2008 Universal Studios fire

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2008 Universal Studios fire
A large plume of gray smoke rises from a complex of buildings in a wooded area, seen from slightly above
The Courthouse facade (part of an often used town-square movie set) is visible to the left of the smoke plume from the 2008 fire.
DateJune 1, 2008; 14 years ago (2008-06-01)
LocationUniversal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.
Coordinates34°08′28″N 118°21′02″W / 34.14111°N 118.35056°W / 34.14111; -118.35056Coordinates: 34°08′28″N 118°21′02″W / 34.14111°N 118.35056°W / 34.14111; -118.35056
CauseHeated asphalt shingle
OutcomeDestruction of three acres of Universal backlot, King Kong Encounter, original master tapes for popular music, and digital TV and film backups. Injury of nine firefighters and an LA County sheriff's deputy.
Deaths0
Non-fatal injuries17

On June 1, 2008, a fire broke out on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, an American film studio and theme park in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles County, California. The fire began when a worker used a blowtorch to warm asphalt shingles that were being applied to a facade.[1][2][3] He left before checking that all spots had cooled, and a three-alarm fire broke out. Nine firefighters and a Los Angeles County sheriffs' deputy sustained minor injuries. The fire was extinguished after 24 hours.[4]

Universal Pictures said the fire destroyed a three-acre (1.2 ha) portion of the Universal backlot, including the attraction King Kong Encounter[5][6] and 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies. A 2019 exposé from The New York Times Magazine asserted that the fire also destroyed 118,000 to 175,000 audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG). This included original recordings belonging to some of the best-selling artists worldwide. UMG disputed the report, though the CEO, Lucian Grainge, acknowledged that "the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking".[7][8]

Fire[edit]

On June 1, 2008, a three-alarm fire broke out on the Universal Studios Lot, the backlot of Universal Studios.[4] The fire started when a worker was using a blowtorch to warm asphalt shingles being applied to a facade.[1][2] The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) reported that Brownstone Street, New York Street, New England Street, the King Kong attraction, some structures that make up Courthouse Square, and the Video Vault, which contained duplicates of Universal's film library, had burned down. Aerial news footage captured the Courthouse building surviving its third fire, with only the west side slightly charred.

The LACoFD sent 516 firefighters,[2] as well as two helicopters dropping water. Nine firefighters and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy sustained minor injuries. The fire took at least 12 hours to extinguish,[9] in part because of the low water pressure due to the low capacity of Universal's pipes; firefighters had to tap streams and lakes.[5]

Universal executives initially said the fire destroyed 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies of Universal movies and TV shows, some almost a century old, and including the films Knocked Up and Atonement, the NBC series Law & Order, The Office, and Miami Vice, and the CBS series I Love Lucy.[10][11][12] Universal president Ron Meyer told the media that "nothing irreplaceable was lost" and that the company had duplicates of everything destroyed.[13] Universal replaced the King Kong attraction with King Kong: 360 3-D, based on the 2005 King Kong film.[14]

2019 New York Times report[edit]

In June 2019, The New York Times Magazine published an investigative article by freelance journalist Jody Rosen that alleged that the damage was far more serious than Universal had said.

The fire destroyed Building 6197, a warehouse adjoining the King Kong attraction. In addition to more videos, it housed a huge archive containing multiple copies of audio and video recordings, documents ranging from legal papers to liner notes, and packaging materials and artwork belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG).[4][15] The collection included the catalogues of UMG's West Coast labels including Chess, Decca, MCA, Geffen, Interscope, A&M, Impulse!, and their subsidiary labels.[4] Rosen estimated the individual items lost range from 118,000 to 175,000 album and 45-rpm single master tapes, phonograph master discs, lacquers (also known as acetates), as well as all the documentation contained in the tape boxes.[4] The article alleged some tapes contained unreleased recordings such as outtakes, alternative versions of released material, and instrumental "submaster" multitracks created for dubbing and mixdown. However, UMG found only one unreleased album potentially affected in the fire, and they located multiple copies of that recording and could still release that album in the future if the artist wishes to.[15] Randy Aronson, manager of the vault at the time, estimates that the masters of as many as 500,000 individual tracks were lost.[4]

