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NYT MASTERS STORY IGNITES FIRESTORM

The term “master recording” isn’t tossed around casually in conversations outside the music business. Nonetheless, a lengthy investigative piece about the massive number of masters lost in a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008, drew enough interest to become the most-read story of 6/11 in The New York Times.

UMG issued a statement later of Tuesday stating that the story contained “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”

“Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the statement read in part. “While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios facility 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, quoted by Variety, goes on to cite “the tens of thousands of back catalog recordings that we have already issued in recent years—including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed.’… UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music.”  

Part of what made the report—headlined “The Day the Music Burned”—so compelling was the partial list of artists whose masters were lost forever in the blaze but not previously revealed:

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Patsy Cline, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Little Walter. Buddy Holly, John Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Haley, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, The Kingsmen, The Impressions. 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, The Roots.

“We have been aware of ‘missing’ original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now,” reads a statement from Irving Azoff, the Dan and the Eagles' manager from the beginnings of their careers. “We’ve never been given a plausible explanation. Maybe they burned up in the big fire. In any case, it’s certainly a lost treasure.”

UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL,’ put the number of ‘assets destroyed’ at 118,230,” wrote Jody Rosen. “Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was ‘in the 175,000 range.’ If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that ‘an estimated 500k song titles’ were lost.

“The monetary value of the loss is difficult to calculate. [UMG Sr. Director of Vault Operations RandyAronson recalls hearing that the company priced the combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” at $150 million. But in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering.”

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