad shape, cracked and crumbling.

By 1990, MCA’s music archive had moved to a new home on the backlot: Building 6197, a big metal shack that had been built to store theme-park souvenirs. A new concrete foundation was poured to accommodate a heavy load of tapes, and HVAC systems were installed. Yet problems persisted. The inventory was still kept on 5 x 7 cards, and the checkout system involved scrawled notes in three-ring binders. “We got the vault to a point where it was well organized,” Aronson says. “But it wasn’t well inventoried. It was hard to sell a return-on-investment on an inventory. It was not a company priority.” Without a proper inventory, MCA had only a vague idea of what was, and wasn’t, in its archive. “When someone asked for a tape, we’d look on the shelf and see if it was there,” Aronson says. “If it wasn’t, we knew we had a problem.”
Soon, new concerns arose. In the fall of 1990, a Universal Studios security guard started a fire that whipped across the backlot, causing an estimated $25 million in damage. (The guard was convicted of arson.) The fire reached the doorstep of Building 6197, but firefighters beat back the flames. Aronson began to reconsider the prudence of maintaining a tape library on the studio backlot.

“For a long time, I was seduced by the lot,” Aronson says. “It was like being in Narnia. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress smoking a cigar. There were camels and elephants walking past. I was so in love with being on the lot, I hadn’t thought through the dangers.”

Five large fires had hit the backlot in the years between the studio’s founding and the arson incident. In 1997, another major fire was ignited by an overturned set light. There were pyrotechnic materials on the backlot, used in films and featured in tourist attractions. “The King Kong ride had explosions, all day every day,” Aronson says. “Flames shooting up. Right next door to the vault.”

In addition to the backlot archive, UMG had tape collections in Pennsylvania, outside Nashville, in upstate New York and in a separate location in Los Angeles. Over the years, the company’s masters holdings grew as mergers and acquisitions brought new labels — and new tape libraries — into MCA’s portfolio. In 1995, the Seagram Company acquired an 80 percent interest in MCA Inc.; the following year, MCA’s music division was renamed Universal Music Group. Seagram purchased PolyGram Records in December 1998 and soon merged it with UMG, adding several hundred thousand masters to the company’s archives. Most PolyGram masters — including material released on such sublabels as Mercury, Island and Motown — were housed in a rented warehouse in Edison, N.J.

One day in May 2004, Aronson got a call from a colleague. A crisis was unfolding at the New Jersey warehouse. According to depositions in UMG’s later litigation with NBCUniversal, an accident in the warehouse space directly above UMG’s tape vault resulted in a broken water main. Aronson flew to New Jersey, where he learned that the upstairs tenant, a food-service company, had loaded too many pallets of salad dressing into its storage hold, caving in the ceiling above the UMG vault and rupturing a pipe as it crashed down. At the warehouse, Aronson beheld a gory scene: collapsed Sheetrock, dangling electricity lines, hundreds of shattered salad-dressing bottles and a foot of water flooding a vault that held 350,000 master tapes, including the entire Motown catalog. The destruction of all those masters was averted only by quick action: a rescue-and-restoration effort which, according to Aronson, cost $12 million and entailed the hiring of a dozen trucks equipped with 53-foot refrigerated trailers to freeze-dry wet tapes.

Even more than the 1990 backlot fire, the New Jersey incident shook Aronson’s assumptions about how, and where, UMG should secure its masters. Aronson says he urged UMG to abandon the backlot, shifting the recordings to a safer location. Eventually, Aronson says, a compromise was reached: Most of the session reels and multitracks stored on the backlot, about 250,000 tapes, were moved to the archive in Pennsylvania. This left approximately 120,000 masters — 175,000, if you accept Aronson’s estimate — in Building 6197. These were the recordings that burned on June 1, 2008.

“I get why there was a feeling of safety,” Aronson says. “We had our own fire department. But still I look back on it and I wonder: What the [expletive] was anybody thinking putting a tape vault in an amusement park?”

  1. Deep Catalog
    On May 27, 2010, a group of celebrities, politicians and Universal Studios officials appeared at a news conference on the Universal backlot to mark the reopening of New York Street. The speakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and the president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, praised the firefighters who had battled the 2008 inferno and rhapsodized about the rebuilt set. The name given by Universal to its rebuilding effort struck a heady note of regeneration and renewal: The Phoenix Project.