Rosen argued master recordings are irreplaceable, even if copies exist, because the original recording "contains the record's details in their purest form," citing Andy Zax, a Grammy-nominated producer and writer who works on reissued recordings.[4] However, that claim has been disputed by many audio experts. including Analog Planet editor Michael Fremer, who said that due to use and natural decay, often safety copies become a superior source for reissues.[16] UMG stated that even when the original master is available, the company often works from duplicates or digitized versions because the fidelity of the original master has deteriorated from overuse or from chemical interactions over time or for other technical reasons. UMG said it reissues thousands of recordings a year, and each project presents a unique set of challenges to overcome. In each case, UMG's team of experts use the highest fidelity recordings possible.[15]

Among the possible losses were the entire AVI Records catalog, all of Decca's masters from the 1930s to the 1950s, most of the original Chess masters, which included artists such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, as well as most of John Coltrane's master tapes from his period signed to Impulse! Records. On Twitter, Rosen stated that the Coltrane masters were among the most checked-out Impulse! items in the vault, and a source had told him that the masters for A Love Supreme were likely elsewhere during the fire.[17]

Two weeks later, Rosen wrote a follow-up article, listing at least 700 additional artists named in internal UMG documents as possibly affected. Determining which recordings had been destroyed, or how much of an artist's discography had been affected, was impossible, he wrote.[18] For example, Rosen said it was difficult to confirm whether the Neil Young recordings listed in the documents were the original master tapes of the albums he recorded for Geffen Records in the 1980s, or session outtakes from those records.[18] Rosen tweeted that the documents also listed several Broadway cast recordings among the tapes destroyed.[19] Additionally, several nonmusical audio recordings were reported as destroyed, including the original recording of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 "Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution" sermon delivered at the Washington National Cathedral.[20]

Despite Rosen's reporting, at the end of the second article, even The New York Times acknowledged they could not definitely state that any master recordings had actually been lost in the fire, stating "It is not possible to assert definitively which masters were burned in the fire, nor can it be said categorically that all of these artists did in fact lose masters. It also cannot be determined exactly how many of the destroyed masters were primary-source originals."[4]

Artists' responses[edit]

Bryan Adams, Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter, and Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz said they had been told that UMG had misplaced their tapes.[18] Richard Carpenter told the Times he had been informed about the destruction of his tapes by a UMG employee while he was working on a reissue, and only after Carpenter had made multiple, persistent inquiries.[18] Following the publication of Rosen's articles, several affected musicians posted reactions on social media, with some noting specific tapes that may have been lost.[21][22] For instance, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule said she had lost two masters in the fire, including tapes for an unreleased album produced by Joe Jackson,[23] but Sobule later clarified UMG informed her none of her tapes had been lost, including the unreleased album.[24]

Several other artists also contradicted The Times' reporting, stating their recordings had not been affected by the fire. Nirvana stated on Twitter that all of their tapes are safe[25] as did Sheryl Crow, with UMG confirming, "masters for all of Crow's A&M-released albums survived the fire"[26] The Canadian band The Tragically Hip reported on their website that The New York Times incorrectly listed the band among those who had lost tapes in the fire. Drummer Johnny Fay wrote that all of the band's material had been relocated to Canada in 2001.[27][28]

Beck posted that his losses were minimal and that none of his master recordings had been lost,[29] while Smash Mouth confirmed their recordings "were not destroyed in that very unfortunate fire."[30]

Within two weeks of Rosen's article, five plaintiffs (singer-songwriter Steve Earle, the estates of the late Tupac Shakur and Tom Petty, and the bands Hole and Soundgarden) filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against UMG.[31] In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed UMG never told artists about the effects of the fire and had breached their contracts by failing to properly secure its master tape collection.[31] They further alleged that UMG did not share insurance or legal payouts received as a result of the fire.[31] Every plaintiff except for Tom Petty's ex-wife dropped out of the complaint after UMG provided artists with a list of their recordings in the company's archives.[32]

On July 17, Universal moved to dismiss the class-action lawsuit.[33] On August 16, 2019, Hole dropped out of the lawsuit after UMG assured them that the band's masters were not affected by the fire.[34] Slightly over a month later, UMG also claimed that Shakur, Earle, and Petty did not lose their masters in the fire, and that an investigation with Soundgarden was still going on.[35] Shakur and Earle would also later drop out as plaintiffs after learning their master tapes hadn't been harmed.[36]

