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; 13 years ago (2008-06-01)
LocationUniversal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.
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 sheriffs' deputy.
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 New York Times Magazine exposé 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 initially disputed this, but CEO Lucian Grainge later confirmed a significant loss of musical archives had occurred.[7]


On June 1, 2008, a three-alarm fire broke out on 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,[8] 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 claimed 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.[9][10][11] Universal president Ron Meyer told the media that "nothing irreplaceable was lost" and that the company had duplicates of everything destroyed.[12]

Several days after the fire, the King Kong attraction was reported to be replaced by a new attraction.[6] However, Universal reverted to its original plan, basing the new attraction, King Kong: 360 3-D, on the 2005 King Kong film.[13]

2019 New York Times report[edit]

In June 2019, The New York Times Magazine published an investigative article by music journalist Jody Rosen arguing 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 of analog audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG).[4] The collection included the master tape catalogs of many labels acquired by UMG, including Chess, Decca, MCA, Geffen, Interscope, A&M, Impulse!, and their subsidiary labels.[4] Estimates of 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] Many tapes contained unreleased recordings such as outtakes, alternative versions of released material, and instrumental "submaster" multitracks created for dubbing and mixdown. Randy Aronson, manager of the vault at the time, estimates that the masters of as many as 500,000 individual tracks were lost.[4]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[15] Rosen tweeted that the documents also listed several Broadway cast recordings among the tapes destroyed.[16] 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.[17]

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.[15] 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.[15] 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.[18][19] 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.[20] After being listed in the New York Times piece, the Canadian band The Tragically Hip discovered that their master tapes had been transferred from the Universal facility to Canada in 2001 and had escaped the fire.[21]

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.[22] 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.[22] They further alleged that UMG did not share insurance or legal payouts received as a result of the fire.[22]

The lawsuit also alleged that Universal had compiled a master inventory list of master tapes that had been destroyed.[23] The plaintiffs sought to recover half of any insurance payments UMG received from the fire, and half of any losses that were not covered by those settlements.[24] An uninvolved industry attorney told Billboard that the case concerned property rights, as in whether UMG or the artists owned the master tapes.[25]

A month later, Universal moved to dismiss the class-action lawsuit.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]

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."[29] 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."[30] 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.[30] 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.[31] In March 2020, Soundgarden and the Shakur estate dropped out of the class action against UMG.[32] On March 23, Steve Earle also dropped out, leaving Tom Petty's widow as the only remaining plaintiff.[33] The lawsuit was dismissed by Kronstadt on April 6, 2020.[34]

UMG response[edit]

UMG 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".[35]

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.[36] 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.[15] 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.[15]

In an email to staff following the publication of Rosen's story, Lucian Grainge 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.[37]

A month after the story broke, Kraus issued an internal note to Universal staff saying that 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.[38] 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.[39] On November 4, 2019, a lawyer representing Universal said the artists would receive no compensation.[40]

A February 2020 court filing by UMG confirmed that master tapes from at least 19 artists had been damaged or destroyed in the fire.[41] 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.[41]

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:[15]

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]


