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Thread: The Day The Music Burned; article on the Universal vault fire

  1. #1
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    The Day The Music Burned; article on the Universal vault fire

    Long article in The New York Times about how many master tapes perished in the Universal vault fire in 2008. Extremely grim reading. I do remember Richard Carpenter suggesting things were bad some years ago, he's quoted in the article. But there was a massive whitewash on this until now.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/m...ecordings.html

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    Some other points mentioned on the Hoffman forum (who initially kept pulling threads linking to this article!):

    -The older recordings (Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby etc.) were not recorded onto tape, the article even mentions a 2011 donation that Universal made to the Library Of Congress of metal parts. So actually most of those will presumably still exist. Ironically it's later recordings (late 40s/early 50s onwards) where the original source perished!

    -Certain 'mastered from the original master tapes' claims since this fire are going to be no more than empty words. Be wary of audiophile snake oil salesmen.

  3. #3
    Great article, thanks for sharing!

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    Outraged bystander markwoll's Avatar
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    You can bet that they take much greater care of the contracts that give them IP rights to the music.
    That Is all that matters.
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  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by JJ88 View Post

    -Certain 'mastered from the original master tapes' claims since this fire are going to be no more than empty words. Be wary of audiophile snake oil salesmen.
    I remember reading on Frank Marino's webpage that the claim on some Mahogany Rush reissues that they are "mastered from original master tapes" was meaningless, because the people doing the reissues didn't have the masters! And that was something like 15 years ago I remember reading that.

  6. #6
    Well...I don't know about you, but reading that article just about ruined my day. Well, maybe not ruined, but I'm feeling a bit bluer right now than I was an hour ago.

    I don't know how to react to this. I really don't. I know intellectually that, probably, most of what was lost is stuff that I'd probably never get to hear anyway. But still, reading that article really hurt.

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    ^It's very depressing...I did warn you in my opening post! There'd be murmurings of things being lost in that fire but the extent of it is awful beyond words. For instance Chess Records is one of my favourite labels and their masters have been wiped out.

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    Banned Dave (in MA)'s Avatar
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    King Crimson losing the drum tracks to TCOL pales in comparison.

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    From the article, concerning the initial damage limitation:

    The Daily News article also invoked the loss of “original recordings from organ virtuoso Lenny Dee and 1950s hitmaker Georgie Shaw.” A possible explanation for the highlighting of Dee and Shaw comes from Aronson: He says that a UMG executive asked him, the day after the fire, for the names of “two artists nobody would recognize,” to be furnished to journalists seeking information on lost recordings.


    Absolutely extraordinary behaviour. Has all the hallmarks of a major scandal in the works.

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    Universal's statement:

    https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threa...#post-21423791

    Extremely carefully worded.

  11. #11
    ALL ACCESS Gruno's Avatar
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    I have never publicly spoken about the vault fire at Universal.

    In the early 2000s I toured a portion of the facility. The curator was a nice chap who loved his work, as we all do in the archiving world. I was only able to view a couple of rows of titles that were being catalogued. I was not allowed to photograph anything on the lot. In fact, since they were aware I was also a photographer, I had to leave all bags and equipment at the security checkpoint. They didn't want any pics of the vault or even public knowledge of where on the lot the vault was stored.

    I can't give any specifics as to why I was at the vault that particular day, but once I saw the fire on the morning news when I woke up, I immediately turned to tears with what I knew was in the vault that was priceless to me and now was most likely erased from the earth.

    Since then, I have worked on quite a few projects where UMG was the parent record company. There have been projects that have been green-lighted to go forward with a re-release/remaster... to then find out the master tapes were lost, according to UMG. On one occasion, there were safety backups that were with the producer. However, a couple of other big projects were scrapped because of more lost tapes.

    Keep in mind that UMG often considers master tapes lost. Lost = perished in the fire.

    Next time a fan says, "Hey why doesn't my favorite artist re-release this stuff with extra tracks?" -- backtrack to see if the record company is in the UMG family or was acquired by UMG.

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Gruno View Post

    Since then, I have worked on quite a few projects where UMG was the parent record company. There have been projects that have been green-lighted to go forward with a re-release/remaster... to then find out the master tapes were lost, according to UMG. On one occasion, there were safety backups that were with the producer. However, a couple of other big projects were scrapped because of more lost tapes.

    Keep in mind that UMG often considers master tapes lost. Lost = perished in the fire.

