Universal Studios back lot with Los Angeles in the background

In June 2008, a three-alarm fire ripped through the back lot of Universal Studios Hollywood, razing street sets, a video vault, and the King Kong attraction. It took over 500 firefighters more than 12 hours to extinguish the blaze. At the time, Universal downplayed the damage: “Nothing irreplaceable was lost,” said Universal president Ron Meyer. “We have duplicates of everything that was lost.”

But according to a recent New York Times Magazine report, the damage was far, far greater. And now the artists involved are getting litigious.

Burning Down a Dream

The Times called it “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.” According to the report, the fire destroyed Building 6197, a warehouse storing an enormous archive of analog audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group. As many as half a million songs recorded on 118,000 to 175,000 albums and 45rpm single master tapes, gramophone master discs, lacquers, and acetates were destroyed, as well as all the documentation contained in the tape boxes. That includes original recordings, some unreleased, from everyone from Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, and John Coltrane to Nirvana, Steely Dan, R.E.M., and the Roots.

Some artists — Steve Earle, Hole, and Soundgarden, and the estates of Tupac Shakur and Tom Petty — have already filed class action lawsuit against Universal Music Group for failing to secure the collection before the fire and for failing to inform them about the effect the fire had on their recordings. “UMG concealed the loss with false public statements,” according to the lawsuit, “such as that ‘we only lost a small number of tapes and other material by obscure artists from the 1940s and 50s.’ ” The artists are seeking at least $100 million in compensation.

A Fire and the Heartbreakers

Although just five plaintiffs are listed on the suit so far, it was filed on behalf of any other “similarly situated” UMG-affiliated musicians and estates, who may be able to join the lawsuit later. The suit also alleges that UMG “successfully pursued litigation and insurance claims which it reportedly valued at $150 million.” And if that’s true, the musicians feel entitled to part of the settlement.

“The loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking,” UMG CEO Lucian Grainge wrote in a memo to employees following the Times report. And UMG may be losing some money as well.

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