A year and a half earlier, Universal Music Group embarked on its own recovery project. In an apparent coincidence, the program’s nickname was nearly identical to the one chosen by its former sister company. But UMG’s Project Phoenix would not culminate in a splashy ceremony; no gleaming tape vault would rise from the ashes. In the decade-plus since the fire, UMG has shifted many of its masters into the hands of third parties. This is typical of the record industry at large: In the 21st century, the job of archiving major labels’ masters has largely been outsourced.

UMG began Project Phoenix in October 2008. The plan was to gather duplicates of recordings whose masters were lost. Those copies would then be digitally transferred to reconstitute the lost archive — albeit in sonically inferior form, with recordings generations removed from the true masters. UMG undertook a global hunt, searching for safety copies and other duplicates at a variety of locations in the United States and abroad. The project lasted two years and, by Aronson’s estimate, recovered perhaps a fifth of what had been lost. The recordings were transferred to Linear Tape-Open, or LTO, a tape format used for archiving digital data. Copies were placed in storage holds on both coasts: at an underground vault in Boyers, Pa., and a high-rise facility in Hollywood. Both vaults are run by Iron Mountain, the global information-management and storage giant.

‘Those songs will never be heard again.’

UMG is not alone in its reliance on the multibillion-dollar company. Founded in 1951 under the name Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation, the company initially catered to the warehousing needs of American businesses and to Cold War anxieties, promising to secure documents in a nuclear attack. By the 1980s, its warehouses and subterranean vaults held paperwork and assets for private concerns and public institutions, from banks to corporations to the federal government, which remains a major client.

Today several of the company’s nearly 1,500 facilities are devoted to entertainment assets. Warner Music Group stores hundreds of thousands of master recordings in Iron Mountain’s Southern California facilities, and nearly all of Sony Music Entertainment’s United States masters holdings — more than a million recordings — are reportedly kept in Iron Mountain warehouses in Rosendale, N.Y. The Boyers, Pa., facility where UMG keeps most of its United States masters is a 1.7-million-square-foot former limestone mine. The facility offers optimal archive conditions, climate control and armed guards.
For labels, Iron Mountain is a one-stop shop. In addition to providing storage, it runs on-site studios, so staff members can pull tapes and send digital transfers to labels online, avoiding any need for recordings to leave the premises. Yet some music-business insiders regard this arrangement as a mixed bargain. When masters arrive at Iron Mountain, they say, institutional memory — archivists’ firsthand knowledge of poorly inventoried stacks — evaporates, as does the possibility of finding lost material, either by dogged digging or chance discovery. (Many treasures in tape vaults have been stumbled upon by accident.) Tapes can be retrieved only when requested by bar-code number, and labels pay fees for each request. For years, rumors have circulated among insiders about legendary albums whose masters have gone missing in Iron Mountain because labels recorded incorrect bar-code numbers. The kind of mass tape-pull that would be necessary to unearth lost recordings is both financially and logistically impractical.

“I’ve always thought of Iron Mountain as that warehouse in the last scene of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ” says Thane Tierney, who co-founded Universal’s now-defunct reissue label Hip-O Select. “Just endless rows of stuff. It’s perfectly safe, but there’s no access, no possibility of serendipity. Nearly all the tapes that go in will never come off the shelf. They’re lost to history.”

There are other institutions devoted to preserving sound recordings. In January 2011, the recorded-sound section of the Library of Congress announced its largest-ever acquisition: approximately 200,000 metal parts, aluminum and glass lacquer disc masters, donated by Universal Music Group. The recordings, dating from 1926 to 1948, are among the oldest extant masters in UMG’s catalog. Physical ownership of the masters was permanently transferred from UMG to the federal government; UMG retained the intellectual-property rights. The library is free to preserve the recordings, digitize them and make them available to scholars. The label can continue to exploit them commercially. For the label, it’s a great deal, transferring preservation responsibility for some of its most fragile assets while saving on storage costs.

Today, of course, a seemingly infinite music library sits at the fingertips of every smartphone owner. The rise of Napster and file sharing in the early 2000s decimated the music business; as recently as 2015, the industry was widely judged to have been broken by digital piracy. But with the rise of streaming, a new era has arrived. In each of the past three years, recorded-music retail revenues have surged by more than 10 percent, with the Recording Industry Association of America reporting $9.85 billion in revenue for 2018. A full 75 percent of that revenue came from streaming, and more than half of the total went to UMG, in what Billboard described as possibly “the most dominant year by a music company in modern history.”

