The Day the Music Died

If you're a music fan—and if you're reading this, you probably are—you've heard this already: On June 11, the New York Times Magazine published an investigative report about a 2008 fire that destroyed a vault at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

Workers were repairing a roof on an oft-reused movie set, heating asphalt tiles with a blowtorch. Protocol required the repairmen to stick around for one hour until the asphalt had cooled, to guard against fire. But shortly after they left, a fire broke out. Hundreds of firefighters fought it, pulling water from the lake once inhabited by The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But before the fire was extinguished, it reached Building 6197, a "nondescript," "hulking edifice of corrugated metal" known to Universal locals as the video vault. When Randy Aronson, the vault's supervisor, arrived early in the morning. what he saw shocked him. The "fire was blasting out of the building as if shot from giant flamethrowers," wrote Jody Rosen, the article's author.

In 2008, in the immediate aftermath, the media helped Universal downplay the fire's effects. "A vault full of video and television images" had burned, the Times innocently reported. "In no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work." Billboard published a statement from an unidentified Universal rep: "We had no loss."

What Universal neglected to say was that Building 6197 wasn't used just for storing movie assets. Universal Music Group—UMG—used it, too, to store master tapes. UMG's corner took up as much floor space as a largish home, filling shelves 18' high.

The recent Times Magazine article says the fire claimed Buddy Holly's master tapes (although sources close to Stereophile dispute that). John Coltrane's tapes for the Impulse! label went up in flames, alongside Impulse! recordngs by Albert Ayler, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and Trane's second wife, Alice. The master tape for "Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley & His Comets, is said to have been destroyed. Ditto "Louie Louie," by The Kingsmen. And "People Get Ready," by The Impressions. And Chuck Berry's music on Chess Records.

Other artists whose works were destroyed include Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Les Paul, Fats Domino, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Iggy Pop, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Beck, and Tupac Shakur.

At this writing, some living artists still don't know whether their master tapes exist or were burned in the fire. One report says that a group of artists including Soundgarden, Hole, and the estate of Tupac Shakur is suing Universal, accusing the company of "burying the truth in sealed court filings and a confidential settlement agreement."

After the Times Magazine article broke, Universal told Variety "Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record." The article, though, revealed that, 18 years earlier, a fire set by a security guard reached "the doorstep" of Building 6197. That was the sixth fire recorded at the Universal backlot. Another fire followed in 1997.

In 2004, a New Jersey storage vault containing 350,000 UMG master tapes, including the whole Motown catalog, flooded when an upstairs water main broke. (Most of those tapes were salvaged.) That incident apparently got the company's attention: Alarmed, UMG moved many of its musical assets into safer storage. Many but not all.

Universal's defense rests on claims that other versions of these lost recordings are still available. It's true. Some of the now-lost archives had been digitized, achieving that odd, ephemeral immortality peculiar to digital recordings. Some of what burned still streams on Qobuz and Tidal. Some of it exists on tapes stored elsewhere — although an attempt to reconstitute the burned archive from later-generation duplicates recovered only about a fifth of what was lost.

And of course, most of the music still exists in distribution formats: 78s, LPs, CDs. There's an excellent chance you own some of it; even I have a few of those records. I inherited an early Chuck Berry, on Chess, from an uncle. Over the years, I've bought several first-edition Coltranes on Impulse!. On that June day in 2008, some of our records probably got more valuable — thanks, Universal!

Behind the scenes, UMG executives must have despaired: Record companies have been selling us that music over and over at least since the CD era — easy pickings that probably carried the industry through financially troubled times. They won't be able to do that anymore, not with the music stored in Building 6197. Not from The Original Analog Tapes.

It's not the library at Alexandria, but for lovers of culture, it's still a tragedy. It's also a grim reminder of something audiophiles tell each other often, whether we truly believe it or not: It's the music that matters.

Building an audio system, however pleasant, is an elevated form of shopping. Acquiring music is, or can be, something more meaningful: curation. Preservation. The music has real meaning, especially when it takes physical form — a reel-to-reel tape, an LP, even a humble CD. In one way these recordings are better than master tapes. They're the precise things musicians were aiming for when they went into the studio: records that radio stations would play, and fans would buy and listen to. They're pieces of our culture, artifacts that, if they were to be lost and then rediscovered hundreds of years hence in some buried vault, would be of inestimable cultural and historical value. After the fire, they matter more than ever.—Jim Austin

Anton's picture

The Zen cup is already broken.