Five days later, Universal demanded Soundgarden drop the suit, which the label had also moved to dismiss, citing documentary proof that the label had informed the band about the lost masters in 2015 and accusing their lawyer of "[failing] to conduct presuit diligence in your rush to be the first to file."[37] The surviving band members declined. "Their arbitrary deadlines have zero force or effect," Howard King, their attorney, told Rolling Stone. "Until UMG reveals what it collected for their litigation claims to extensive damage to master recordings, we cannot accept their belated claim that no damages were actually suffered."[38] Universal's dismissal motion also publicly confirmed that master tapes for Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger album had been destroyed in the fire, and that members of the group had been made aware of the destruction in 2015 while they were working on a remaster of the album that was eventually completed with a backup safety copy.[38] In December 2019, district court judge John Kronstadt ruled that Universal must hand over discovery evidence, and denied the label's request to postpone the delivery.[39] In March 2020, Soundgarden and the Shakur estate dropped out of the class action against UMG.[40] On March 23, Steve Earle also dropped out, leaving Tom Petty's widow as the only remaining plaintiff.[41] The lawsuit was dismissed by Kronstadt on April 6, 2020,[42] with a refiled complaint dismissed with prejudice on March 29, 2021. After the lawsuit was dismissed, UMG said The Times "has a responsibility to explain why its editors continue to stand behind a story that has been disproven with incontrovertible evidence from both UMG and many of the artists named in the story."[43]

UMG response[edit]

Since its publication, UMG has disputed Rosen's article, saying it contained "numerous inaccuracies" and "fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets". UMG said it was unable to disclose details due to "constraints".[44]

In a Billboard interview, UMG archivist Patrick Kraus said that several masters of John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, and Ahmad Jamal recordings, plus items from the catalogs of Nashboro Records, Chess Records, and Impulse! Records survived the fire and were still in Universal's archive.[45] Rosen responded in his June 25 piece, noting that some of the masters that Kraus had mentioned may have survived the fire because they were being used for remastering projects at the time, or were not the primary source master.[18] Aronson also confirmed to Rosen that the vast majority of items in the vault at the time of the fire were original, primary source master recordings.[18] However, UMG stated the vault, which mostly contained duplicate tapes and not original masters, was a third empty at the time of the fire because the company had already begun transferring assets to its Iron Mountain facility.[15]

In an email to staff following the publication of Rosen's story, Lucian Grainge said he was forming a team of researchers to provide artists with definitive information and confirmed that UMG had suffered a serious loss of archival material.[7] Grainge wrote: "While I've been somewhat relieved by early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate, one thing is clear: the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking."[7] He wrote that it was "completely unacceptable" that their artists did not know the details and pledged to deliver "answers".[7] On June 26, Kraus issued a memo to staff which detailed UMG's plan to determine which assets had been affected.[46]

A month after the story broke, Kraus issued an internal note to Universal staff, which claimed that his research at the time had found only 22 original master recordings by five artists had been lost in the fire, and that backup copies had been found for each lost master. He added that UMG had been fielding requests from over 200 artists and their representatives.[47] Kraus said his team had reviewed over 26,000 assets by 30 artists, of which 424 assets (including 349 audio recordings) might have been lost.[48] On November 4, 2019, Scott Edelman of Gibson Dunn, an attorney for UMG, told U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt that UMG is the undisputed owner of the recordings and that artists' contracts provide for payments through royalties, not insurance claims.[49]

A February 2020 court filing by UMG confirmed that master tapes from at least 19 artists had been damaged or destroyed in the fire.[50] The artists whom UMG confirmed were affected are Bryan Adams, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, David Baerwald, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Jimmy Eat World, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Nirvana, Les Paul, R.E.M., Slayer, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, the Surfaris, Suzanne Vega, White Zombie and Y&T.[50] However, Billboard wrote that "UMG says original digital master recordings for Nirvana, Beck, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Eat World, Suzanne Vega, White Zombie and Yesterday & Today were affected, but it has replacements or digital clones of these assets. R.E.M had one song from a soundtrack affected but UMG has copies in the same format."[51]

List of artists affected, according to The New York Times[edit]

Click on show to view the contents of this section

According to The New York Times Magazine, artists whose original master recordings were destroyed in whole or part in the 2008 fire include:[18]