    Next time a fan says, "Hey why doesn't my favorite artist re-release this stuff with extra tracks?" -- backtrack to see if the record company is in the UMG family or was acquired by UMG.
    One thing that has to be remembered is, as the article notes, for a long time, the industry didn't really think about preserving anything. "Old recordings" weren't considered valuable. Sometimes, tapes would get erased, if they were deemed unusable. I was told once that's why there were so many John Coltrane sessions from the 60's where there were no tapes in existence, and also why some of the outtakes that have been issued since Trane's death come from mono tapes that his son Ravi had found in the family home, which were just rough mixes done so that Trane could take the tapes home and listen while he was deciding what to release.

    I guess we should be thankful for what we do have, though. At least we can still listen to the stuff that was reissued and enjoy that, even if we'll never be able to hear them in better resolution than what the current technology allows.

    But as Bryan Ferry once sang, "Nothing lasts forever". Some day the sun is going to go super nova, and everything that's existed on Earth will be gone. After that, no one will know we ever existed at all, never mind the great art we created.



    For instance Chess Records is one of my favourite labels and their masters have been wiped out.
    Yeah, that and the loss of the Impulse! catalog were what were particularly painful for me.

    Stuff that's been reissued I guess we at least have those. But a lot of stuff that went under the radar and never got reissued, or stuff that's never been released at all (outtakes and such) are probably gone.


    Absolutely extraordinary behaviour. Has all the hallmarks of a major scandal in the works.
    It really is like Watergate, isn't it?

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    Coltrane's legacy has been ravaged by two fires. There was a 70s fire at Atlantic where various outtakes and mono mixes perished (I understand the My Favourite Things album was particularly badly affected- no mono mix or outtakes surviving). And now this. Appalling.

    In some cases copy tapes are around here in the UK. I think there was a Mamas And Papas CD where mono mixes were sourced here- the US originals had been junked decades ago, rather than lost in this fire, though.

    Geoff Downes has said on Twitter that this may be why the masters of Asia's debut are nowhere to be found.
    Last edited by JJ88; 06-12-2019 at 08:36 AM.

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by JJ88 View Post
    In some cases copy tapes are around here in the UK. I think there was a Mamas And Papas CD where mono mixes were sourced here- the US originals had been junked decades ago, rather than lost in this fire, though.
    Yeah, as I said in the post above yours, for a long time the industry just didn't care about teh past, because they hadn't figured out yet how to exploit it. Just as TV executives, agents etc were saying, "Nobody's going to watch b&w TV", record company execs thought stereo was "the way forward" and "Nobody's going to want to listen to mono now".

    Of course, some of those mono mixes were substantially different from their stereo counterparts. I recall reading that there was one Otis Redding album, Otis Blue, I think, where they used completely different takes of every single song on the stereo and mono versions (which is why the current reissue has both versions). And there's things like I'm Only Sleeping, where the backwards guitar occurs in different places on the mono mix in comparison to the stereo mix.

    But like I said, the execs at the labels didn't, and probably still don't, care about such things so much as whether or they can make money off of it. Stuff gets thrown out, and then 30 years ago, someone says, "You know that one song had a different guitar solo on the mono mix, maybe we should release that as a bonus track on the reissue", and they go looking for it and it's gone. (shrug)

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by JJ88 View Post
    Coltrane's legacy has been ravaged by two fires. There was a 70s fire at Atlantic where various outtakes and mono mixes perished (I understand the My Favourite Things album was particularly badly affected- no mono mix or outtakes surviving). And now this. Appalling.
    Coltrane's Impulse catalog suffered earlier when ABC discarded the Impulse session outtake reels in the 70's. (I see Guitar Geek mentions this above too.)

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by pb2015 View Post
    Coltrane's Impulse catalog suffered earlier when ABC discarded the Impulse session outtake reels in the 70's. (I see Guitar Geek mentions this above too.)
    Which is why it's kind of astonishing some of the stuff that did survive, like the 1961 Village Vanguard tapes, or the outtakes from the Africa/Brass sessions.

    I see parallel here to the TV and film industry. You guys know one of my favorite shows is Doctor Who. And I've bemoaned the fact that, like most BBC shows from before the 1980's, there's a lot of gaps in the show during the 60's, as many tapes were erased. Nobody saw home video or the "rerun" market (in the UK, reruns were practically unheard of prior to the 1980's) being what it ended up being.

