The Day the Music Died

If you’re a music fan—and if you’re reading this, you probably are—you’ve heard this already: On June 11, the New York Times Magazine published an investigative report about a 2008 fire that destroyed a vault at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

Workers were repairing a roof on an oft-reused movie set, heating asphalt tiles with a blowtorch. Protocol required the repairmen to stick around for one hour until the asphalt had cooled, to guard against fire. But shortly after they left, a fire broke out. Hundreds of firefighters fought it, pulling water from the lake once inhabited by The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But before the fire was extinguished, it reached Building 6197, a “nondescript,” “hulking edifice of corrugated metal” known to Universal locals as the video vault. When Randy Aronson, the vault’s supervisor, arrived early in the morning. what he saw shocked him. The “fire was blasting out of the building as if shot from giant flamethrowers,” wrote Jody Rosen, the article’s author.

In 2008, in the immediate aftermath, the media helped Universal downplay the fire’s effects. “A vault full of video and television images” had burned, the Times innocently reported. “In no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work.” Billboard published a statement from an unidentified Universal rep: “We had no loss.”

What Universal neglected to say was that Building 6197 wasn’t used just for storing movie assets. Universal Music Group—UMG—used it, too, to store master tapes. UMG’s corner took up as much floor space as a largish home, filling shelves 18′ high.

The recent Times Magazine article says the fire claimed Buddy Holly’s master tapes (although sources close to Stereophile dispute that). John Coltrane’s tapes for the Impulse! label went up in flames, alongside Impulse! recordngs by Albert Ayler, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and Trane’s second wife, Alice. The master tape for “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets, is said to have been destroyed. Ditto “Louie Louie,” by The Kingsmen. And “People Get Ready,” by The Impressions. And Chuck Berry’s music on Chess Records.

Other artists whose works were destroyed include Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Les Paul, Fats Domino, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Iggy Pop, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Beck, and Tupac Shakur.

At this writing, some living artists still don’t know whether their master tapes exist or were burned in the fire. One report says that a group of artists including Soundgarden, Hole, and the estate of Tupac Shakur is suing Universal, accusing the company of “burying the truth in sealed court filings and a confidential settlement agreement.”

After the Times Magazine article broke, Universal told Variety “Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record.” The article, though, revealed that, 18 years earlier, a fire set by a security guard reached “the doorstep” of Building 6197. That was the sixth fire recorded at the Universal backlot. Another fire followed in 1997.

In 2004, a New Jersey storage vault containing 350,000 UMG master tapes, including the whole Motown catalog, flooded when an upstairs water main broke. (Most of those tapes were salvaged.) That incident apparently got the company’s attention: Alarmed, UMG moved many of its musical assets into safer storage. Many but not all.

Universal’s defense rests on claims that other versions of these lost recordings are still available. It’s true. Some of the now-lost archives had been digitized, achieving that odd, ephemeral immortality peculiar to digital recordings. Some of what burned still streams on Qobuz and Tidal. Some of it exists on tapes stored elsewhere — although an attempt to reconstitute the burned archive from later-generation duplicates recovered only about a fifth of what was lost.

And of course, most of the music still exists in distribution formats: 78s, LPs, CDs. There’s an excellent chance you own some of it; even I have a few of those records. I inherited an early Chuck Berry, on Chess, from an uncle. Over the years, I’ve bought several first-edition Coltranes on Impulse!. On that June day in 2008, some of our records probably got more valuable — thanks, Universal!

Behind the scenes, UMG executives must have despaired: Record companies have been selling us that music over and over at least since the CD era — easy pickings that probably carried the industry through financially troubled times. They won’t be able to do that anymore, not with the music stored in Building 6197. Not from The Original Analog Tapes.

It’s not the library at Alexandria, but for lovers of culture, it’s still a tragedy. It’s also a grim reminder of something audiophiles tell each other often, whether we truly believe it or not: It’s the music that matters.

Building an audio system, however pleasant, is an elevated form of shopping. Acquiring music is, or can be, something more meaningful: curation. Preservation. The music has real meaning, especially when it takes physical form — a reel-to-reel tape, an LP, even a humble CD. In one way these recordings are better than master tapes. They’re the precise things musicians were aiming for when they went into the studio: records that radio stations would play, and fans would buy and listen to. They’re pieces of our culture, artifacts that, if they were to be lost and then rediscovered hundreds of years hence in some buried vault, would be of inestimable cultural and historical value. After the fire, they matter more than ever.—Jim Austin

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