Like you mention, very sad, but we gotta cleave unto the original joy they brought.

I LOVED your last paragraph!

John Atkinson's picture
"That odd, ephemeral immortality peculiar to digital recordings." - Jim Austin

Hits the nail on the head. If a digital file isn't saved in three places it doesn't actually exist!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

True ..... Lightning can happen in the cloud :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be even Tim Apple could agree with JA1 and JA2 about this digital storage issues :-) .......

jeffhenning's picture

In the decade prior to the loss of these masters, they should have been pulled into hi-res digital and stored in multiple secure server sites around the world as well as optical back ups. There are a few elements at play here.

• Record co. execs only care about making money and, as such, don't think about the value of their assets other than their monetary value to exploit in the future

• These execs really don't care about music at all

• Also, I'm pretty confident that these execs thought that they never needed a disaster plan since they cost money and take from their profit column

• Having set up backup and storage strategies at a couple ad agencies in the past, I know that there has been (and still could be) a thorough lack of understanding for companies that create media what their business actually is. The core of their business is the content they create and the storage and archiving of that content is their most important job. You can't make money if your content has been destroyed. Buildings and machinery can be replaced. The data and content, in many cases, may not. In this case, it's like having an A-bomb hit the Louvre.

• I'll bet you my last penny that some a-hole at the record company said that they have plenty of CD copies to use as masters for future releases

• If all of this stuff had been pulled into hi-res digital prior to the fire then not much of anything has been lost since those tapes were starting to disintegrate anyway and would be close to unusable by now (2019). Does anyone have a high level of confidence that happened? I don't.

• If the worst case scenario is that the CD release is the last remaining recording for a work that's not really that bad. While not ideal, a CD that's been properly mastered has way more resolution than a 70 year old master tape. The big question would then be whether the CD was properly mastered. That's a coin toss at best.

• I'd be a lot sadder about this situation if Thanos caused all that music to evaporate than I am about this loss, but this is not good. Is this to be expected from a company that only views it's assets as a way to make more money? Absolutely. It was this bound to happen as sure as death and taxes.

To rebound off an ancient SNL bit, perhaps we can ask the space aliens that intercepted Voyager 2 to send back Chuck Berry!

hollowman's picture

"On that June day in 2008, some of our records probably got more valuable — thanks, Universal!"
Conspiracy theories ....
Arson by some Craigslist scammer ;)
Inside job by UMG -- the gazillionth remasters weren't selling ... something had to be done!!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be the Russians did it? :-) ......

Anton's picture

Are you saying Warren Zevon’s masters were lost?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"My S**t's F****d Up" :-) ........

briandx11's picture

If you think about the kind of analog tape archives that got created during the production and mastering of an album before the digital age, they fall into three broad categories (Listed from most to least important):

1) Master multi-track tape. The Holy Grail. From this the master stereo mix-down is created. If someone ever wants to remaster an album, here is where you go.
2) Master stereo mix-down tape. LPs and CDs are basically later generation copies of this
3) Archival, outtakes, early demos of songs, etc.

What is really bad about the fire is that in many cases category #3 hurts the most. Why? Let's say that you wanted to go back and re-listen to all surviving tapes from Buddy Holly's last album, with the intent to release alternate and demo versions of finished songs, or, release other songs that did not quite make the cut back at that time. Who wouldn't want to hear a few unreleased "B" sides from Buddy Holly? Well now you can't. Even if the master multi-track and stereo tapes had second-generation backups of some kind, this kind of material probably did not. It would be the art equivalent of having a fire destroy pencil mock up drawings of the Mona Lisa.

er1c's picture

Recordings sure are wonderful. They save a little bit of what can happen when a musician creates, delivers music to this world. History too! Records are like a picture of an apple. Might be a beautiful picture, even nourishing in a way. Ain't no apple though. A drummer I know named Hakaan Dalen told me, "Now, Music, it lives in the air right in front of you.... It's a gift. You can do what you will, sometimes it will visit you if you are selfless enough and get out of the way. Nobody know where it comes from. Nobody owns it really."

ok's picture

life has providently entrusted its perpetuation to digital –dna that is.

kBear's picture

... for some things, created by woman and man it was supposed to be a small piece of something very much like it ... it's a drag and now it's a well known drag

jimtavegia's picture

With the price of a Tascam DA-3000 dsd recorder at under $1,000 and SD cards cheap EVERY label should be archiving every master they own. Using SD cards would not take a very big building or may be a bank safe deposit box. The value is certainly greater than some metal outbuilding manned by a possible disgruntled employee.

