Music | June 12, 2019 10:50 am

The “Biggest Disaster” in Music Business History Went Unreported Until Now

A 2008 fire in Universal Music Group’s vault burned thousands of master recordings

A fire on the backlot of Universal Studios burns in 2008. (Trixie Textor/Getty)
A fire on the backlot of Universal Studios burns in 2008. (Trixie Textor/Getty)
Getty Images

A 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood made news around the world because “a vault full of video and television images” had burned up, affecting film festivals which were reliant on prints from the studio’s library.

What was lost in the news was the Universal’s lot also contained a vault containing thousands of Universal Music Group (UMG) master recordings — and those burned as well.

That news was just brought to light in New York Times feature by Jody Rosen that details what she calls “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

If that characterization seems like a bit of a stretch, consider some of the artists who lost masters in the blaze: Al Green, Ray Charles, Elton John, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Eric Clapton, R.E.M. Hole, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, the Police, Sting, Steve Earle, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Roots.

In Universal’s official accounting of its losses, it claims it lost 118,230 “assets,” but UMG senior director of vault operations Randy Aronson thinks the real number is “in the 175,000 range.”

“It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson told The Times. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed. The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story. They did an outstanding job of keeping it quiet. It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.”

Aronson lost his job with UMG in 2016 and admitted he would not have spoken on the topic of the fire if he was still employed by Universal.

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