The ripples are just being felt from Jody Rosen’s bombshell New York Times Magazine exposé on the Universal Studios fire of 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 an 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 Lofromento effectively tricking major media outlets to completely misreport the situation.
“We were able to turn [LA 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 of a pat on the back for what we did,” Lofromento gloated in an internal email obtained by the Times.
Healey, none the wiser, parroted the line that nothing was touched. “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 copied on the email but declined to comment. Doug Morris, CEO of 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 of the real damage were silenced. Deadline’s Nikki Finke originally pointed to thousands of 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 Azoff, who inquired about a specific Steely Dan archive but was subsequently uninformed about the destruction of others. According to a UMG whistleblower, the lost Steely Dan archive includes outtakes and other recordings that were never released — and are lost forever.
Universal is still downplaying the incident, 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 from affected artists and their estates. Already, a number of artists have confirmed that their masters were lost in the blaze, including R.E.M., Questlove of the Roots, Eminem, and surviving members of Nirvana. It’s also believed that the entirety of Buddy Holly’s catalog was permanently destroyed.
Also unclear if whether UMG’s broader valuation will suffer. At present, UMG parent Vivendi is shopping a 50% stake in the major label, though most of that valuation is predicated on streaming music’s explosion and the underlying IP ownership of 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 of all of 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