As JA1 mention maybe a 2nd and 3rd back up should be made and all stored at separate locations as well. What is worse for me is that the shirts in the company can't even be truthful about what happened. More negative corporate behavior.

Michael Fremer's picture

I had referenced this fire on AnalogPlanet a few years ago. However, in my research I've discovered that as bad as the story is, and mainly true, it overstates what was lost in the fire. Many of the tapes supposedly lost were not, including the Buddy Holly catalog and many others. What's more, many titles were backed up on 1/2" tape at 15 or 30 IPS and were stored originally in Universal's Hanover, Germany facility that I visited before the fire and saw firsthand. The vault has been moved since then to the U.K. Intervention Records reissues some of these titles from tape using the back ups and the records sound fantastic...better than the originals. So while it's bad, very bad, and happened because of bean counter stupidity, it's not quite as bad as the story makes it out to be.

volvic's picture

However, their record keeping techniques were so bad that they themselves do not even know what was lost. What we are most certain is that outtakes and other studio sessions that were never released have probably been lost forever and Universal is scrambling to try and replicate what they think they lost. It's true that in such instances exaggerations and misinformation spreads like wind driver prairie fires but the lack of forthcoming from Universal has been responsible for this. The tragedy of it all is what has let slip through our fingers from lack of vigilance and we are all poorer for it.

rt66indierock's picture

As [you are] the editor of a heritage magazine I applaud your writing about music heritage. More was lost that the New York Times reported. But the message in the article was clear, a lot of our music heritage is gone.

What is disturbing to me is the masters stored at Iron Mountain are disorganized and in poor shape. Michael Fremer can add some other examples where masters have been lost.

I hope to see you at RMAF.

tnargs's picture

Well, if they are Master Tapes, then they are not The Original Analog Tapes.

It might be helpful if the article-writer didn't confusingly use both terms for the burned tapes, so now we don't know which it is.


Jim Austin's picture

I've talked to several mastering and recording engineers who all admitted that this is confusing, because the word "master" is used in a variety of different ways. The meaning I've used here is correct, as are other meanings. Yes, the original analog tape is often referred to as the "master tape." So are later generations.

Jim Austin, Editor

tonykaz's picture

Analog Storage System owners have been loosing recorded music to a wide range of physical perils, since recorded music's very beginnings ( the vast majority of 78 Artist's are now lost ).

We are about to pay a price for Societal "Memory" of every detail of everything thats happening, like re-runs of all those horrible TV Programs.

If I hear another M.Jackson or Beatles tune I'll cringe from Overplaying.

Music is our Cultural DNA ( or perhaps RNA ) or just a portion of our make-up. Loosing some of it is like loosing JGordon Holt or even HP but we have soooooooooo dam much of it that it might simply be a good-riddance sort of happenstance.

I own thousands of Albums, most of which I'll never listen to or even begin to properly clean ( egads ).

Somehow a Fire seems like a merciful solution, now that I have two large Storage Units filled to brimming with my life's collection of....

A nice little Fire ( once in a while ) might be a useful provider of space to grow anew ( freedom from material slaveries ).

Tony in Tropical Venice Florida

ps. Mr.JimAustin's As We See It is superb writing, right up with fellow NY'r Ed Sullivan's 1930s Newspaper writing. I had no idea that anyone in Chemistry or Biology could be a "Man of Letters". Our Poet Laureate Herb R. has a bright Star to gaze upon, lucky HR and Lucky us!

rschryer's picture

Hope all is well.

JRT's picture

I disagree. That may be true for some, but far from all.

The many who don't piece together a system from simple off the shelf solutions and put significant effort in engineering their system from some mix of commercial production and bespoke designs might take insult from your condescending observation. That includes many among your readership.

The very best mastering studios reach well beyond commercial off the shelf solutions. And likewise some very good domestic playback setups.

I know a significant number of highly competent engineers who enjoy this hobby, who make their living doing something else, but well exercise their engineering chops in their own designs within this hobby, perhaps helping others. Interests are varied. Not everyone is incompetent.