Master Recordings by Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Nirvana and More Were Destroyed in 2008 Fire
The damage done by the fire was initially downplayed by Universal, though more than 500,000 songs were thought to be lost
Master recordings by artists spanning decades and genres, including Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Nirvana, were reportedly destroyed in 2008 when a fire ripped through the Universal Studios backlot — though their doomed fate has been kept under wraps until now.
The blaze made headlines in June 2008, as it destroyed parts of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, as well as several sets used for filming and a large warehouse that stored videotapes and film reels.
PEOPLE reported at the time that the King Kong exhibit was “three quarters lost” and that the New York set “has been totally lost.”
But according to a new investigation by The New York Times Magazine, Universal Music Group’s sound-recordings library, which held thousands of master copies of various songs, was also largely destroyed by the fire.
Universal Studios officials reportedly kept the damage hush-hush at the time, saying that nothing that had been lost was the sole copy of a work.
Still, the Times reports that a 2009 internal report estimated that 500,000 songs had been lost.
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Many of the recordings stretch back to the 1940s, and include masters from legendary singers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland. Billie Holiday’s entire Decca recordings are reportedly thought to be lost, too, as are all of Buddy Holly’s masters.
The Times reports the flames likely swallowed up the first commercially released material by Aretha Franklin, recorded when she was still a teenager, as well as songs like “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets and “At Last” by Etta James.
UMG responded to the report in a statement, claiming it “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”
“While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred … more than a decade ago, the incident – while deeply unfortunate – never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation,” the statement read.
It also accused the report of “conveniently” ignoring tens of thousands of back catalogues issued in recent years, including “master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed.'”
As Adam Block, former president of Legacy Recordings, explained to the Times, a master is the “truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” and is used as the original source for all future recordings and copies.
“Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time,” he said. “Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”