Thousands of recordings by Elton, Aretha, Eagles and more are lost forever in a fire

12 June 2019, 16:25

By Tom Eames

Original recordings by Sir Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and thousands more were destroyed in a fire in 2008, a new report has revealed.

According to the New York Times, they were lost when a fire took over a warehouse at Universal Studios Hollywood, leading to catastrophic damage that was not reported at the time.

In confidential documents first issued in 2009, Universal Music Group estimated that the loss amounted to 500,000 songs.

"Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage," it explained.

In a statement, UMG admitted that the fire had been "deeply unfortunate", but claimed that the New York Times' article was inaccurate.

Firefighters Battle Blaze At Universal Studios
Firefighters Battle Blaze At Universal Studios. Picture: Getty

"The incident... never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists' compensation," it said. "The story contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets."

The recordings kept at Universal Studios apparently spanned decades of music. They included original songs by Ray Charles, the Four Tops, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Eric Clapton, the Eagles and REM.

Most of the recordings were actually master copies, the tapes that CDs, vinyl and digital copies can be generated from.

This means that any future copies will have to rely on second-generation copies of the originals, leading to a loss in quality each time.

Aretha Recording In NY in 1969
Aretha Recording In NY in 1969. Picture: Getty

REM have since said they were "trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band's music, if any."

The fire is said to have started due to overnight maintenance workers using blow torches to repair the roof of a building on one of Universal Studios' movie sets.

While the workers followed protocol and waited an hour for the shingles to cool down, a fire still broke out shortly after they departed.

Although the fire was reported at the time, the head of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, claimed that there had been no major losses in the incident.

Elton John
Elton John. Picture: Getty

What music was lost in the fire?

The list of artists affected include:

- Billie Holiday
- Louis Armstrong
- Duke Ellington
- Bing Crosby
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Judy Garland
- Chuck Berry
- Aretha Franklin
- Buddy Holly
- Bill Haley and His Comets
- Etta James
- Ray Charles
- BB King
- The Four Tops
- Joan Baez
- Neil Diamond
- Sonny and Cher
- Joni Mitchell
- Cat Stevens
- Gladys Knight and the Pips
- Al Green
- Elton John
- Eric Clapton
- Jimmy Buffett
- Eagles
- Aerosmith
- Rufus and Chaka Khan
- Barry White
- Patti LaBelle
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- The Police
- Sting
- Steve Earle
- Janet Jackson
- Guns N Roses
- Mary J Blige
- No Doubt
- Nine Inch Nails
- Snoop Dogg
- Beck
- Nirvana
- Sheryl Crow
- 2Pac
- Eminem
- 50 Cent
- The Roots

What does this mean?

A master recording is essentially the original recording of a piece of music.

It’s the original source from which vinyl records, CDs, MP3s and other recordings are made from.

Documents reveal that the vault contained masters for several decades, including multitrack recordings on which individual instruments could be isolated from one another.

This also included session masters, including recordings that have never been commercially released before.

“A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings.

“Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”