Thousands of master recordings were destroyed in a June 1, 2008 fire at Universal Music Group's Vault on Universal Studios that was, as The New York Times put it in a massive feature published today, "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business." Among the masters lost in the fire were ones by Al Green, Ray Charles, Elton John, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Eric Clapton, R.E.M. HOle, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, the Police, Sting, Steve Earle, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Roots.

The Universal Studios fire was widely reported at the time but mainly from a movies/television angle and the Universal Studio theme park. The music side was downplayed, with a UMG rep telling Deadline, "Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come." But the truth was, according to Randy Aronson who was senior director of vault operations at the time, “in the 175,000 range" of album and singles masters, totalling up to 500,000 song titles. “It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson told The NY Times. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.” It was an open secret that just never got widely reported till today. More from the Times article:

UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost.

The monetary value of this loss is difficult to calculate. Aronson recalls hearing that the company priced the combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” at $150 million. But in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering. It’s impossible to itemize, precisely, what music was on each tape or hard drive in the vault, which had no comprehensive inventory. It cannot be said exactly how many recordings were original masters or what type of master each recording was. But legal documents, UMG reports and the accounts of Aronson and others familiar with the vault’s collection leave little doubt that the losses were profound, taking in a sweeping cross-section of popular music history, from postwar hitmakers to present-day stars.

Read the whole fascinating and sad article at The New York Times.

Among those who hadn't heard about this disaster...some of the artists themselves. Hole told Pitchfork that they were “not aware until this morning,” and R.E.M. wrote that they "are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band’s music, if any."

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