Studio Claimed Lost Recordings Were Backed Up – A Decade Later, The Truth Comes Out
Back in 2008, a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood claimed a selection of the studio’s early films, but supposedly left its classic music vault alone. New reporting reveals the fire was a lot worse than that – and it’s a cautionary tale for both data backup and crisis management.
A New York Times Magazine article recounts the original fire from June 1, 2008, when an accidental fire on a Universal film studio set reached the “video vault” building that held film reels, video tapes, and original master sound recordings owned by Universal Music Group.
The studio claimed, “…a small number of tapes and other material by ‘obscure artists from the 1940s and ’50s,’ including the pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw, had been damaged…adding that all recording tapes had been duplicated digitally.” At the time, the studio’s response to the fire had been heralded as a crisis management success.
But the more recent research revealed the truth: the damage was far more severe than what the studio tried to downplay. In fact, Universal had lost almost all of the master recordings stored in that vault – a loss of about 500,000 song titles, most of which had not, in fact, been duplicated to high-quality digital formats at that point.
And the artists were anything but obscure. Among the master recordings lost included those by (brace yourself here, there’s bound to be at least one of your favorites in this list):
“Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.”
Why would Universal claim that the music had mostly been backed up before the fire? Risk to public perception likely played a part, but the bigger problem may have been admitting what had happened to the artists whose original works were destroyed.
“…many of the biggest names in pop music, and many profitable artist estates, would have learned that [Universal] had lost core documents their catalogs rest on — a source for everything from potentially lucrative reissues to historical preservation to posthumous releases.”
Now, what was once considered a crisis management success story has turned into a disaster that comes with a familiar crisis communications lesson: the cover-up is worse than the inciting incident.
Financially, the loss is difficult to calculate – possibly estimated at $150 million. The historical loss, on the other hand, is incalculable. You can bet the artists whose recordings were lost are probably working out those calculations with their lawyers, though.
“The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse,” author Jody Rosen writes. “It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”