Hollywood, CA – In the early morning hours of June 1, 2008, a fire erupted at Universal Studios Hollywood. The flames reached Building 6197 — also known as the video vault — which was home to videotapes, film reels and a library of master sound recordings owned by Universal Music Group.
According to an article published by The New York Times Magazine, hundreds of thousands of master recordings perished in the fire, information that wasn’t originally disclosed.
At the time, Universal Studio said the theme park’s “King Kong” attraction and a video vault that contained copies of old works were the only things to succumb to the blaze. But in a confidential report from Universal Music Group written in 2009, they admit roughly 500,000 song titles were destroyed.
In an internal assessment from that same year, they also said, “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”
Several masters in the Decca Records collection were likely lost, including works from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland. Chuck Berry’s greatest recordings and the masters of some of Aretha Franklin’s first appearances on record are also on the list.
Nearly all of Buddy Holly’s masters and John Coltrane’s masters in the Impulse Records collection were also ruined. The blaze also destroyed numerous hit singles, likely including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Etta James’s “At Last” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.”
But that’s only the beginning.
Recordings by Ray Charles, B.B. 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, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Police, Sting, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Roots are reportedly included as well.
Initially, Universal wanted to keep the full extent of the damage away from the spotlight to minimize “public embarrassment,” but some believe the company was also concerned about backlash from artists and artist estates whose master recordings had been burnt up.
Meanwhile, the article concludes the fire at was “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”