UMG Kept a Secret List of Masters Destroyed In the Fire — The New York Times Just Published It

UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge in 2018.
  • Save

UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge in 2018.
  • Save
UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, who promised complete ‘transparency’ to affected artists last week (photo: Luke Harold).

Previously, Universal Music Group had refused to disclose any list detailing its losses in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.

Now, the New York Times is releasing it for them.

Late Tuesday, Times investigatory reporter Jody Rosen released a list of more than 700 artists impacted by the 2008 Universal Studios fire.  Those artists were tracked in a confidential list maintained by Universal Music Group, and subsequently leaked.

Rosen wrote the original report on the fire, titled “The Day the Music Burned.”  That report contained the names of 100 artists whose masters were believed to have been destroyed in the blaze.

The latest report adds 700 additional names to that original list.  Appropriately, the follow-up article is titled “Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire.”  Scroll down to the bottom, and you’ll be treated to an exhaustive (and depressing) list of artists whose masters were included in the confidential file.

In total, it’s estimated that half-a-million masters and other recorded materials were destroyed in the inferno.

The forced disclosure follows a promise by Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge to be totally ‘transparent’ to its artists with regards to masters destroyed in the fire.

“So, let me be clear: we owe our artists transparency. We owe them answers,” Grainge stated while downplaying the actual damages.

Since that statement, however, there’s been little disclosure on the affected masters.  In fact, Grainge’s statement now looks like part of a continued effort to cover up the catastrophic damages.

Perhaps motivated by Grainge’s deflection, more information leaked.

Rosen unearthed the presence of an internal, confidential tracking effort called ‘Project Phoenix,’ one that quickly circulated in the days after the ’08 fire.  That confidential effort was designed to catalog the losses and seek replacements or duplicates to destroyed versions.

“The names were gleaned from UMG’s own lists, assembled during the company’s ‘Project Phoenix’ recovery effort, a global search for replacement copies and duplicates of destroyed masters,” Rosen noted.

Artists were bucketed into an ‘A’ list and a ‘B’ list, based on their perceived importance.  Rosen explains:

On one list, artists were assigned letter-grade rankings, with higher marks given to those deemed most important. Artists graded “A” include historic figures (Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell) and best-selling acts of the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s (Belinda Carlisle, Meat Loaf, Weezer, Limp Bizkit, Gwen Stefani, Blink 182).

Captain and Tennille, Chuck Mangione, Whitesnake, Sublime, White Zombie, Nelly Furtado and the Pussycat Dolls [also] received A ratings. Les Paul, Merle Haggard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alice Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, the Neville Brothers and the Roots were given Bs.

The article also interviews key artists whose masters were destroyed in the blaze.

That includes Bryan Adams, who says Universal Music Group was mysteriously unable to locate his collection of masters from his ultra-successful album, Reckless.  Adams was attempting to compile a re-release with unreleased tracks and outtakes.

“I called everyone, former A&M employees, directors, producers, photographers, production houses, editors, even assistants of producers at the time,” Adams relayed. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I couldn’t find anything at Universal that had been published to do with my association with A&M records in the 1980s.”

Courtney Love, who is now part of a $100 million lawsuit filed on Friday against UMG, had extremely sharp words for the cover-up.  “No one knows for sure yet, specifically what is gone from their estate, their catalog,” Love said.  “But for once in a horrible way people believe me about the state of the music business which I would not wish on my worst enemy.

“Our culture has been devastated, meanwhile UMG is online with cookie recipes and pop, as if nothing happened. It’s so horrible.”

Here’s a quick sampling of the artists listed on the Times’ expanded list of 700 artists:

Aerosmith, the Andrews Sisters, Joan Baez, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Beck, Chuck Berry, Mary J. Blige, Blink 182, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Buffett, T Bone Burnett, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Sheryl Crow, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Peter Frampton, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland, Amy Grant, Al Green, Guns N’ Roses, Don Henley, Hole, Janet Jackson, Jodeci, Elton John, George Jones, Toby Keith, Ramsey Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meat Loaf, Charles Mingus, Bill Monroe, Wes Montgomery, No Doubt, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Oingo Boingo, Tom Petty, the Police, Sun Ra, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Steely Dan, George Strait, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ernest Tubb, Weezer, Kitty Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, Neil Young and Rob Zombie.

The complete list is here (scroll down).

4 Responses

  1. Blobbo

    I wish someone would discuss how many of these tapes were still even salvageable before the fire. I’ve dealt with Ampex tapes that have degraded in 25 years, let alone 50 or more. The material post 1980s was well mixed and recorded, so its loss isn’t quite as critical as the truly classic jazz and pop material pre 1970 but the real question is why wasn’t all this material digitized already?

    • Neil Schubert

      I have dealt with Ampex tapes and through the proper re-curing processes, they should be playable, like new. We’d all love it if everyone used Maxell or Scotch. Sometimes they are just too far gone and they flake all over no matter what.

      I am going to bet that alot of tapes that were lost in the UMG fire are U-matic digital masters that are already in compact disc format.

      UMG should be sued to the point at which the loose their license to the artist’s works that they neglected. Did any of these facilities have fire protection equipment, like sprinklers or dust type fire protection equipment? Universal has had this happen 3 times, once in the 60’s, once in 1990, and now in 2008.

      First pressing vinyl, promo copies, etc are all that are left for some of these works.

  2. Neil Schubert

    By sometimes they are just too far gone, I was referring to Ampex tape stored too tight, which sticks to its backcoat and flakes. Scotch 111 is usually fine, 211 pro pack scotch which is a ferrite surface with a silicone back coat, usually fairs well in humid conditions. These master recordings should never have been in an archive in California. LA is a terrible place for an archive.

  3. Anonymous

    I would like to suggest that someone investigate whether the cause of this fire was accidental or intentional. No fire protection equipment? How does a fire like this happen?

    Look at it like this. Many of the artists who’s recordings were destroyed, are not current hip-hop ghetto music artists. The artists who’s recordings were destroyed were artists of the past. And when your company is sitting on a huge piece of reel estate (pun intended) that isn’t bringing any money in, if it all burns down, does this create a loss or a profit for a failing record company?

    Yea, they put all of the old stuff in the “back lot”?? How about a bunch of Standard Definition TV programs? How many buildings burned down? Really? These were critical master recordings of old stuff that the label couldn’t sell well, as well as stuff that was already out. How many of these were damaged or unplayable sticky-shed tapes? There was an accident and it all just burned?

    Something smells bad, and it isn’t the white mold on the edge of the tapes!