Subsequent legal documents filed by Universal Music Group in February 2020 cited four additional artists not included in the New York Times list:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  3. ^ "Investigators: Heating tools caused fire". ABC. June 3, 2008. Retrieved November 13, 2020.
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  16. ^ ""Gene Clark" Coming Soon AAA From Intervention". Analog Planet. June 5, 2018. Retrieved February 4, 2022.
  17. ^ Rosen, Jody [@jodyrosen] (June 19, 2019). "Notice I didn't say all of Coltrane's masters were lost. Trane's material was among the most frequently pulled from the vault; A Love Supreme was likely the most frequently pulled Impulse title. Sources told me they suspected Love Supreme masters were elsewhere when the fire hit. t.co/itjwEQHiOt" (Tweet). Archived from the original on December 7, 2021. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
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  19. ^ Rosen, Jody [@jodyrosen] (June 28, 2019). "Yes there are a bunch of Broadway cast albums in the UMG documents. I'll try to post some details. t.co/E0TC8qBcPZ" (Tweet). Archived from the original on November 30, 2021. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
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  21. ^ Holson, Laura M. (June 12, 2019). "Musicians Mourn the Fiery Destruction of Their Recordings: 'I Think They Are Gone Forever'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 12, 2019.
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  23. ^ Sobule, Jill [@jillsobule] (June 28, 2019). "Yep, I lost 2 masters in the fire. I tried for years to get back my unreleased Joe Jackson produced record. Now I understand. So shitty. t.co/X29h9I9ZOy" (Tweet). Archived from the original on September 5, 2021. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
  24. ^ Sobule, Jill [@jillsobule] (July 12, 2019). "I just got an email from Universal saying that my masters did not burn in the fire. I really hope this is true for many others on the list. Thinking I'll put out my unreleased Joe Jackson produced one from 92. #phew" (Tweet). Archived from the original on March 3, 2022. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
  25. ^ Nirvana [@Nirvana] (January 30, 2020). "26 years ago today, we were in Bob Lang's studio recording "You Know You're Right" – the last song Nirvana would ever record. Neither that tape or any of our other album masters were affected by the @UMG vault fire. t.co/8iTFjmtQiw" (Tweet). Archived from the original on March 4, 2022. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
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  28. ^ Kreps, Daniel (May 20, 2021). "The Tragically Hip Unearth Surprise 'New' Album 'Saskadelphia'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  29. ^ Beck [@beck] (November 27, 2019). "I wanted to clarify some out of context quotes regarding the universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found out that my losses in the fire were minimal. (1/2) t.co/lt8jzMjCZv" (Tweet). Archived from the original on March 4, 2022. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
  30. ^ Smash Mouth [@smashmouth] (September 12, 2019). "We would like to thank @UMG @UME @Interscope for securing our master recordings. They just informed us our masters were not destroyed in that very unfortunate fire. #grateful" (Tweet). Archived from the original on March 3, 2022. Retrieved March 19, 2022 – via Twitter.
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  40. ^ Cullins, Ashley (March 13, 2020). "Tupac Shakur Estate, Soundgarden Leave Universal Music Group Fire Class Action". Billboard. Retrieved March 14, 2020.
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  42. ^ Minsker, Evan (April 6, 2020). "Lawsuit Against Universal Music Over 2008 Warehouse Fire Is Dismissed". Pitchfork. Retrieved April 7, 2020.
  43. ^ Rosenbaum, Claudia (March 29, 2021). "Tom Petty Ex-Wife's Lawsuit Over Universal Music Fire Dismissed Again". Billboard. Retrieved March 3, 2022.
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  50. ^ a b c Blistein, Jon (February 14, 2020). "UMG Acknowledges Elton John, Nirvana, Beck Recordings Were Lost or Damaged in Vault Fire". Rolling Stone. Retrieved February 14, 2020.
  51. ^ Rosenbaum, Claudia (February 14, 2020). "Universal Music Group Confirms Masters by Soundgarden, Sonic Youth & More Lost in 2008 Fire". Billboard. Retrieved April 20, 2022.
  52. ^ a b "Bryan Adams, Bob Ezrin dismayed by loss of work in 'nightmare' Universal fire". CTV. June 26, 2019. Retrieved January 9, 2023.