Update Note: The lawsuit against regarding the Universal fire has now been dismissed.
Though the blaze occurred on Jun. 1, 2008, the incident is far from over. Last month, Odelay rocker Beck announced an irretrievable loss of unreleased music due to the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot fire 11 years ago, which also consumed Building 6197, a video and television warehouse vault where original audio master recordings were kept. Beck is not alone, as The New York Times revealed in an eye-opening June 2019 article.
According to The New York Times piece, the Universal Studios fire originated on the roof of a building repaired by maintenance workers, while using a blowtorch. Narratively speaking, though the workers finished the assigned task and followed standard procedure by staying on the job site for inspection after completion, a fire ensued anyway, reaching Building 6197. Though Variety reports 500,000 master recordings were destroyed, the precise number lost is not accurately known and has become a legal issue. As litigation continues, in early December a California judge ruled Universal Music Group cannot defer when providing requested information about the recordings that were potentially destroyed by the 2008 fire.
Universal, which owns most of the music, maintains the company still has not accounted for all the lost recordings from the fire. The vague number of lost master recordings is hard to explain. What is clear, Universal Music Group, a tenant on the studio lot, eventually filed a negligence lawsuit versus the landlord and parent company, NBC Universal. The case was settled out of court during 2013 and the records were redacted and sealed, contributing to the overall public ambiguity. At the heart of the matter are original master recordings spanning decades. An analogy would be like losing scores of unique, often historical photographic negatives, forever. The Times describes the masters as, “The original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived” and a “One-of-a-kind artifact.” Notwithstanding copies, there is only one original and the corresponding qualities with being just that.
About the fire, on Nov. 27, 2019, BBC News quoted musician Sheryl Crow saying, “I can’t understand, first and foremost, how you could store anything in a vault that didn’t have sprinklers … Secondly, I can’t understand how you could make safeties [back-up copies] and have them in the same vault.” Crows’ comments raise questions of risk management regarding the master recordings. Asking if the roof workers were trained in fire inspection may be a bit of Monday morning armchair quarterbacking. But addressing risk control and the severity of loss concerning valuable, irreplaceable master tape recordings is only logical.
Barring hold harmless clauses and contractual liabilities, hypothetically speaking, with such a treasury of archives on hand, why were so many tracks housed together in a single place? While not exhibiting a high loss frequency profile, considering all of the famous musicians’ recordings involved, the potential for loss severity, evidently was there, needing attention. Rare occurrences can be costly. And while corporate responsibilities led the wherewithal to separate the exposure of some master recordings before the incident, was Building 6197, a video warehouse, built to safely accommodate music storage, especially in an emergency? Why has accurately reporting the inventory of master recording losses been so difficult? Thoughts of the ancient Egyptian library at Alexandria come to mind. Like the warehouse vault in Building 6197, the famous library housed priceless archives lost forever due to a fire. The exact losses from the Alexandria library blaze in 48 BC, like the Universal fire, remain unknown. Perhaps the public will never know what the pre- and post-event risk reduction measures looked like before the Universal fire claimed many master recordings. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit stemming from the fire continues against Universal Music Group.
Paul Wolfle is the publisher of musicinterviewmagazine.com and a web-based journalist who has written for several popular sites. Paul has a passion for connecting with a diversity of musicians who are looking to grow a positive presence on the World Wide Web.