This streaming boom is only the latest in a long history of technological upheavals in the music industry. Shifts in format — from wax cylinders to shellac discs to LPs to CDs and MP3s and now streaming — arrive periodically to transform the record trade. The newest development is a shift within a shift, the advent of high-resolution audio, with streaming services offering premium products built on high-quality sound. The platform Tidal recently started a subscription product called Tidal Masters, described by the company as “the ultimate audio experience … thousands of master-quality songs.” As in the CD era, the industry is trading on the mystique of masters — and once again it is running up against the imperative of keeping those original recordings around and in good shape. To deliver “master quality” audio, you must return to the masters. The loss and discovery of these ur-recordings is a perennial topic of interest in music news: In the past few weeks, Prince fans savored the release of a new collection of classic song demos pulled from his vault, while Mike D of the Beastie Boys made news by revealing that the masters of their hugely popular 1986 debut album cannot be located.

The resurgence of the record industry in the streaming era would seem to bode well for the cause of preservation. In 2017, Bruce Resnikoff, the head of UMG’s catalog division, told Billboard that “the catalog business is having its biggest expansion since the CD.” A report by BuzzAngle, which analyzes online music consumption, found that about half the music streamed on demand in the United States last year was “deep catalog,” songs three or more years old. A catalog boom could theoretically push labels to digitize more archival recordings. But a question remains as to how deep “deep catalog” extends. The old songs most listeners are streaming are either recent hits or classics by huge artists like the Beatles and Bob Marley. Labels may not see much incentive to digitize less-popular material.
Some view digitization as a moral imperative. Archiving failures have left untold numbers of analog masters damaged and in states of decay. Gerald Seligman, the National Recording Preservation Foundation director, sees a ticking time-bomb scenario: Endangered masters need to be identified and transferred before they are no longer playable. “The figure I hear is about 10 years,” Seligman says. “That’s the window we have to digitize massive amounts of music on improperly-cared-for perishable media.”

But digital recordings are perishable in their own right — far less stable, in fact, than recordings on magnetic tape. A damaged analog tape is not necessarily a lost cause: An engineer may be able to perform restoration work and get the recording to play. But when a digital medium is compromised, it is most likely gone. Many masters from recent decades are kept on hard drives, notoriously fragile mechanisms that may not function after sitting for years in a vault. Today, labels increasingly rely on digital-tape formats like LTO. But LTO is backward compatible for just two generations. Labels must either continually retransfer their archives or maintain outdated playback equipment.

All these problems are exacerbated by the structure of the music business, in which hundreds of labels have been consolidated into three huge ones, which in turn have been absorbed by global conglomerates. The necessity of safeguarding a sound-recording heritage may appear abstract to executives at a distant parent company, who may simply see an expense on a balance sheet marked “Storage.”

The fate of millions of recordings does finally come down to blunt cost-benefit judgments. To invest in comprehensive preservation and digitization programs is not cheap, but it’s not beyond the means of UMG or the other major labels. “It all comes down to funding and priorities,” Seligman says. Eleven years after the fire, UMG defends its commitment to conservation. “In the last five years alone,” its statement says, “we have more than doubled our investment in storage, preservation and metadata enrichment while developing state-of-the-art systems to support our global efforts around capturing, preserving and future-proofing our many media assets.”

Even critics concede that to cast blame solely on penurious corporations is to ignore a bigger picture. In recent decades, the cause of film preservation has made strides, spurred in part by the politicking and largess of individuals like the movie director Martin Scorsese, who has embraced preservation as a crusade. No analogous effort has taken place within music. Artists famous for activism around masters, like Prince, have construed the issue strictly as a labor-versus-management struggle, a matter of individual artists’ rights, not as a question of collective cultural patrimony. The most prominent musician to advocate for sound preservation on broader historical grounds is the singer-songwriter Jack White, who donated $200,000 to the National Recording Preservation Foundation and sat on its board.

“People who have made fortunes in film have been more interested in contributing toward preservation than those who’ve made fortunes in music,” Seligman says. “It’s viewed as a niche issue, when in fact it’s an existential issue. Musicians themselves don’t seem to understand what’s at stake.”

