A report by the New York Times has revealed for the first time that some 500,000 recordings by many of music's biggest artists were destroyed in a fire that swept through the Hollywood lot of Universal Studios on June 1st, 2008. Among the recordings lost — many of which may have been on original master tapes — were songs from Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Guns N' Roses, Beck, No Doubt, Aerosmith, R.E.M. and more.
Also lost were almost all of Buddy Holly's masters, plus classic and/or early recordings from Etta James, Billie Holiday, Louie Armstrong, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Al Green, Ray Charles, Elton John, B.B. King, The Four Tops, Snoop Dogg, Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, The Police, Sting, Steve Earle, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and countless more.
At the time of the fire, the coverage focused on the damage to Universal's film, TV and theme park properties, with representatives stating that most of the music kept in the vault on the lot had been moved to “our other facilities” or “digitized.” The Times revealed, however, that more than 118,000 “assets” were destroyed, containing half a million individual recordings. Many were from famed labels such as Decca, Chess, Impulse, MCA, Geffen, ABC, A&M and Interscope.
Randy Aronson, the Senior Director of Vault Operations at the time, told the Times that the company priced the actual combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” at $150 million. The Times itself referred to the fire as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business,” citing internal reports, legal documents and the recollection of Aronson and others who were there.
Universal has disputed the Times story, saying it contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” The company also cited its recent history of releasing high-quality reissues of many of the albums claimed to have been destroyed, adding, “Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record.”