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LOST MASTERS: FIRES, ARCHIVES AND LEGAL MOVES (UPDATED)

UMG has filed a motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit brought by representatives of several artists whose master tapes were believed destroyed in the 2008 fire (about which more below). The upshot is that the label asserts that the plaintiffs have no case because UMG controlled the rights to the masters at the time of the conflagration. More details soon.


In a memo that went companywide on Wednesday, Pat Kraus, UMG's head of studio, production and archive services, provided a detailed progress report about the company’s efforts to determine what specific master recordings were destroyed in the 2008 fire at the NBCUniversal Studios lot.

“At Sir Lucian’s request,’ the internal memo begins, “I’d like to update you on our efforts to provide our artists transparency with respect to the archived assets we have in our facilities and those that were lost...

“Over the past several weeks, our team has been working around the clock, fielding requests from approximately 275 artists and representatives. To date we’ve reviewed 26,663 individual assets covering 30 artists. Of those assets, we believe we’ve identified 424 that could be missing or lost due to the fire, with audio assets accounting for 349 of them. Our data suggests that 22 of those could be ‘original masters’ which are associated with 5 artists. For each of those lost masters, we have located high-quality alternate sources in the form of safety copies or duplicate masters. As we complete new work and we fill in gaps of work we’ve already done, these tallies will continue to evolve by the hour.

“Of course, our work is just beginning. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to update our artists and internal teams with our progress. That said, our work can’t be reduced to numbers. As Sir Lucian stated, the loss of even one piece of archive material is heartbreaking. And while our initial efforts have yielded encouraging results, it’s fair to assume that while some recordings will prove not to have been impacted, others naturally will. For those of us who have devoted our lives to the preservation of music, there are many painful moments when we contemplate what has been lost. However, this experience has inspired us to redouble our efforts...”

Kraus then answers the most-frequently asked questions he’s received since the 6/11 online publication Jody Rosen’s New York Times Magazine report revealing that the extent of the loss was far greater than previously known. Some excerpts follow:

  • “There is no definitive list of what was destroyed in the fire because it affected both inventoried assets and those that were not inventoried.”

  • “For these older assets, we often must rely on the accuracy of the information that was originally written on a box in a studio or by a third party and which was then subsequently transferred to a database. Where the information was not cataloged reliably…more investigative work by our team is required.”

  • “There is no definitive list of what was destroyed in the fire. Thus, just because an artist was listed in an article about the 2008 fire does not necessarily mean that that artist’s masters were destroyed. In the aftermath of the fire, many internal working lists and drafts of lists were generated and used for various purposes. A number of these lists included assets known to have been in the NBCUniversal facility, as well as assets—such as the entire catalogs of certain labels—which might or might not have been stored there.”

  • “Our current priority is to communicate directly with our artists and their representatives. Each artist can determine if they wish to publicly release the information we convey to them.”

  • “We reissue thousands of recordings a year, and each project presents a unique set of challenges to overcome... For those masters that were lost in the fire, we explore various alternatives that may exist to make up for the loss.”

  • “Many of the artists who have spoken out did so based on their concerns after reading their names in The New York Times Magazine. We have subsequently communicated with many of these artists following their public comments and in many cases we’ve been able to reassure them about the status of masters of their performances… The Times report is not a reliable source for what was lost, and as a result it has created significant confusion.”

  • “Our assets are safely housed in temperature-controlled, secure facilities strategically located near our key operations centers. Our global team of archivists regularly and continuously care for our masters and other recorded media...”
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