  1. The Shadow Canon
    Until recently, Randy Aronson never listened to streaming music. Now he is one of Spotify’s reported 100 million subscribers. “The music sounds like it was mastered in a Coke can,” he says. “But on long drives, it’s the best.”

The past couple of years have brought changes for Aronson. The new archiving job he’d hoped for never materialized. Now, he says, “My enthusiasm for the music business has dimmed.” In September 2017, Aronson and his wife, Jamie, sold their house, bought a trailer, and drove nearly 650 miles to Humboldt County, on the Northern California coast. Today they live in the trailer, in a campground near a state park. Jamie works in the health care industry. For a while, Aronson worked as a security guard in a shopping mall. He recently started a new job as a project coordinator at a nonprofit that serves low-income residents of Humboldt.

Aronson still broods about the Universal fire. He reflects on his earliest days at MCA. “When I saw those names on the tape-box bindings, my mind reeled,” he said recently. “There’s Elton John, there’s Steely Dan. Here I am with Chuck [expletive] Berry.” Aronson recalls the Bing Crosby tapes, the Ella Fitzgerald tapes, the Louis Armstrong tapes. “The disappointment and responsibility I feel is sometimes overwhelming,” he said.

Some of the sharpest pangs come when Aronson’s thoughts drift to lesser-known records. A loss that hits him hard, he says, are the tapes of Moms Mabley, the pioneering black female comedian who released 16 LPs for Chess in the 1960s. “It’s not like Moms was selling in huge numbers,” he says. “I doubt there’s many copies out there.”

There are more mysterious losses. “So many things would come to the vault straight from studios and get shelved,” he says. “You know, Nirvana production masters with extra songs no one ever heard. There were Chess boxes that just said, ‘Session.’ Often there was no other info, no metadata. Who knows what was on those tapes? We’ll never know.”

The specter of these unknowns hovers over the Universal disaster. But many of the destroyed recordings fit a different profile. They were, you might say, super-deep catalog: masters for thousands of also-rans, records that neither clicked commercially nor achieved cult status and slipped through the historiographical cracks. Even if a massive digitization program had been in place, it would likely not have extended to forgotten bubble-gum singles, disco one-offs and other long-lost nonstarters.

A skeptic might argue that this is as it should be. In the 140-odd years since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, countless recordings have been made under the auspices of record companies. To conserve anything close to all those recordings has proved impossible; it may not even be desirable. The caretaking of canonical material, the Bings and Billies and Nirvanas, must naturally take priority. To ask that the same level of attention be lavished on all music, including stuff that holds interest only for obscurantists, is to demand a preservation standard that prevails in no other area of culture. If the sole vestiges of thousands of old recordings are a few stray 45s lining the shelves of collectors — perhaps that’s not a cultural tragedy, perhaps that’s a commercial-art ecosystem functioning properly.

Perhaps. But history holds a counterargument. Many recordings were ignored for decades, only to be rediscovered and enshrined as Imperishable Art. The Velvet Underground were a commercial bust in the late 1960s and early ’70s but have proved to be one of the most influential groups in history. Then there’s Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who recorded three LPs of dreamy jazz-inflected folk between 1969 and 1972, before his death at age 26. During Drake’s lifetime, his albums sold modestly. A cult fan base developed following the release of a box set; in 1999, Drake’s song “Pink Moon” appeared in a Volkswagen commercial, and sales went through the roof. All three of Drake’s LPs were included in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2005 tally of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

“The music business intercepted about a century’s worth of sounds, the vast majority of which it lost money on,” says Andy Zax, the producer and writer. “Much of that music, at any given moment, may seem dated, irrelevant, terrible. The most powerful argument for preservation is simply: ‘We don’t know.’ The sounds from the past that seem vital to us in the present keep changing. Since we don’t know what’s going to be important, we have to err on the side of inclusivity and insist that the entities that own our cultural history do the same.”

Recently I’ve been on a hunt — rooting through used record stores and scouring the internet to find rarities whose master tapes burned in the UMG fire. Some of these records were reissued and have found their way onto streaming services. The music may have trickled online elsewhere, preserved by some private enthusiast: Someone uploaded a song or two to YouTube or digitized an LP and posted it on a blog. Often the recordings are available only on the vinyl that was sent out to record shops decades ago.

