Scene the devastation from 2008 (photo: Evan Wohrman CC by 2.0)
The ripples are just being felt from Jody Rosen’s bombshell New York Times Magazine exposé on the Universal Studios fire 2008.
The losses felt by Universal Music Group were staggering — not to mention the broader music community. Yet nobody knew about the horrific losses, including affected artists, their managers, or their estates.
That wasn’t by accident.
The Times’ Jody Rosen pointed to a well-coordinated effort by Universal Music Group to lie about the actual damages incurred, with former PR exec Peter Lromento effectively tricking major media outlets into completely misreporting the situation.
“We were able to turn L.A. Times reporter Jon] Healey around on his L.A. Times editorial so it’s not a reprimand on what we didn’t do, but more a pat on the back for what we did,” Lromento gloated in an internal email obtained by the Times.
Healey, none the wiser, parroted the line that the damage was minimal. “At this point, it appears that the fire consumed no irreplaceable master recordings, just copies,” Healy reported.
Zach Horowitz, then UMG’s president/COO at the major label, was reportedly copied on the email but declined to comment. Doug Morris, CEO the major label at the time, also declined to discuss the issue.
Similar non-truths were spoon-fed to the New York Times itself, which also reported the misinformation back in ’08. But even those that caught wind the real damage were silenced. Deadline’s Nikki Finke originally pointed to thousands destroyed masters, only to issue a clarification the next day based on UMG’s pushback.
Beyond the media, artist representatives and industry executives were also misled. According to Rosen, that included Irving Azf, who inquired about a specific Steely Dan archive but was subsequently uninformed about the destruction others. According to UMG whistleblower Randy Aronson, the lost Steely Dan archive included outtakes and other recordings that were never released — and are lost forever.
Universal is still downplaying the incident in 2019, specifically by pointing to digitized versions and other remasters that make the original versions less important.
Of course, that sounds a lot like the damage control from 2008, and it’s now uncertain whether the major label will face serious litigation or other repercussions from affected artists and their estates. Already, a number artists have confirmed that their masters were lost in the blaze, including R.E.M., Questlove the Roots, Eminem, and surviving members Nirvana, who believe that the original copy Nevermind was destroyed. It’s also believed that the entirety Buddy Holly’s catalog was permanently lost.
Also unclear is whether UMG’s broader valuation will suffer. At present, UMG parent Vivendi is shopping a 50% stake in the major label, though most that valuation is predicated on streaming music’s explosion and the underlying IP ownership UMG’s catalog. Just recently, UMG’s valuation was pegged at more than $50 billion.
It’s impossible to determine what exactly was lost in the fire, though Rosen estimated more than 500,000 different recordings were obliterated. Here’s a list all the artists mentioned in the Times article that lost original masters.
Big Mama Thornton
Bill Haley and His Comets
Eric B. and Rakim
Gladys Knight and the Pips
Guns N’ Roses
Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats
John Lee Hooker
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
Mary J. Blige
Nine Inch Nails
Rufus and Chaka Khan
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sonny and Cher
The Andrews Sisters
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Four Tops
The Ink Spots
The Mamas and the Papas
The Mills Brothers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers