It was hard as a music lover to feel anything besides a frothing rage while reading Jody Rosen’s gripping account, published last month in the New York Times Magazine, of a fire that swept through a Hollywood warehouse in 2008 and destroyed a large chunk of America’s cultural legacy.
The accidental blaze consumed a facility on a Universal Studios backlot where the Universal Music Group stored a significant portion of the master tapes owned by music labels under its corporate umbrella. More than 100,000 tapes, containing the original recordings of more than 500,000 songs, reportedly were lost in the flames.
There was scattered media coverage at the time, but the scale of the disaster somehow escaped public attention until now. The fire destroyed master recordings of important albums and singles by towering figures such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Tom Petty, R.E.M., Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, the Roots and hundreds more, well-known and obscure alike, according to internal communications Rosen obtained.
The extent of the devastation arguably rivals [puts on reading glasses] the burning of the Library of Alexandria during the Roman Civil War in the 1st Century BC or the destruction of the Grand Library of Baghdad during the 13th Century Mongolian siege in terms of the incalculability of its loss to world culture.
That may sound hyperbolic to anyone unfamiliar with the record-making process. But without master tapes, listening to recorded music would be impossible. They are the primary analog sources from which all copies of a musical recording derive, whether they’re issued as vinyl LPs, compact discs, digital files for download or items on a streaming playlist.
Masters are the work in its purest form. Every song any of us has ever heard or loved is a copy of a master recording, subject to a depreciative game of telephone spanning decades and various music formats. Sure, you can cue up “Johnny B. Goode” on Spotify, but the version you’re hearing is a compressed file, Rosen explains, that “was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD, which itself may have been created from a suboptimal ‘safety copy’ of the LP master — or even from a dubbed duplicate of that dubbed duplicate.”
The recording industry is nearly a century old, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that master recordings held much literal or symbolic value, because of the changes in format (records to tapes, tapes to CDs, CDs to downloads, downloads to streaming, etc.) that allow record labels to reissue music and renegotiate royalty payments, almost always to the artists’ financial detriment.
As the largest and most profitable music company that has ever existed, UMG is the steward of much of America’s artistic wealth — original recordings of the blues, jazz, country, gospel, rock, soul and hip-hop that emerged from the nation’s deep swamps, sun-blasted fields, urban and rural churches, juke joints, punk clubs and scarred city streets, then spread across the world.
The ashes of this vast tape library present a convenient metaphor for, and surely a symptom of, the industry’s economic disregard and exploitative plunder — without which, ironically, our cultural treasures might never have surfaced and circulated in the first place.
And many of them never circulated at all. The early pop music business was ephemeral and singles-driven. Music succeeded or failed and usually disappeared either way.
Entire discographies from obscure labels sat on shelves next to outtakes from beloved icons, much of it never formally cataloged or archived.
That might be the real tragedy. We’ll probably always have access in some form to Charles Mingus and the Moody Blues and Sonic Youth and the Andrews Sisters and Three Dog Night and the Who and Nine Inch Nails and Judy Garland and many of the others whose masters burned. But we’ve lost the work of the next overlooked genius whose tapes were just sitting there, waiting for the miracle of random discovery, but are now gone forever.