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From Chuck Berry To Tupac Shakur: Taking Stock Of The 2008 Universal Fire

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 6:16 am

In 2008, fire swept through a Universal Studios Hollywood backlot. The loss was thought to be a few movie sets and film duplicates. But earlier this week, The New York Times published a report revealing that the 2008 fire burned hundreds of thousands of master recordings of genre-spanning, legendary music from the late 1940s to the early '80s as well as digital formats and hard drives from the late '80s up through the early 2000s.

According to the report, the fire burned original recordings of work by artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, 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, The Roots and more.

An aerial view of part of the Universal Studios backlot where a fire broke out on June 1, 2008, and burned out sites on 3 1/2 acres of the 391-acre property.
Gary Friedman / LA Times via Getty Images

Reporter Jody Rosen has been investigating the loss for The New York Times and in his report, calls this fire "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business." In taking stock of the fire's damage, Rosen notes that it wasn't just original music that burned up.

"There were many, many what are called flat masters — that is the master tape of an album that was put out commercially," Rosen explains. "There were also, yes, a number of session tapes of various sorts — unreleased material, outtakes, maybe even studio chatter from various recording sessions that were here. There were demos in the vault and there were various types of master recordings."

In his report, Rosen likens a master recording to that of an original painting and says that more than the monetary value, the damage to our shared cultural heritage is the great tragedy of the situation. For example, Rosen says the hallowed Chicago blues label Chess Records, home of greats like Chuck Berry, lost virtually all of its master recordings.

"Now that we don't have that master, you know," Rosen says of Berry's lost tapes, "subsequent versions will have inferior quality sound because we won't be able to go back to the true masters."

Universal Music Group has issued an official response to the report, writing, in part:

Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record. 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. 

Rosen thinks that UMG likely covered up this momentous loss of this fire for 11 years out of embarrassment.

"It's not something you wanted to toot your horn about," Rosen says. "I think they were especially concerned about the reaction of artists. I think a lot of artists would have felt betrayed, upset by the idea that this material that they prized was not properly cared for. It's not good for even a record company as powerful as Universal Music Group, which is the world's largest record company and today which owns more than 50% market share. But still, they don't want famous musicians mad at them and talking about it in the press."

So far, musicians like Questlove of The Roots and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana have already reacted to the report. Questlove shared the article on Twitter with the precursor: "For everyone asking why Do You Want More & Illdelph Halflife wont get reissue treatment" while Novoselic told a fan he thinks the masters to Nevermind are "gone forever." R.E.M.'s official Twitter account issued a statement to fans, writing, "We are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band's music, if any. We will detail further as and when."

As he was researching his article, Rosen went down a rabbit hole of music discovery, he says. He would latch on to music from lesser-known artists, subgenres and labels that was lost in the fire. "That's the stuff that I really mourn because those things are true endangered species," he says.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in 2008...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And we continue to cover breaking news out of Universal City, where a fire is burning on the Universal backlot.

CORNISH: The fire was enormous, about the equivalent of an entire city block. People all over Los Angeles could see the smoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The blaze burned for some 12 hours with 400 firefighters battling to keep it from spreading.

CORNISH: News reports at the time largely talked about damage to old movie sets and a film archive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It damaged a video vault while studio employees scrambled to save some of the 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels stored there.

CORNISH: But there was little mention of music. One of Universal Music Group's main archives was destroyed in the blaze, and it was full of priceless original recordings from dozens of artists.

JODY ROSEN: Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting...

CORNISH: Jody Rosen from The New York Times has been investigating this loss. He calls it the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.

ROSEN: Those are just a few of the names.

CORNISH: I started by asking him what kinds of artifacts were lost to the fire.

ROSEN: There were many, many what are called flat masters. That is the - just the master tape of an album that was put out commercially. There were also a number of outtakes, unreleased material, maybe even studio chatter from various recording sessions. There were demos in the vault.