I’ve discovered the riches of labels I’d never heard of: Back Beat, Argo, Nashboro. I’ve listened to gospel and blues on Peacock, to psychedelic rock on Probe. I took a particular interest in AVI Records, whose catalog includes a bit of everything: rock and funk and soul, a slew of disco singles, more than two dozen Liberace LPs. As a teenager, I was a rabid record collector; later, I worked as a pop critic, laboring under the impression that my grasp of music history was firm. But tracking down remnants of the UMG disaster has been a lesson in the limits of standard historical narratives and a reminder of music’s illimitable plenteousness. The vault on the Universal lot housed another history, a shadow canon of 20th-century pop.

AVI Records was hit hard by the backlot fire. According to UMG documents, AVI’s entire catalog of 9,866 tapes was destroyed. One of those tapes was the master for an LP by Don Bennett, “The Prince Teddy Album,” released in 1977. Bennett is a fascinating figure who straddled musical worlds. He grew up in Pasadena. In his early 20s, he began writing and arranging soul-flavored pop records by independent artists. Bennett was black, but he defied the music industry’s racial typecasting. Around 1967, he drifted into Los Angeles’s garage-rock scene; he did arrangement work on records by the renowned L.A. band the Standells and can be heard singing lead vocals on some recordings by another influential group, the Chocolate Watchband. Bennett also has writing credits on songs by both bands, including what may qualify as the earliest musical sendup of hippie counterculture and one of the first punk-rock-like sentiments ever recorded, the Chocolate Watchband’s “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-In)?”
The bulk of Bennett’s musical production dates from a 10-year period between the late 1960s and late 1970s. He formed a pop-soul band that recorded one single and led a hard-rock trio that released two albums. But Bennett released no recordings after 1978. According to one of his former bandmates in Los Angeles, Bennett died sometime in the late 1990s. You won’t find his name in history books, but if you dig into his scattered discography you meet an original: a musician who combined a command of craft with an insurgent’s flair for the impish and odd — the kind of weirdness that can’t be faked.

“The Prince Teddy Album” was Bennett’s fullest musical statement that ever saw commercial release. Today it is a musical endangered species. It was never reissued, and its digital footprint appears to comprise just two and a half songs, posted to YouTube by users who, evidently, made transfers from the vinyl. Those songs were enough to pique my interest: Last year I bought the LP online for $75. At the time, there were just a few copies for sale; it’s unlikely that many more copies are out there. It turned out to be one of the great impulse purchases of my life. The album throws together muscular funk, blasts of electric guitar, eerie synthesizer undulations, lush Philadelphia soul. The inspiration of Sly Stone and George Clinton is audible in Bennett’s singing and in the woozy blend of genres. But a list of influences doesn’t tell the tale: The cleverness of the songwriting and arrangements, the slightly shaggy singing and playing — it seems to originate from its own musical planet.

The tone is set by the album-opening song, “Don’t Wanna Spoil Your High.” It begins with a dissonant rumble from a keyboard, which gives way to a chugging groove. A choir of female vocalists hoots in the distance, and Bennett’s voice rises over theirs, cajoling and cackling, as if amused by the sound he’s making and the words he’s singing. The lyrics are enigmatic: “Don’t let the facts upset you/Nobody’s out to get you/I don’t want to spoil your high/But they’ll get you by and by.” The song seems to be executing several agendas simultaneously: It’s a consolation and a threat, a party invitation, a druggie hallucination, a prophecy, a gag.

I’ve played the song dozens of times, strapping on headphones and letting the needle drop on the still pristine LP. Each time, I’m struck by the loss of Don Bennett, a singular musician who left behind so few traces, and by the disappearance in the Universal fire of an unfathomable number of other recordings, some of which may survive only on stray scraps of vinyl, many of which may no longer exist at all, in any form, anywhere. But listening to “Don’t Wanna Spoil Your High,” I’m struck also by Bennett’s uncanny presence: his gruff half-laughing voice, captured by recording-studio science in the late 1970s and still crackling with life in 2019, transmitting a message across the gulf of time and space.

“I’m speaking my words of wisdom, gonna make it very clear,” Bennett sings. “Bend your head right over, baby, I’ll whisper in your ear.”
Correction: June 14, 2019
An earlier version of a credit for a photograph of Chuck Berry in a studio in 1971 omitted the name of the photographer. He is Jeff Lowenthal.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/universal-fire-master-recordings.html

 

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