Reading this story was just so painful. So much of our culture -GONE FOREVER. I had to admit, I thought by now that all of this had been digitized. The thought that it was just sitting in a building somewhere, and not in a sealed vault….the irresponsibility there by those in charge. Like they didn’t really appreciate what they had. …and, now, it’s GONE.
The Day the Music Burned
It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew. This is the story of the 2008 Universal fire.
By Jody Rosen
· June 11, 2019
1. ‘The Vault Is on Fire’
The fire that swept across the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood on Sunday, June 1, 2008, began early that morning, in New England. At 4:43 a.m., a security guard at the movie studio and theme park saw flames rising from a rooftop on the set known as New England Street, a stretch of quaint Colonial-style buildings where small-town scenes were filmed for motion pictures and television shows. That night, maintenance workers had repaired the roof of a building on the set, using blowtorches to heat asphalt shingles. They finished the job at 3 a.m. and, following protocol, kept watch over the site for another hour to ensure that the shingles had cooled. But the roof remained hot, and some 40 minutes after the workers left, one of the hot spots flared up.
The fire moved quickly. It engulfed the backlot’s famous New York City streetscape. It burned two sides of Courthouse Square, a set featured in “Back to the Future.” It spread south to a cavernous shed housing the King Kong Encounter, an animatronic attraction for theme-park visitors. Hundreds of firefighters responded, including Universal Studios’ on-site brigade. But the fire crews were hindered by low water pressure and damaged sprinkler systems and by intense radiant heat gusting between combustible structures.
Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault.
Shortly after the fire broke out, a 50-year-old man named Randy Aronson was awakened by a ringing phone at his home in Canyon Country, Calif., about 30 miles north of Universal City, the unincorporated area of the San Fernando Valley where the studio sits. Aronson had worked on the Universal lot for 25 years. His title was senior director of vault operations at Universal Music Group (UMG). In practice, this meant he spent his days overseeing an archive housed in the video vault. The term “video vault” was in fact a misnomer, or a partial misnomer. About two-thirds of the building was used to store videotapes and film reels, a library controlled by Universal Studios’s parent company, NBCUniversal. But Aronson’s domain was a separate space, a fenced-off area of 2,400 square feet in the southwest corner of the building, lined with 18-foot-high storage shelves. It was a sound-recordings library, the repository of some of the most historically significant material owned by UMG, the world’s largest record company.
One of the few journalists to note the existence of the UMG archive was Nikki Finke, the entertainment-industry blogger and gadfly. In a Deadline.com post on the day of the fire, Finke wrote that “1,000’s of original … recording masters” might have been destroyed in the warehouse, citing an anonymous source. The next day Finke published a “clarification,” quoting an unnamed representative from the record company: “Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come.” The same day, in the music trade publication Billboard, a UMG spokesperson again pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: “We had no loss.”
These reassuring pronouncements concealed a catastrophe. When Randy Aronson stood outside the burning warehouse on June 1, he knew he was witnessing a historic event. “It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson says. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.”
The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or “flat” analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.
The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost.
The monetary value of this loss is difficult to calculate. Aronson recalls hearing that the company priced the combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” at $150 million. But in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering. It’s impossible to itemize, precisely, what music was on each tape or hard drive in the vault, which had no comprehensive inventory. It cannot be said exactly how many recordings were original masters or what type of master each recording was. But legal documents, UMG reports and the accounts of Aronson and others familiar with the vault’s collection leave little doubt that the losses were profound, taking in a sweeping cross-section of popular music history, from postwar hitmakers to present-day stars.
Among the incinerated Decca masters were recordings by titanic figures in American music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.
Read the complete article to get the grasp and scope of what was lost. If you love music at all, and appreciate it…it will be painful.