Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Things we lost in the fire

Regular readers will know that I can often be found droning on about the value of physical records and the ephemeral nature of digital music formats. As recently as 8th June, responding to the news that Apple was killing off iTunes, I argued: "At least you know where you stand with an LP or CD on a shelf." Just three days later, however, the New York Times published a remarkable article that revealed just how precarious physical archives can be too.

In the piece, Jody Rosen branded the fire that devastated Building 6197, Universal Music Group's archive at Universal Studios Hollywood, in June 2008 as nothing less than "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business". The sheer scale of the losses supports that claim: the inferno wiped out the master tapes of countless celebrated musicians (and no doubt others ripe for rediscovery) as well as of storied labels like Decca, Chess and Impulse and more recent big-hitters such as Geffen and Interscope.

Rosen made a compelling case for the critical importance of a master, "a one-of-a-kind artefact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music" - one to which, even in an age of streaming and downloading, we continually need to go back to. He also flagged up the curious paradox that major record labels regard masters as significant corporate assets of which they are fiercely protective, and yet they often seem grossly negligent in the way they store such recordings.

What was perhaps most shocking about the whole incident, however, was the manner in which it was reported. Through meticulous research, Rosen was able to expose the spin and PR that UMG deployed to downplay or outright deny the extent of the losses. It was, fundamentally, a corporate cover-up. Even after the article published, UMG continued to dispute the story though - as Pitchfork pointed out - failed to cite any supporting evidence.

While Rosen noted that the blaze was to a degree an "open secret", it was by no means common knowledge. "It is probable", he wrote, "that musicians whose masters were destroyed have no idea that a vault holding UMG masters had burned down." Sure enough, one of the artists listed among the "genre-spanning who's who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music", Sheryl Crow, subsequently revealed that she had only learned of the loss of her tapes following the article's publication. Describing the situation as feeling "a little apocalyptic", she expressed her anger at the cover-up.

Crow hasn't announced legal action against UMG yet - but several others have, including Soundgarden, Hole and the estate of Tupac Shakur. More lawsuits will surely follow - but none of them, sadly, can bring those tapes back into existence.

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