The New York Times Magazine just published a fascinating new piece about the 2008 Universal fire, a catastrophic event that many don’t realize resulted in the burning of a lot of historic music recordings. At the time, public attention was aimed on the damage to a King Kong theme park exhibit, and the loss of the master recordings flying under the radar was described as “a triumph of crisis management” by writer Jody Rosen. It turns out, though, that the warehouse fire led to the destruction of many historically significant recordings.
The piece notes, “In a document prepared for a March 2009 ‘Vault Loss Meeting,’ the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. ‘The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,’ the document read. ‘Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.'” The list of artists whose work was affected is a dishearteningly long one, and it includes artists like Eminem, 50 Cent, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, B.B. King, Elton John, Tom Petty, and so many more:
“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. It includes recordings by 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 and the Roots.”
This means that high-quality re-masters based on the lost original recordings are no longer possible. As the piece notes, “Right now, sound-savvy consumers are taking the next leap forward into high-resolution audio, which can deliver streaming music of unprecedented depth and detail. But you can’t simply up-convert existing digital files to higher resolution. You have to return to the master and recapture it at a higher bit rate.”
Read the full feature here.