In June 2019, The New York Times published an extensive report revealing that a 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed an enormous number of master tapes by artists throughout the decades. In new court documents obtained by Pitchfork, UMG has confirmed that the master recordings of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Elton John, Beck, Soundgarden, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., and several other artists were damaged or destroyed in the blaze.
The remaining artists listed in the filing are: …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bryan Adams, David Baerwald, Jimmy Eat World, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald, Slayer, Suzanne Vega, Surfaris, White Zombie and Y&T.
The 33-page document goes into some detail about the unique state of each artist’s assets. For instance, a portion of page 11 reads: “…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Certain analog tapes that could have been original flat master recordings embodying the performances of this artist were affected, but UMG has copies on the same type of recording media for many of them.”
The filing also claims that “certain original master recordings” of Beck’s were affected, however “UMG has replacements of all affected assets.” In the case of Elton John’s masters, the document states that “certain original master recordings embodying the performances of this artist were affected, and UMG is still working with the artist to determine the extent of such impact.” Sonic Youth’s original multitrack master reels embodying live performances of this artist “were affected,” according to the filing. There was no mention of copies of Sonic Youth’s masters in the filing. Entries for Slayer, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, and Michael McDonald make no mention of replacements or copies.
Last June, Hole, Soundgarden, and the estates of Tupac and Tom Petty filed a class action lawsuit filed against Universal Music Group over the incident. Hole was later dropped from the suit after Universal informed the band that none of their masters were lost.
In November 2019 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Beck expressed concern over full albums of unreleased music being lost in the 2008 fire. The artist revealed that a double album of solo Hank Williams covers he recorded in 2001 was “probably gone.” He also expressed concern over whether or not additional unreleased albums were destroyed, including outtakes from Sea Change and an entire album he made in 1995 with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Following the Times’ initial investigation, Universal issued a statement playing down the extent of the losses, saying the incident “never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation.” Universal claimed The Times’ story “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” They provided no examples of said inaccuracies.
Pitchfork has reached out to UMG representatives for further comment.