  1. ^ a b "USH 2008 Fire". The Studio Tour. Archived from the original on August 3, 2010. Retrieved July 9, 2010.
  2. ^ a b c "Universal Studios blaze burns sets, video vault". CNN. June 1, 2008. Retrieved June 13, 2008.
  3. ^ "Investigators: Heating tools caused fire". ABC. June 3, 2008. Retrieved November 13, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rosen, Jody (June 11, 2019). "The Day the Music Burned: It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Uranga, Rachel; Orlov, Rick (June 2, 2008). "Studio workers using a blowtorch accidentally caused Universal fire". Los Angeles Daily News. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  6. ^ a b MacDonald, Brady (June 2, 2008). "Universal Studios Hollywood to replace 'King Kong' with new attraction". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d "Universal Music Group Chief Lucian Grainge Addresses Vault Fire: 'We Owe Our Artists Transparency'". Billboard. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  8. ^ Safo, Nova (June 2, 2008). "Blaze Destroys Sections of Universal Studios". NPR. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  9. ^ Cieply, Michael (June 1, 2008). "Large Fire Strikes Universal Studio Lot". The New York Times. Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  10. ^ Risling, Greg. "Fire at Universal Studios destroys sets, videos". Associated Press. Archived from the original on June 4, 2008. Retrieved April 13, 2015 – via Web Archive.
  11. ^ Nakashima, Ryan. "Universal studios fire may cost tens of millions". Web Archive. Archived from the original on June 5, 2008. Retrieved June 13, 2008.
  12. ^ "Universal Studios fire engulfs sets, video vault, King Kong exhibit". CBC.ca. June 1, 2008.
  13. ^ Gorman, Anna (May 20, 2009). "Universal Studios to replace fire-damaged King Kong attraction". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  14. ^ Rosen, Jody (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". Twitter. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
  16. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 28, 2019). "Yes there are a bunch of Broadway cast albums in the UMG documents. I'll try to post some details". @jodyrosen. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  17. ^ Reskinoff, Paul (June 27, 2019). "Also Lost In the Universal Fire: A Master Recording of One of Martin Luther King's Last Speeches from 1968". Digital Music News. Retrieved August 7, 2019.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Colburn, Randall. "Nirvana's Krist Novoselic believes Nevermind masters lost in Universal fire". A.V. Club. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  20. ^ "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". @jillsobule. June 28, 2019. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  21. ^ Kreps, Daniel (May 20, 2021). "The Tragically Hip Unearth Surprise 'New' Album 'Saskadelphia'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  22. ^ a b c Sisario, Ben (June 21, 2019). "Artists Sue Universal Music Group Over Losses in 2008 Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  23. ^ Lewis, Randy (June 22, 2019). "Soundgarden, Tupac, Hole and more sue Universal Music over recordings destroyed in 2008 fire". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  24. ^ "Universal Music Group Hit With Class Action Lawsuit by Tupac Estate, Soundgarden & More Over 2008 Vault Fire". Billboard. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  25. ^ "Universal Music Group Fire Class Action Could Come Down to One Thing: Who Owns the Masters?". Billboard. June 27, 2019. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  26. ^ Aswad, Jem (July 18, 2019). "Universal Music Files Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit From Artists Claiming Fire Damage". Variety. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
  27. ^ "Universal Music Group: Original Masters for 'Many of the Artists' Named in Class Action Were Not Lost in Fire". Billboard. Retrieved August 22, 2019.
  28. ^ Aswad, Jem (August 22, 2019). "Universal Music: Four of the Five Artists Who Sued Us Did Not Lose Masters in 2008 Fire". Variety. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  29. ^ Aswad, Jem (August 26, 2019). "Universal Music Refutes Claims of Last Artist in Lawsuit Over 2008 Fire, Requests Dismissal". Variety. Retrieved September 16, 2019.
  30. ^ a b Blistein, Jon (August 28, 2019). "Soundgarden Lawyer Shrugs Off UMG's Request for Band to Drop Vault Fire Lawsuit". Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 16, 2019.
  31. ^ "Universal Music Group Can't Halt Discovery in 2008 Masters Fire Lawsuit".
  32. ^ Cullins, Ashley (March 13, 2020). "Tupac Shakur Estate, Soundgarden Leave Universal Music Group Fire Class Action". Billboard. Retrieved March 14, 2020.
  33. ^ "Steve Earle Drops His Claims Against Universal Music Over 2008 Backlot Fire". Billboard. March 24, 2020. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  34. ^ Minsker, Evan (April 6, 2020). "Lawsuit Against Universal Music Over 2008 Warehouse Fire Is Dismissed". Pitchfork. Retrieved April 7, 2020.
  35. ^ Aswad, Jem (June 11, 2019). "Universal Music Disputes Severity of 2008 Fire Cited in New York Times Article". Variety. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  36. ^ "Universal Music Group Archivist: Vault Fire Damage 'Surprisingly Overstated,' But Any Loss Is 'Painful for Us'". Billboard. June 17, 2019. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  37. ^ Aswad, Jem (June 26, 2019). "Universal Music's Chief Archivist Explains Company's Post-Fire Artist Outreach Plan (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  38. ^ "Despite extensive search, Universal says it's only found 22 'original masters' lost in 2008 fire so far". Music Business Worldwide. July 18, 2019. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  39. ^ "Universal Music Group Archivist Issues Statement to Staff About Losses From 2008 Fire". Billboard. July 17, 2019. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  40. ^ "UMG Refuses to Pay Artists a Cut of Its Fire Insurance Payout". Digital Music News. November 5, 2019. Retrieved November 29, 2019.
  41. ^ 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.

Coordinates: 34°08′30″N 118°21′02″W / 34.141701°N 118.350693°W / 34.141701; -118.350693