When a fire engulfed the Universal Film Studio and theme park in California 11 years ago, the entertainment giant publicly insisted there was nothing much to mourn.
The King Kong Encounter, a huge animatronic attraction, had gone up in smoke, admitted Universal — as had a video vault that contained only dusty copies of old works that almost nobody would miss.
In fact it’s now claimed that this was one of the biggest cultural cover-ups in history.
The Universal Studios blaze which broke out 11 years ago destroyed the original master tapes of some 500,000 songs, from Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Elton John to The Police
A great many of Chuck Berry’s original recordings were destroyed in the blaze
Master tracks belonging to The Police, pictured were also housed in Building 6197, which was known as the video vault – but also contained Universal Music Group’s archive
Building 6197, known as the video vault, did house old film recordings and reels — but it also was where the Universal Music Group, (UMG), by far the world’s biggest record company, housed a vast collection of ‘master tapes’, the irreplaceable original recordings of pieces of music.
Some 500,000 songs — from Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong to Elton John and The Police — were incinerated, Universal now admits. The loss spans generations — 70 years of some of the world’s greatest music can now never be heard again as it was recorded.
The New York Times, which investigated the fire, has described the obliteration of the UMG archive as ‘the biggest disaster in the history of the music business’.
In this digital age, some will wonder whether it matters that a lot of dusty old tape-reels are gone. After all, many music lovers no longer have any physical copies of the songs they listen to, relying entirely on digital versions.
Of course, such versions do exist but, say devastated music experts, that isn’t the same. Digital copies — usually a copy of a copy — are inferior, preserving less of the contents of the original music.
In many cases, artists on the legendary Decca Records label – which dated back to the late 40s, such as Judy Garland, pictured, were also in the archive
A ‘master’, initially recorded on analogue magnetic tape and in digital form more recently, is a unique musical artefact whose loss is irretrievable.
The master holds the so-called multi-track recordings: the raw individual elements of a song in which each instrument — drums, keyboard, strings — remain isolated from each other in separate sections of the tape.
The master recordings also often include ‘session masters’, separate recordings that were never commercially released and which might never have been heard again after they were recorded. ‘A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music, every copy thereafter is a sonic step away,’ said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalogue arm.
The list of what’s gone in the Universal conflagration — or assumed to be gone, given that nobody knows precisely what was there — is almost endless.
Those recordings in the revered Decca Records collection dated back to the late Forties and included Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Almost all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost, as were those of Chuck Berry.
The first commercially released material by the late Aretha Franklin, recorded when she was a young teenager performing in her pastor father’s church services, is also ‘very likely lost’, says the New York Times.
More modern artists such as Sheryl Crow, pictured also saw their work destroyed
The master recordings of Sixties icons including Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond and Sonny and Cher are all gone. The Seventies victims include the Eagles, Tom Petty and Aerosmith. A decade later, losses include Guns N’ Roses, Sting and Janet Jackson. More recently, Nirvana, Sheryl Crow, and rappers Eminem, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent are among the affected artists.
In a statement, Universal Music Group claimed the scale of the destruction has been overstated.
It said: ‘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.’
As news of the disaster started to filter through to affected musicians, it became clear that these performers had been kept in the dark about the scale of the disaster or had learned about it only when they had tried to find their master recordings.
Bands such as REM, Nirvana and Steely Dan were shocked.
‘We have been aware of “missing” original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now,’ said the manager of the Seventies band, Irving Azoff. ‘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.’
Given the enormity of what has been lost it may not be entirely surprising that Universal Music Group spent years covering it up.
It had been bought by French company Vivendi in 2006, since when it had been renting the space at Universal Studios.
According to the New York Times, it was an ‘open secret’ in the company for years. The newspaper has cited a 2009 internal document that says: ‘Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.’
However, early reports that something terrible had happened to the music archives were firmly denied by company spokesmen.
They claimed most of the master recordings had been moved to a giant storage vault in Pennsylvania which is also used by the software giant Microsoft.
The small amount that remained in the archives, they said, had been digitised and physically copied. However, insiders complained Universal had prioritised saving videos even though — unlike the music — they had backup copies of these.
The fire broke out at Universal’s 400-acre lot, in the outskirts of Los Angeles on the roof of a building that was used as part of a film set.
Workmen had been using blow torches to repair the roof but went home wrongly thinking that the heated asphalt shingles had cooled down.
About 400 firemen tackled the blaze, which sent a pall of black smoke into the Los Angeles sky.
The fire spread quickly through the various film and TV sets, eventually reaching a 22,320-sq ft warehouse — Building 6197, or the ‘video vault’.
Randy Aronson, the UMG executive who managed the vault, said it was ‘like watching molten lava move through the building’.
Firemen then tried to use bulldozers to knock down the building so they could get at the fire more easily. By then, the recordings archive was reduced to ashes.
Mr Aronson says he ‘recalls hearing’ that the company estimated the value of the value of the loss at $150 million (£118 million).
However, due to the imprecise records of exactly what was in the vault, experts say the damage is impossible to value.
The fire was international news but virtually no reports mentioned any music archive — because almost nobody outside the company knew that it was there.
NBCUniversal insisted that nothing in the video vault had been lost that hadn’t already been copied — but in the case of the music, that simply wasn’t true.
Sources say Universal Music Group — which is estimated to be worth £26 billion — covered up the music loss not only because it feared public embarrassment but it was worried about a backlash from the artists and their estates.
‘The company knew that there would be shock and outrage if people found out the real story,’ said Mr Aronson. ‘It’s a secret I’m ashamed to have been a part of.’