The Fire

Written by Bill Leebens

I’m going to deviate from the standard Vintage Whine topics just this once—because just as important as the heritage of innovation and genius in the creation of audio gear is the heritage of innovation and genius in the creation of music. And to state the obvious: without the music, there is no point in creating, using, or preserving audio gear.

A sidebar: I was a student librarian from grade school all the way through high school. To me, taking care of books and records was almost a sacred trust. As an adult, I had a side-business buying and selling antiquarian books, old books with historic, scientific, or artistic importance. More than once I bought entire personal libraries, collected with care over decades, that were about to be dumped by heirs who had no understanding of what had been collected, or why. Such uncaring disregard horrified and angered me on a level I can’t even convey, almost as much as seeing a child mistreated.


So imagine that you were in charge of maintaining recordings of some of the great artists of modern times. As many of the artists are long dead, such recordings are irreplaceable. But equally irreplaceable are recordings made by living artists, as those recordings represent specific collaborations, specific vibes, recorded in a particular place at one particular point in time.

As the curator of such material, wouldn’t you do everything you could think of to preserve and protect that material for future generations? Wouldn’t you view it as almost a sacred trust?

I would. But as you probably know by now, many in the recording industry did not.

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times broke the story: “The Day the Music Burned.” If the title of the story was disturbing, what it revealed was far more disturbing: in June of 2008, fire destroyed a 22,000 square foot corrugated metal building on the backlot of Universal Studios. Within that building was a fenced-off 2,400 square foot area filled with 18′ high shelving. The shelving was storage of archival recording masters for UMG, the Universal Music Group. These days, the UMG conglomerate is the biggest record company in the world.

What was lost?

It’s almost easier to list what wasn’t lost. Analog tape masters from the very beginning of analog tape, all the way up to rap artists from the ’90s. Masters of many of the biggest-selling records of all time—from Hoagy Carmichael and Rosemary Clooney up through Peter Frampton and Barry Gibb all the way to Primus and Common—are gone. Louis, Ella, Joni, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters. Poof. A complete list may never be known, but the Times, once again, managed to piece together information from disparate sources. See if you can read this without becoming nauseous. I couldn’t.

There are plenty of questions floating around: First, why wasn’t valuable, irreplaceable material handled and stored with greater care? After all, much of the income of record companies comes from remastering, repackaging, and re-releasing material from their back catalogs. Common fiduciary sense would indicate that one should protect the money-makers. Second, how and why was the extensive loss concealed for 11 years? Many artists affected had no idea their assets had disappeared until they read about it in the first Times article. Third, what will the outcome of this mess be?

Well, there are several elements to consider with that last question. You can bet that artists who lost their masters will be seeking compensation of some sort; one class action suit has already been filed, and it’s likely the first of many. Prickly questions regarding who actually owned the masters—the artist, their label, the group—could drag out for years, and the answers may well vary on an artist-by-artist basis.

And here’s a particularly sticky and potentially ugly question, on top of all the others: did Vivendi SA, the French media group that owns UMG, suppress the release of information of the lost masters in order to keep UMG’s valuation high, because they were planning to sell the group? Had they withheld that information and gone through with the sale, release of that information after the sale would likely result in suits seeking damages in the billions. Before the first Times story, UMG’s valuation was pegged at $50 billion. Now, the possibility of a sale is on hold until things shake out a bit.

In purely pragmatic terms, the disclosure of the losses is a disaster for UMG: credibility and trust of artists has essentially vaporized, and Vivendi Chairman Arnaud de Puyfontaine’s arrogant dismissal of concerns over the loss of priceless works of artistic merit as “just noise” has not helped the public perception of UMG or Vivendi.

Basically, it’s a cluster. Just how bad a cluster? We may know in a decade or so.

After all: it took longer than that for the news of the damage to become public.

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