CORNISH: So can you give us an example of an item you believe is lost and the cultural heritage that might be going with it?

ROSEN: Yeah, let's - why don't we take a look at the catalog of Chuck Berry?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK BERRY SONG, "JOHNNY B GOODE")

ROSEN: Virtually all of the master recordings for the great Chicago blues label Chess burnt up in this fire. That includes all of Chuck Berry's most historically important recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens...

ROSEN: Now that we don't have that master, subsequent versions will have inferior quality sound because we won't be able to go back to the true masters. The other thing is that there may well have been other Chuck Berry material in that vault which was never released, and that's a great loss.

CORNISH: Right. Even the conversation that happens in those sessions helps us to understand how the artist was thinking, the creative process.

ROSEN: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B GOODE")

BERRY: (Singing) Go; go. Go, Johnny.

CORNISH: Why do you think you UMG essentially covered this up?

ROSEN: I think there a couple reasons. I think it was an embarrassing incident. It's not something you want to toot your horn about. But I think they're especially concerned about the reaction of artists. You know, I think a lot of artists would've felt betrayed, upset by the idea that this material that they prized was not properly cared for. And it's not good for even a record company as powerful as Universal Music Group, which is the world's largest record company and today which owns, like, more than 50 percent market share. But still, they don't want famous musicians mad at them, and that's no fun.

CORNISH: How has UMG responded to your reporting?

ROSEN: They've pushed back. You know, they've released a statement saying that they think that the article overstated the case, that it contains inaccuracies. But they haven't been specific about those inaccuracies. What they've said is, hey, look; we've put out a lot of these reissues in the years since. And so if we're putting out reissues and they sound good, effectively there's no loss here. You know, their argument really is that the master itself doesn't matter as long as there's a duplicate somewhere. And for reasons I spell out at some length in the article, I don't think that's a legitimate critique.

The one other thing I'd say about it is the idea that this article was overstated or overly dramatic or made too much of this incident - well, you know, the most dramatic words in this piece came straight out of UMG's own documents, which were documents that I obtained along the way in my reporting. It was UMG itself that said the West Coast vault perished in its entirety - that's a quote - and that in the process, a great musical heritage was lost.

CORNISH: It's hard to take in all that might have been lost in this fire, but was there, like, one song or record that you kept thinking about while you were reporting that we can maybe play and think about?

ROSEN: Look; we'll always in theory be able to hear "Johnny B. Goode." But it's the material that may have been put out on a single vinyl album and then that album flopped and now may exist only in a few stray vinyl copies - that's the stuff that I really mourn because those things are true endangered species. So one person that I discovered was a man named Don Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA SPOIL YOUR HIGH")

DON BENNETT: OK.

ROSEN: This album was called "The Prince Teddy Album." It was released in 1977. There's a song on it which is one I especially like. It's the first song on the album called "Don't Wanna Spoil Your High."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA SPOIL YOUR HIGH")

BENNETT: (Singing) Yeah, you never listen to nobody.

ROSEN: It's kind of a very weird funk, soul song that has shades of Sly Stone and other artists. But it's really its own weird, incredible thing. And the version I have on the vinyl is really one of the few ways you can hear it anywhere these days. So that's a piece of music that I listen to a lot and think about the toll of this fire when I - when I'm listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA SPOIL YOUR HIGH")

BENNETT: (Singing) I don't want to spoil your high, but they'll get you by and by, oh, yeah.

CORNISH: Jody Rosen wrote about all this for The New York Times. Thank you for speaking with us.

ROSEN: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA SPOIL YOUR HIGH")

BENNETT: (Singing) You never listen to nobody.

CORNISH: We reached out to Universal Music Group about this article. In a written response, a company representative said that music preservation is of the highest priority for UMG and that the company is proud of its record. He said the fire was unfortunate but never affected the availability of commercially released music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA SPOIL YOUR HIGH")

BENNETT: (Singing) Give you the facts, mama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.