Photo: Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Devastating 2008 Fire Reportedly Destroyed Masters By Aretha Franklin, Nirvana, The Roots & Many More
The 2008 fire that swept through the backlot at Universal Studios in Burbank, Calif., was widely reported at the time as causing minimal damage to on-site archives. But the actual extent of what was lost is the focus of an alarming New York Times Magazine article, which calls the fire "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business" and reports a loss of an estimated 500,000 master recordings from many music legends, including Aretha Franklin, Nirvana, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Roots, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, Eminem, Janet Jackson, R.E.M., Hole and more.
Musicians reeled after the disclosure that an estimated 500,000 recordings were destroyed in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood: “I think they’re gone forever" https://t.co/fJGpFKF7br
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 12, 2019
The fire reportedly began in the small hours of Sunday morning, June 1, 2008, after maintainence workers finished repairing the roof of a building on set using a blowtorch. The workers followed protocol and monitored the roof for an hour after their work was complete to make sure the surface had cooled, but 40 minutes after they left, the roof caught on fire, according to the Times. In the fire's aftermath, many outlets reported the damage was limited to video and film, and no mention was made of a music archive housed in the backlot of the film studio.
The June 11 article in the Times presented a much more devastating reality, claiming, "The list of destroyed single and album masters takes in titles by dozens of legendary artists, a genre-spanning who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music."
UMG was quick to respond to the story. “Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the company said in a statement in Variety. "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."
Several artists whose masters were reportedly destroyed by the blaze took to social media today. The Roots' Questlove cited the fire as the reason two of their albums have not been revisited, tweeting, "For everyone asking why Do You Want More & Illadelph Halflife won’t get reissue treatment, I been dying to find all the old reels and mix the 8 or 9 songs that never made DYWM. My plan for both DYWM & IH was to release all the songs and instrumental/a cappella remixes on 45," adding, "They sent someone to check out the vault log and then it hit them.”
For everyone asking why Do You Want More & Illdelph Halflife wont get reissue treatment https://t.co/Vs0ykRcyAK
— Questlove De La Rose (@questlove) June 11, 2019
Additionally, Pitchfork reported a representative for Hole stated that the band was, “not aware until this morning,” that their tapes were lost in the fire. R.E.M.'s official Twitter account tweeted, “We are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on our band’s music, if any... We will detail further as and when.”