    But you know what did survive? The very first episode of the series, The Unearthly Child was shot twice. The first one was deemed "not quite right", so the production team were ordered to take a second pass at it. The first version was never broadcast (at least not until decades later, anyway), and by all rights should be one of the things that was tossed out by the BBC overlords. But it wasn't. It survived, somehow, and was issued on DVD.

    And for you Trevor Rabin supporters, I read once that his first band Rabbit appeared on South African TV regularly during the mid 70's (apparently, they were huge in their homeland), but almost none of that's survived.

    I also recall that Johnny Carson was known to occasionally complain about NBC erasing the 60's and early 70's episodes of his show.

    Then there's all the films that are "lost", for various reasons. I've read about film restoration people walking into vaults in Hollywood, pulling film cans off the shelves, opening them, and finding nothing but dust. I also read about how one film distributor melted down some of the films they had in their possession for the silver content in the celluloid (I think it was silver, I might have the wrong precious metal).

    Then you've got things like Nosferatu, all prints of which were supposed to be destroyed on order from Madame Stoker's lawyers. Also, movies that were the director most definitely didn't have "final cut", and as such, the film was hacked by studio idiots who were convinced they knew better, and now the director's cut no longer exists. Greater films than The Blues Brothers were molested in this fashion, but it's always gonna bug me that I'm never gonna see John Landis' original vision for that picture (the DVD edition has some footage they were able to salvage from an intermediate print of the film, but apparently there's more stuff that's still missing).

    And in the audio commentary on The Kids Are Alright, Jeff Stein talks about how much of a pain in the ass it was just finding the reels of The Who performing at Woodstock that he wanted to use in his film. He said the Warners vaults didn't have any proper logs or anything, so they literally had to go through reel after reel, and physically looking at the first frames of each reel, hoping to find something that looked like it might be The Who. So even when something does exist, good luck actually finding it.

    And who knows about all the stuff the Nazis, Soviets, etc destroyed or molested during their respective reigns of terror.

    So besides even catastrophes of the kind discussed in the article in the OP, just dumb ass shortsightedness was enough to be lethal towards anything produced in the world of music, television or film.

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by GuitarGeek View Post
    Which is why it's kind of astonishing some of the stuff that did survive, like the 1961 Village Vanguard tapes, or the outtakes from the Africa/Brass sessions.
    They did keep rolling out Coltrane albums through the 70's. Maybe he designated that material as masters.

  18. #18
    Some "out-takes" are deliberately wiped - I think Kubrick destroyed all his unused footage, for one. I read in PE recently that Mark Hollis wiped all the unused stuff from Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by Halmyre View Post
    Some "out-takes" are deliberately wiped - I think Kubrick destroyed all his unused footage, for one. I read in PE recently that Mark Hollis wiped all the unused stuff from Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.
    And Rush are infamous for having almost no material that didn't make it onto their albums. I've seen a couple interviews over the years where they've said that if they felt something isn't working, they 86 it right away, and otherwise write just enough material for a given album. Yeah, there's a handful of songs, like Fancy Dancer and one or two others, but not much.

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by pb2015 View Post
    They did keep rolling out Coltrane albums through the 70's. Maybe he designated that material as masters.
    Dunno. Impressions did include a couple extended tracks from the Village Vanguard sessions, and it was released something like two years later, so maybe Trane or possibly his producer Bob Thiele was thinking, "Some of this stuff we can release later". But when you've got multiple versions of the same pieces, as is the case with both the Village Vanguard and Africa/Brass material, it's hard to imagine a circumstance where someone might have been thinking, "Well, someday, we're gonna release all these 10-18 minute tracks, because we know the fans will eventually want to buy them". Using the example of Africa itself, Trane probably felt the version that was on the finished album was the definitive recording that he wanted the public to hear and that was that.


    Also, it's hard to know what was on the tapes that were wiped. You can look at a session log and see that there's 10 takes from a given session that don't exist anymore, but how many of those were full takes? I remember reading the liner notes of a Duke Ellington reissue, I thikn i twas Far East Suite, where there's a comment about the fact that the master take of a given track was take 10 or something like that. The author of the liner notes assures us that there's not 9 complete takes of the piece in question sitting in a vault someplace, most of them were false starts and things were the take broke down after just a minute or something.

    Of course, when a full session is missing, who knows what could have been on those tapes. Did they do entire sessions where nothing was finished? Most jazz records back then were recorded in a day or two, but Coltrane's Impulse! era albums, at least, are notorious for pieces gathered from multiple sessions, sometimes weeks (or in the case of Impressions, more than a year) apart (which is why it was such a pain in the ass in the CD era, when frelling GRP started reissuing stuff with the material grouped by session, rather than how it was originally released).

