Burning down the house

In 2008, a big fire burned up a bunch of old musical recordings. It was bad.

And, as Jody Rosen writes, the original spin from Universal Music Group was also bad, because it was very big fib:

“Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come.” The same day, in the music trade publication Billboard, a UMG spokesperson again pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: “We had no loss.”

These reassuring pronouncements concealed a catastrophe. . . .

[In fact,] UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. . . . [T]allying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost.

My stupid reaction last week was that, evidently, no one, or hardly anyone, had evidently missed this stuff since 2008. Perhaps, I mused, like all the original and collectible stuff in our own attics, what was lost was not really as valuable as we think it is. But the consensus is that this thought is wrong.

Anyway, in a more productive and topical vein, the redoubtable Zvi Rosen notes that this event raises important questions about copyright and … stuff.

Read the whole thread.

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