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2008 Universal Lot Fire Inflicted A Devastating Loss To Music

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LOS ANGELES (CelebrityAccess) — While a fire that damaged the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood was widely reported at the time, what went unreported until now was just how much irreplaceable music history was lost in the blaze.

According to a report in the New York Times Magazine, part of the lot damaged by the fire housed warehouse used by Universal to store archival material, including a section that had been portioned off for use by Universal Music Group.

While media reports at the time focused on the loss of film stock, few took note of UMG’s use of the warehouse, with only Deadline’s Nikki Finke reporting that thousands of masters may have been lost or damaged in the fire.

At the time, UMG disputed the report, and claimed they had escaped unscathed, with a rep even telling Billboard: “We had no loss.”

However, behind closed doors, UMG was telling a different story. In confidential documents created in the wake of the fire and obtained by the New York Times, UMG’s internal estimates put the number of assets destroyed at 118,230, though due to the nature of the archival material, a true accounting will likely never be known.

Randy Aronson, who oversaw the repository for UMG at the time of the fire, says that UMG’s estimate figure is likely very low and suggested that the number of items lost blaze was “in the 175,000 range.”

Aronson told the Times that the scale of the loss is hard to fathom, and at the time, could have represented a combined total of lost tape and “loss of artistry” estimated to be worth about $150 million, the New York Times reported.

The warehouse was used to store material from dozens of prominent and historic labels, including Decca, Chess, Impulse, as well as the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen, and Interscope labels. The warehouse also stored masters from dozens of smaller labels that had been acquired by UMG, and in all cases, much of the material, including entire discographies from some of those labels vanished in the span of a few hours.

Material likely incinerated in the fire include Decca masters by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

As well, the fire most likely consumed the lion’s share of Chuck Berry’s Chess masters, as well as Chess material from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and early Aretha Franklin recordings. Almost all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost, as were much of the jazz label Impulse’s masters, including material from John Coltrane, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman.

Rock classics stored as single masters were lost as well, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

More contemporary material was also lost in the fire, and the New York Times listed recordings from artists such as Elton John, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Beck, and Eminem among numerous others.

In addition to widely known recordings by recognized artists, the vault also contained tens of thousands of recordings by little known artists, recordings that likely never made it to a compilation for re-release and now only exist as written entries in discographies.

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