Two weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an explosive report detailing hundreds of thousands of recordings that Universal Music Group believed were lost in a 2008 warehouse fire at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, unbeknownst to the artists themselves. The vault in question stored master tapes for a tragic number of the 20th century’s most popular musicians, from Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin to Tupac Shakur and Nirvana.
The list of the warehouse’s contents was sourced from UMG’s own internal research into the extent of the destruction, for the purpose of valuing damages for insurance settlements and a lawsuit against the warehouse’s then-landlord NBCUniversal. Today the magazine published an expanded list of over 700 acts whose recordings UMG believed were destroyed.
In addition to the stunning number of artists named in the original report, UMG’s internal lists of tapes thought lost also included recordings by The Who, Neil Young, David Crosby, Jawbreaker, Blink-182, Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Smash Mouth, Veruca Salt, and Nils Lofgren. The story outlines more by genre:
classic pop balladeers (Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Pat Boone), jazz greats (Sidney Bechet, Betty Carter, Roland Kirk), show business legends (Groucho Marx, Mae West, Bob Hope), gospel groups (the Dixie Hummingbirds, Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers), country icons (the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell), illustrious songwriters (Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Pomus, Lamont Dozier), doo-wop and rhythm & blues favorites (Johnny Ace, the Moonglows, the Del-Vikings), ’50s and ’60s chart toppers (Ricky Nelson, Petula Clark, Brenda Lee), bluesmen (Slim Harpo, Elmore James, Otis Rush), world-music stars (Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Milton Nascimento), classic rockers (The Who, Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night), folkies and folk-rockers (Sandy Denny, Crosby & Nash, Buffy Sainte-Marie), singer-songwriters (Phil Ochs, Terry Callier, Joan Armatrading), ’70s best-sellers (Peter Frampton, Olivia Newton-John, Barry Gibb), soul and disco-era stalwarts (the Dramatics, the Pointer Sisters, George Benson), AM rock-radio staples (Styx, Boston, 38 Special), divas and divos (Cher, Tom Jones), British punks and new wavers (The Damned, Joe Jackson, Squeeze), MTV fixtures (Wang Chung, Patti Smyth, Extreme), hip-hop/R&B hitmakers (Bell Biv Devoe, Jodeci, Blackstreet), ’90s rock acts (Primus, Temple of the Dog, the Wallflowers), rappers (Heavy D. & the Boyz, Busta Rhymes, Common), comedians (Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock), even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Since The New York Times Magazine’s original story, representatives for Hole, Steely Dan, and others have said UMG never told them that their tapes were likely destroyed in the fire. Hole, Soundgarden, Steve Earle, and the estates for Shakur and Tom Petty filed a class-action lawsuit against the company last Friday seeking $100 million in damages for failing to protect the recordings or to disclose any income received in settlements from the fire’s aftermath.
Exactly what was destroyed remains unclear, and it may be impossible to ever know the full extent of the loss. The lawsuit filed last week demands that UMG provide “a complete inventory,” but as the new report describes, the vault’s conditions and the company’s poor archiving processes may prevent it from ever providing a comprehensive record:
Decades of slapdash inventory practices — the company’s failure to invest in complete records of its holdings — had resulted in an insoluble discographical puzzle. UMG knew what labels’ masters had been stored in the vault; they know, broadly, which artists’ recordings had been on the shelves. But the knowledge got fuzzier when it came down to individual albums or songs, especially given the presence in the vault of an indeterminate number of masters containing outtakes, demos and other recordings that were never commercially released.
Courtney Love addressed the situation in the new Times article. “No one knows for sure yet, specifically what is gone from their estate, their catalog,” she wrote in an email. “But for once in a horrible way people believe me about the state of the music business which I would not wish on my worst enemy. Our culture has been devastated, meanwhile UMG is online with cookie recipes and pop, as if nothing happened. It’s so horrible.”
You can bum yourself out by reading the full list here.