    Could there have been entire sessions were no finished takes were played? An entire hour's worth of false starts, breakdowns and studio chatter? Were there things where Trane or Thiele was unhappy with a given day's work and said "No, let's come back next week and try it again"? Were there possibly pieces that were tried out that we never got to hear, not just alternate versions of Impressions or Crescent or whatever, but actual compositions that were only heard by those who were in the studio that day (or maybe those who might have heard something played in concert around the same time)? Like I said, we'll never know.

  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by Halmyre View Post
    Some "out-takes" are deliberately wiped - I think Kubrick destroyed all his unused footage, for one.
    He was also notorious for destroying all props and sets at the end of a production so they wouldn't turn up in other people's work (which was common practice). That's why when 2010 was made, they had to re-build the Discovery models. There were no surviving blueprints or anything, so the production team had to work from still photos and re-watching 2001: A Space Odyssey again and again to make sure they got all the details right.

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    Member viukkis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Halmyre View Post
    Some "out-takes" are deliberately wiped - I think Kubrick destroyed all his unused footage, for one.
    I remember reading that some of the footage from the final part of 2001 is simply recolored aerial footage originally filmed for Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps he only started destroying it later.

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    Member Emeritus (A.M.P.) rcarlberg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GuitarGeek
    Yeah, that and the loss of the Impulse! catalog were what were particularly painful for me.
    Yes, the loss of ANY master tapes is a tragedy... but let me play the devil's advocate here, since nobody else seems to have raised the obvious follow-on conclusions.
    1. Tapes in the vault deteriorate on their own, even without any help from fire. There are literally THOUSANDS of master tapes that have gone unplayable over the years due to the flaking of oxides off the backing medium, or the sticking-together of adjacent layers, or getting moldy, or... any number of other catastrophes... including spontaneous combustion (the warehouse was primarily film stock, which is notoriously combustible)
    2. That is why so many labels have put so much effort into recovering and preserving master recordings while they still can, by making high-quality digital copies of them, using the tools available to repair the damage digitally when necessary and where they can
    3. Which is why all the misinformed hubbub about "LPs being pressed from the analog master tapes" is so misplaced. In most cases (or at least many cases) the digital backup files are far SUPERIOR to the moldy flaked-off Ampex 2" masters
    4. Which is how most LPs -- and ALL compact discs -- are sourced these days


    Sorry, I know this view isn't going to be popular with the analog Nazis.

    Universal mentions this, somewhat obliquely, in their rebuttal to the NYT story:
    Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record. While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident – while deeply unfortunate – never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation. Further, the story contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets. In fact, it conveniently ignores the tens of thousands of back catalog recordings that we have already issued in recent years – including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were “destroyed.” And it even goes so far as to praise some of our initiatives but does not attribute them to us.

    UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music. In the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments – in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts – in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings.
    Emphasis added

    Quote Originally Posted by Nikki Finke, entertainment-industry blogger:
    “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.”
    To be fair, the article mentions UNRELEASED alternate takes and mixes and ephemera which may have been lost without being digitized first. But the extent of main catalog items lost appears to be minimal.
    Last edited by rcarlberg; 06-14-2019 at 12:18 AM.

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    Member Emeritus (A.M.P.) rcarlberg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GuitarGeek
    Could there have been entire sessions were no finished takes were played? An entire hour's worth of false starts, breakdowns and studio chatter? Were there things where Trane or Thiele was unhappy with a given day's work and said "No, let's come back next week and try it again"? Were there possibly pieces that were tried out that we never got to hear, not just alternate versions of Impressions or Crescent or whatever, but actual compositions that were only heard by those who were in the studio that day (or maybe those who might have heard something played in concert around the same time)? Like I said, we'll never know.
    Coltrane may be a bad example to make this argument, since he died relatively young and relatively suddenly, but what of the argument that artists should be able to have a say in what's released? I know The Beatles were famous, until Yoko's cash cow died, for refusing to release demos and unfinished sessions and alternate sessions unless they themselves authorized it (viz. Christmas tapes). Lots of other artists would prefer their mistakes and changes-of-heart remain private.

    Do we, as the public, have the right to see everything regardless?

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    Outraged bystander markwoll's Avatar
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    Second guesses and do overs are the stuff ( dreams, wet or otherwise) of modern music lovers.
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