When a fire engulfed the Universal Film Studio and the amusement park in California eleven years ago, the entertainment giant publicly insisted that there was not much to regret.
The King Kong Encounter, a huge animated attraction, had gone up in smoke, Universal admitted – just like a video vault with only dusty copies of old works that almost no one would miss.
In fact, it is now claimed that this was one of the greatest cultural cover-ups in history.
The Universal Studios brand that broke out 11 years ago destroyed the original master tapes of around 500,000 songs, from Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Elton John to The Police
A large number of original recordings of Chuck Berry were destroyed in the blaze
Masters' tracks of the police depicted were also housed in building 6197, which was known as the video vault – but also contained the Universal Music Group archive
Building 6197, known as the video vault, processed old film recordings and reels – but it was also where the Universal Music Group (UMG), by far & # 39; the world's largest record company, a huge collection & # 39; master tapes & # 39; housed the irreplaceable original recordings of music pieces.
About 500,000 numbers – from Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong to Elton John and The Police – were burned, Universal now acknowledges. The loss is for generations – 70 years of & # 39; the world's best music can now never be heard again when it was recorded.
The New York Times, investigating the fire, described the destruction of the UMG archive as & # 39; the biggest disaster in the history of the music business & # 39 ;.
In this digital age, some may wonder if it is important that many dusty old tape reels have disappeared. After all, many music lovers no longer have physical copies of the songs they listen to, completely dependent on digital versions.
Of course such versions exist, but that is not the same according to destroyed music experts. Digital copies – usually a copy of a copy – are inferior, meaning that less of the content of the original music is preserved.
In many cases, artists were also featured on the legendary Decca Records label – dating back to the late 1940s, such as Judy Garland
A & # 39; master & # 39; originally recorded on analogue magnetic tape and recently in digital form, is a unique musical artifact whose loss is irreversible.
The master contains the so-called multi-track recordings: the unprocessed individual elements of a song in which each instrument – drums, keyboard, strings – is kept separate from each other in separate sections of the tape.
The master recordings often also include & # 39; session masters & # 39 ;, individual recordings that have never been commercially released and that may never have been heard again after being recorded. & # 39; A master is the most true recording of a piece of recorded music, then every copy is a sonic step away, & quot; said Adam Block, former president of Legacy Recordings, the catalog arm of Sony Music Entertainment.
The list of what went on in the Universal Fire Sea – or which is believed to be gone, since no one knows exactly what was there – is almost endless.
Those recordings in the revered Decca Records collection date from the late 1940s and include Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Almost all the masters of Buddy Holly were lost, just like those of Chuck Berry.
The first commercially released material from the late Aretha Franklin, recorded when she was still a young teenager performing in the pastoral fathers' services, is also & # 39; most likely lost & # 39 ;, says the New York Times.
More modern artists such as Sheryl Crow, in the photo, also saw their work destroyed
The master shots of Sixties icons including Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond and Sonny and Cher have all disappeared. The victims of the seventies are the Eagles, Tom Petty and Aerosmith. A decade later, the losses included Guns N & # 39; Roses, Sting and Janet Jackson. More recently, Nirvana, Sheryl Crow and rappers Eminem, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent are one of the artists involved.
In a statement, Universal Music Group claimed that the extent of the destruction was overestimated.
It said: & although there are restrictions that prevent us from publicly responding to some details of the fire that took place at the NBCUniversal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident – although very unfortunate – has never made the availability of the commercially released music affected and also not affected compensation for artists. & # 39;
When the disaster news began to filter through the affected musicians, it became clear that these artists had been kept in the dark about the extent of the disaster or that they only found out when they tried to find their master recordings.
Bands such as REM, Nirvana and Steely Dan were shocked.
& # 39; We have been aware of the & # 39; missing & # 39; of original Steely Dan tires & # 39 ;, said Irving Azoff, seventies manager. & # 39; We have never received a plausible explanation. Maybe they were burned in the big fire. In any case, it is certainly a lost treasure. & # 39;
Given the huge size of what has been lost, it is not surprising that Universal Music Group took years to hide.
It was purchased in 2006 by the French company Vivendi, since it had rented the space at Universal Studios.
According to the New York Times, it was a & # 39; open secret & # 39; in the company. The newspaper has quoted an internal document from 2009 that says: & # 39; Lost in the fire was undoubtedly a huge musical heritage. & # 39;
However, early reports that something terrible had happened in the music archives were strongly denied by the company's spokespersons.
They claimed that most of the master recordings had been moved to a giant storage vault in Pennsylvania, which is also used by the software giant Microsoft.
The small amount that was left in the archives was said to have been digitized and physically copied. Insiders, however, complained that Universal had given priority to saving videos, although – unlike the music – they had a backup.
The fire broke out on Universal's 400-acre site in the suburbs of Los Angeles on the roof of a building that was used as part of a film set.
Workmen had used blow torches to fix the roof but went home wrongly because they thought the heated asphalt shingles had cooled.
About 400 firefighters tackled the fire, sending a cloud of black smoke into the Los Angeles sky.
The fire spread quickly through the various films and TV & # 39; s and finally reached a 22,320 m² warehouse – Building 6197 or the & # 39; video safe & # 39 ;.
Randy Aronson, the UMG executive who managed the safe, said it & # 39; was like moving molten lava through the building & # 39 ;.
Firefighters then tried to use bulldozers to knock down the building so that they could reach the fire more easily. By that time the archive of recordings had been reduced to ashes.
Mr. Aronson says that he & # 39; recalls hearing & # 39; that the company has estimated the value of the loss at $ 150 million (£ 118 million).
However, due to the inaccurate data of what exactly was in the vault, experts say the damage is impossible to value.
The fire was international news, but virtually no reports called a music archive – because almost nobody outside the company knew it was there.
NBCUniversal insisted that nothing was lost in the video vault that had not been copied yet – but in the case of the music that was simply not true.
Sources say that Universal Music Group – which is estimated to be worth £ 26 billion – has not only disguised the loss of music, but feared public shame, but was concerned about a setback for artists and their estates.
& # 39; The company knew there would be shocks and indignation if people discovered the real story & # 39 ;, said Mr. Aronson. & # 39; It's a secret I'm embarrassed to be part of. & # 39;
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