UMG confirms 19 artists recordings lost, damaged during Universal Studios fire

Rolling Stone obtains legal docs against UMG

Universal Music Group (UMG) has confirmed that recordings by Elton John, Nirvana, Beck are among 19 specific artists whose recordings were damaged or destroyed during a backlot fire on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot in 2008. This is the first time the label has specifically named artists who were affected by the blaze that destroyed parts of the famed lot, including the 22,320-square-foot video vault that housed thousands of master recordings as well as film and TV masters.

Rolling Stone has obtained legal documents from a $100 million class action lawsuit artists filed against the label that specifically states John, Nirvana, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden, R.E.M., …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bryan Adams, David Baerwald, Jimmy Eat World, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald, Slayer, Sonic Youth, Suzanne Vega, Surfaris, White Zombie and Y&T all having suffered losses.

An initial investigation by the New York Times last summer revealed that more than 500 thousand masters of singles and albums from some of the most popular artists of the 20th and 21st Century were included in the blaze, despite the company assuring that losses were minimal. The report also stated that tens of thousands of masters by artists largely forgotten across gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word may also no longer exist.

The class action lawsuit stems from disputes with lawyers for the artists seeking to obtain a complete list of damaged or lost recordings after UMG initially claimed the fire included “17,000 unique artist names on the list of purportedly lost original music recordings.” However, UMG later said that list “identified myriad potentially lost assets,” including non original master recordings.

“Universal claimed 17,000 artists were affected by the fire when they were suing for damages Now that they face a lawsuit by their artists, they claim a mere 19 artists were affected. This discrepancy is inexplicable,” states Howard King, one of the lawyers representing artists in the class action suit.

None of the affected artists have commented on the matter as of press time, but a UMG spokesperson tells Rolling Stone, “The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already been informed that none of the masters for four of their five clients were affected by the fire — and the one other client was alerted years earlier and UMG and the artist, working together, were still able to locate a high-quality source for a reissue project. Recognizing the lack of merit of their original claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys are now willfully and irresponsibly conflating lost assets (everything from safeties and videos to artwork) with original album masters, in a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case. Over the last eight months, UMG’s archive team has diligently and transparently responded to artist inquiries, and we will not be distracted from completing our work, even as the plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue these baseless claims.”

Specific recordings are not mentioned in filing, but it does quote an alleged UMG response confirming that “certain original master recordings” belonging to Beck, Adams, John, Y&T and Nirvana were “affected” by the blaze. However, the label claims that it has replacement copies and/or safety copies of the affected recordings belonging to Adams, Nirvana, Y&T and Beck, while it works with John to “determine the extent of such impact.”

It also reveals that “certain original multitrack master reels” of live Sonic Youth performances were affected, with no mention of any back-ups. “An original master recording” belonging to Frampton, a half-inch “flat original master recording” belonging to Slayer, “certain multitrack drum work tapes” from Michael McDonald, and an original master recording of a radio transcription belonging to Les Paul were also mentioned without backups.

UMG claims it does have backup copies for …And You Know Us by the Trail of Dead, R.E.M. and Sheryl Crow an clones for digital master recordings belonging to Jimmy Eat World and White Zombie.

The label claims it informed Soundgarden in 2015 that it lost some of the stereo masters to Badmotorfinger in the blaze.

Author: Buddy Iahn

Buddy Iahn founded The Music Universe when he decided to juxtapose his love of web design and music. As a lifelong drummer, he decided to take a hiatus from playing music to report it. The website began as a fun project in 2013 to one of the top independent news sites.