Universal Fire
The 2008 Universal Lot Fire [ pinguino kCC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Universal Fire

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“The Day the Music Burned”: https://nyti.ms/2F3ZpZq

Artists should own their masters.

Executives come and go, the tracks they’re in custody of are forever.

Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the blaze.

In other words, acts care more about their material than any executive, IT’S THEIR LIFE’S WORK!

Now in the book publishing world, the author owns the copyright, even if the book is a loser. How come not in the music industry? Especially when the act is in profits and has paid for the recording of the album. Not to mention, it’s not a dollar for dollar reimbursement, no, recoupment is based on your royalty rate. In other words, if you’re a newbie with a bad deal it takes longer to recoup than if you’re a star with a better one. Aren’t costs costs? Not in the record business, where the acts are slaves. And with 360 deals, the labels have an interest in all income streams, the acts are tied to the label, and if they’ve got a bad deal they can’t make any money. This is fair? NO!

Now the problem with the major labels is no one who works there has skin in the game. They’re not playing with their own money. If you own the label you know your masters are your lifeblood, they’re all you’ve got, you want to protect them. When you sell out, the purchaser is buying your catalog first and foremost, especially if you’ve been in business for decades. But if you don’t own the label, if you’re working for the man, why in hell would you want to protect the company’s back assets? You weren’t involved in creating them, you don’t own them, the revenues derived from them don’t represent the majority of your paycheck. And you want to make your bonus, why would you add costs to your detriment? Because the assets are a national treasure? That goes against the self-interest that has taken root over the past few decades in the U.S., never mind instinct.

So the acts are victims.

But it gets worse, you’ve got the duplicity of Universal itself. I remember when the fire happened, I bought the line that everything had been digitized, that these were safeties, that nothing of value was lost…BUT THAT WAS A LIE!

And now Universal is trying to cover up with subterfuge, saying that good enough copies exist, that the material wasn’t lost forever… BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT! Universal is just like a man accused of bad behavior, rather than admitting it, it’s denying it, making excuses.


So the public is pissed.

This was the most popular story in “The New York Times” and it hasn’t even hit print yet! Because these songs are the lifeblood of the audience, they’re what make life worth living. Movies are larger than life, music is life itself.

And fans are never satiated. They want to hear the work tapes, the alternative takes. Hell, the Beatles sold multiple CDs of outtakes. Imagine if Universal had been in control of THEIR tapes!

Universal owns them, but the Beatles are savvy enough to have not coughed them up.

Actually, many acts don’t cough them up. And then there are the acts that leave them in the studios they’ve been working in, especially mastering. They seem to care less than Universal. Until income dries up and they want to maximize what’s in the vault and they find there’s nothing in it.

And yes, the original copy is the best. Talk to anybody who’s been in the studio. The sound comes out of the speakers and you’re wowed. Getting closer to the original sound was a big thing in the sixties and seventies, ergo the audio revolution, when everybody bought a big rig. Those days are coming back, maybe not with big rigs, but technology keeps improving which will ultimately let us get closer to the sound. But if the original doesn’t exist, this is a problem.

And what were the tapes doing in that facility on the Universal lot anyway? Everybody knows that storage is key. We’re told to stack our vinyl vertically, not too tight, to keep it away from heat, but

UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge

those who manufacture it care not a whit about the masters? Temperature-controlled, fireproof, these are not exotic concepts, it’s just that Universal didn’t care enough, it took its eye off the ball. Hell, Doug Morris is long gone. And Lucian can say it’s not his fault. But this is the problem with corporations, they continue to exist but the leaders change, there’s no accountability.

But the acts… They’re not faceless. Their music is their statement, their income, it is everything. A manager can always get a new act, the act is itself for all time. To the point where a mistake can ruin your career. Can you say Billy Squier’s pink video? But at least Squier can continue to get paid for airplay from his monster LP “Don’t Say No,” which ironically is on Capitol. You know that Billy would love to sell alternative mixes, outtakes, anything to bring in income, but now he can’t.


All those albums on Geffen?

As for digitization… We were told that CDs were perfect copies, turns out they weren’t. Sure, it was a learning process, but also better, more accurate, recording formats/transfers have been invented since.

But the original never changes, it remains the same. You want to get to the source, reproduce it as well as possible. But if that’s impossible?

So the public at large is up in arms because of the significance of the loss. These tracks are the building blocks of their lives, the foundation, to wipe them out is like destroying the Twin Towers. Oh, maybe that’s a low blow, but in some ways, this is even worse. Yes, copies remain, but what was lost impacts even more people. I just can’t fathom that Joni Mitchell masters, and Don Henley masters, went up in smoke, are gone forever. Iconic musicians and material… Gone. Because someone just did not care enough. No bomb was dropped, no act of terrorism was involved, Universal just did not care enough.

Neil Young also lost masters in the fire. (Photo Credit: Henry Diltz.)

Universal should do a mea culpa and produce a list of exactly what was lost, as a public service. Universal should not be adversarial, it should be on our side, it should be on the music’s side. This is like having a fire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and being told that nothing of value was lost and furthermore they’re never going to tell you what it is. The conservation, the well-being of these recordings, is a national trust. Believe me, if this was a government organization, there’d be hearings, people would lose their jobs. For those who say the public sector does better, this proves in some cases it does not. Universal SKATES! Tells the insurance company the breadth of its loss and then denies it to everybody else. Hell, they haven’t even told the artists what’s been lost!

Loss happens. Tragedy occurs. We ultimately deal with it, accept it, and then institute procedures so it won’t happen again.

Unless there’s a cover-up.

Universal put in peril the essential fuel, the only asset the company is built upon. It deserves the backlash, it needs to be held accountable.

And this must be a warning to labels…keep your assets, your recordings safe.


And it must also be a warning to artists. DON’T COUGH UP YOUR MASTERS! Send the label copies. Hold on to your work because nobody cares about it as much as you. And the public.

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