Elton John, Nirvana, Beck Recordings Lost or Destroyed in UMG Fire - Rolling Stone
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UMG Confirm Elton John, Nirvana, Beck Recordings Were Lost or Damaged in Vault Fire

For the first time, the label revealed 19 specific artists whose recordings were damaged or destroyed in the 2008 blaze

Los Angeles County firefighter Darrick Woolever examines metal that needs to be removed at the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot, a day after a fire destroyed the New York Street facade, in the Universal City section of Los Angeles. The 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood that destroyed thousands of original recordings from many of the giants in the music industry was reportedly downplayed. In an article published by The New York Times Magazine, the extent of the loss was outlined in court and company documents. Universal Music Group estimated the loss at about 500,000 song titles dating back to the late 1940sUniversal Vault Fire, Los Angeles, USA - 02 Jun 2008

Universal Music Group confirmed publicly that recordings by 19 artists, including Elton John, Beck and Nirvana, were lost in a 2008 fire.

Ric Francis/AP/Shutterstock

Original master tapes and other recordings belonging to 19 artists, including Elton John, Nirvana, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden, Beck and R.E.M., were lost or damaged in a 2008 fire at a Universal Music Group vault, according to new legal documents obtained by Rolling Stone.

The revelation appeared in a new filing in the ongoing class action lawsuit against UMG on behalf of artists seeking damages related to the fire. It marks the first public confirmation of specific artists who lost recordings in the fire following a New York Times Magazine report last year that detailed the potential extent of the damages. The list also includes …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bryan Adams, David Baerwald, Jimmy Eat World, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald, Slayer, Sonic Youth, Suzanne Vega, Surfaris, White Zombie and Y&T.

The filing itself pertains to disputes over discovery in the class action suit, with lawyers for the artists seeking to obtain a complete list of damaged recordings. Lawyers for the artists cited a document that UMG filed back when it was pursuing litigation and insurance claims after the fire that included “17,000 unique artist names on the list of purportedly lost original music recordings.” UMG, in turn, said that list merely “identified myriad potentially lost assets,” including materials that aren’t original master recordings. The label did, however, name 19 artists whose material was either damaged or destroyed in the fire.

In a statement, Howard King, one of the lawyers for the artists behind the class action suit, said, “Universal claimed 17,000 artists were affected by the fire when they were suing for damages. Now that they face a lawsuit by their artists, they claim a mere 19 artists were affected. This discrepancy is inexplicable.”

Representatives for the 19 artists mentioned in the filing did not immediately return a request for comment. But a UMG spokesperson called the information “a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case.”

“The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already been informed that none of the masters for four of their five clients were affected by the fire — and the one other client was alerted years earlier and UMG and the artist, working together, were still able to locate a high-quality source for a reissue project,” the rep said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Recognizing the lack of merit of their original claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys are now willfully and irresponsibly conflating lost assets (everything from safeties and videos to artwork) with original album masters, in a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case. Over the last eight months, UMG’s archive team has diligently and transparently responded to artist inquiries, and we will not be distracted from completing our work, even as the plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue these baseless claims.”

Though the new filing doesn’t mention any specific recordings, there is a section in the filing that quotes an alleged UMG response to a discovery query, in which the label seems to confirm that “certain original master recordings” belonging to Beck, Adams, John, Y&T and Nirvana were “affected” by the fire. In the case of Adams, Nirvana, Y&T and Beck, UMG stated that it had replacements and/or safety copies for all the affected recordings. As for back-ups of recordings belonging to John, the filing stated that “UMG is still working with the artist to determine the extent of such impact.”

The filing revealed that “certain original multitrack master reels” of live Sonic Youth performances were affected, with no mention of any back-ups. The same went for “an original master recording” belonging to Frampton, a half-inch “flat original master recording” belonging to Slayer and an original master recording of a radio transcription belonging to Les Paul. Digital master recordings belonging to Jimmy Eat World and White Zombie were also affected, though UMG said it had digital clones for both.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and singer-songwriter David Baerwald both had “certain analog tapes” that could’ve been master recordings damaged or destroyed, but UMG said it had back-ups for the Trail of Dead recordings and replacements for all the Baerwald ones. Other affected recordings included: an R.E.M. “reel marked ‘flat'” from a song on a soundtrack, though UMG said it had copies; “certain original flat mixes” from Sheryl Crow, though UMG also said it had replacements; and “certain multitrack drum work tapes” from Michael McDonald, with no mention of any back-ups.

UMG said that certain assets belonging to Suzanne Vega and Surfaris were affected, though it was unclear whether these were master tapes or other recordings; in either case, the label said it had replacements. And lastly, UMG reiterated that it had previously informed Soundgarden in 2015 that it had lost some stereo masters related to Badmotorfinger in the fire.

Additional reporting by Althea Legaspi

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