The Universal Studios Fire In 2008 Destroyed an Estimated 500,000 UMG Master Recordings — “The Biggest Disaster in the History of the Music Business”

Universal Studios Fire
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Universal Studios Fire
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photo: Pinguino K (CC by 2.0)

Universal’s 2008 fire reportedly destroyed 500,000 recordings, including Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eminem master tapes, according to the New York Times.  UMG says the report isn’t entirely accurate.

Additional information concerning the tragic 2008 fire at Universal Studios has recently emerged, with the New York Times describing a massive and depressing loss.

Per internal Universal Music Group (UMG) documents obtained by the Times, over 175,000 master tapes perished in the blaze. These tapes, which were not backed up, are estimated to have stored more than 500,000 songs, including tracks from all-time greats like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, amongst many others.

This element of the fire’s damage wasn’t previously known to the public. The physical destruction, however, was widely reported in the media, and it included the Courthouse Square set (featured in many movies and television shows, including Back to the Future) and a mechanical King Kong replica, which was part of an amusement ride.

More modern-day icons like Eminem also had material obliterated. The Times noted that Universal Music Group kept the losses an “open secret,” while hiding “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

The fire was accidentally started by roofers using blowtorches while performing a job. These individuals watched the area for an hour after completing their work, as they are trained to do, but the heat applied to the roof did not dissipate, and the fire broke out soon after the roofers left the site.

Once again, both public and internal comments at the time indicated that valuable masters weren’t lost.

It’s unclear why exactly Universal Music Group painted such an encouraging picture to the public (and took so long to reveal the truth), but in addition to the aforementioned artists’ master tapes, original, irreplaceable recordings of the Andrew Sisters, Chuck Berry, Neil Diamond, Elton John, Tom Petty, Nirvana, and many other groups and musicians, were also reportedly destroyed.

As the Times piece started spreading, UMG initiated a PR counter-offensive.

In a statement issued to Variety, the mega-label chastised the Times piece for “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,” 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.”

Interestingly, Universal doesn’t seem to be disputing the actual destruction of the masters themselves. But the label is attempting to minimize the losses by pointing to backups, optimized copies and remasters. A Chuck Berry original recording is priceless, of course, but its loss doesn’t mean high-quality versions of the recording are also gone.

Though Universal Music Group is the largest and most successful record company in the world, the pieces of music history are simply irreplaceable.  And so are all the extras that accompany a master, including notes, extra outtakes, and other priceless bits.

While this fact is discouraging, it can be used to spur UMG professionals to take steps to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, both because of the wonderful art that was destroyed and because the fire, which took 24 hours to extinguish, could have resulted in the loss of human life.

4 Responses

  1. James Keith Norman

    Hopefully the original session recordings were stored somewhere else.

    • Blobbo

      THat won’t rescue the particular mixes that were on these tapes. Really unacceptable not to digitize every single recording by a Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald, because they are icons, and their early recordings would be the best starting point when implementing modern digitization and enhancement techniques. 2008 was a good deal earlier to today’s digitization capabilities, though that was a peak period in saving recordings, since the tape has been going bad a while.

      • James Keith Norman

        Maybe there are mix notes with the session recordings. If not, I’m sure some enterprising engineers could remix and create versions that sound darn close to the original masters, if need be. Maybe this is a great path for AI development. Just saying I find it hard to believe it’s all really lost.

  2. Ritch Esra

    Knowing something about the storage process of media, what kind of facility was this on the Universal Lot? These kinds of facilities ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DESIGNED to be completely FIRE PROOF, so that when a fire like the one that happened in 20018 DON’T DESTROY everything.
    This was just complete and utter incompetence on the part of Universal. They also lost a lot of their classic Film Catalogs as well.