We now know a little bit more about what was lost in the 2008 Universal Studios warehouse fire.
In new court filings made public on Thursday (13), Universal Music Group gave a basic account of which artists lost their master recordings in the blaze. The 19 artists on the list include Slayer, White Zombie, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Elton John, Beck, Y&T, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Bryan Adams, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Jimmy Eat World, David Baerwald, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, Susanne Vega, Michael McDonald and Surfaris.
The account details to what extent the damage of each of the artists incurred. For some artists, such as Slayer, Sonic Youth, Les Paul, Michael McDonald and Peter Frampton, masters were lost and no replacement copies were mentioned, inferring that those recordings could possibly be gone for good. Other artists, like Beck, had some of their masters destroyed, but high-quality replacements were available. Still others, like Elton John, were told that they had some masters affected and Universal is still working with them on figuring out just what was lost.
This filing marks the first time Universal has officially admitted specific damages to an artist’s recordings. The company had been downplaying any damages incurred during the 2008 blaze at the Universal Studios warehouse on the Hollywood Studios lot for more than a decade. Universal continued to downplay the losses when the New York Times Magazine report was released in June 2019, claiming that the information they reported “contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”
Said lawyer for the artists Howard King in a statement following the new filing, “Universal claimed 17,000 artists were affected by the fire when they were suing for damages. Now that they face a lawsuit by their artists, they claim a mere 19 artists were affected. This discrepancy is inexplicable.”
Universal also made a statement in the wake of the filing, telling Pitchfork:
“The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already been informed that none of the masters for four of their five clients were affected by the fire — and the one other client was alerted years earlier and UMG and the artist, working together, were still able to locate a high-quality source for a reissue project. Recognizing the lack of merit of their original claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys are now willfully and irresponsibly conflating lost assets (everything from safeties and videos to artwork) with original album masters, in a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case. Over the last eight months, UMG’s archive team has diligently and transparently responded to artist inquiries, and we will not be distracted from completing our work, even as the plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue these baseless claims.”
In the weeks following the Times report, a class-action lawsuit was mounted by a handful of artists seeking answers from Universal about master recordings potentially lost in the fire. Initial artists in the suit were Hole, Soundgarden, Steve Earle and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur. Hole subsequently dropped out after learning that the band’s masters were unaffected. The initial suit claims that Universal “Did not take ‘all reasonable steps to make sure they are not damaged, abused, destroyed, wasted, lost or stolen,’ and it did not ‘speak up immediately [when it saw] abuse or misuse’ of assets.”
Universal tried to get the class-action suit dismissed in July, claiming that the artists had no right to any of the 2013 insurance or settlement proceeds because the master tapes were not the artists’ property, as well as the statute of limitations on filing such a lawsuit having lapsed.