The Loss Of Music History — Downplaying The Universal Fire of 2008 and why 500,000 destroyed songs is a tragedy of Alexandria Library Proportions.

History — gone up in flames.

By Gordon Skene:

With the news having made the rounds numerous times this past week, and reports of what will be a flood of lawsuits hitting Universal sometime in the coming week, most people are asking; “why didn’t we know about this before?”. A fire swept through the backlot at Universal Studios one night in June of 2008 — destroying several film sets and consuming the entire contents of a former Soundstage — one that contained, on one side, video and film and the other side of the stage, hundreds of thousands of music masters belonging to the Universal Music Group. containing session masters going back to the late 1940s. At the time, Universal played the entire incident down, saying the tapes stored there were “unimportant and with little historic or economic value” — the story stayed that way for eleven years, until The New York Times began hearing stories and asking questions — the result being a tsunami of shock and dismay over something that happened in 2008 was kept secret until 2019.

Consider it one of the biggest, and certainly most scandalous coverups, even for the Music Business, in recent history. The notion that 500,000 (and counting) masters were incinerated some eleven years ago, and the lid over the degree of devastation is only now surfacing, you get the idea something truly serious and disastrous had taken place.

Some have likened it to the loss of the fabled Alexandria Library in Egypt from 283 BC — to a degree you could use that analogy — and to a degree you could equate the cultural and historic loss to be roughly on the same footing, only for Music.

But where most people will tell you “oh, those were all backed up with digital copies, so nothing’s really lost” — the untruth about that is glowing — only in the sense they are not speaking from any knowledge of what having a “master” tape really means.

First — let me run down to what the extent of the damage is/was. Let me also clarify by saying that I was there a year earlier, working on a project which involved taking all the Masters belonging to the legendary ABC/Westminster/Command and other Classical labels, and sending them all eventually to Hamburg, Germany to be housed with all the recordings belonging to the German label Deutsche Grammophon and the former Philips Classical division. That was probably a blessing — and those were the true and actual masters made in the early 1950s along with the legendary 35mm Stereo masters recorded for Command Records in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which have not been reissued, and to which, aside from a limited edition series of 100 Westminster CD’s issued in Japan in 2000 — have, for the most part, not been reissued anywhere else. Had all those tapes stayed at Universal they would have been incinerated, along with Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and thousands of others.

Sure, they were digitized, remastered to what was in 2000 state-of-the-art technology. But that technology has changed dramatically in the past nineteen years, and it’s also been discovered Digitized masters are not the permanent records they were once touted to be.

When CD’s were first introduced in 1986, the scramble was on to get as much “CD product” on the shelves of record stores as possible. Major labels started digitizing albums in mass quantities — putting everything over on 3/4” or Betax video cassettes, or 1610 and 1630 formats, or in some cases, DAT’s.

Two problems arose: the first was the “masters” used by the major labels were those masters made specifically for vinyl lp, which were in fact copies of the original masters, but equalized to adhere to the characteristics of playing a vinyl record (all that “warmth” you hear about is beefed up in the equalization when the tapes are prepared for “cutting” to lp). Those “lp masters” sounded terrible when they eventually wound up on CD. Everyone complained that the sound was thin, hissy and condensed and not at all what the lps sounded like originally. And then it was discovered, if you went back to the original session tapes, and the subsequent mixdown masters (if the original sessions were multi-track, which were from the 60s onwards), you had a whole different picture of what the actual recording sounded like. And the race was on to get back to the original masters for what was acknowledged to being a truer sound to the original.

The second problem; digital was still being worked on — it was, by all accounts, an unstable medium; physically. Dropouts were lethal — a dropout on a video tape merely looks like dots of snow on the picture — dropout on a video tape used for audio is horrific and often indicates that digital master is ruined. It was even worse for DAT’s, which is why DAT had been abandoned over the years. There was no way to adequately standardize a DAT recording — not like analog tape, which has certain characteristics or standards by which every tape machine has and is aligned for. With DAT’s, you recorded something on a Sony and, on more than one occasion, found you couldn’t play it back on a Panasonic, for example, and vice-versa. And because video cassettes were the format being used, the physical nature of the playback mechanism being used to pull the tape from the cartridge and wrap the playing surface around the heads mean the tape was being stretched to a degree, each time it was used — and those tapes easily jammed or were otherwise damaged over time.

And time hasn’t treated those tapes kindly either.

When I went to work for the early Rock n’ Roll/Rhythm & Blues label Specialty Records in the late 1980s — my job was to digitize every master recording in Specialty’s possession. That meant, everything the label had done going back to its inception in 1945 was to be available and ready to be reissued on CD. Prior to tape, mastering on 16” discs at 33 1/3 rpm was the standard, from around 1940 until 1951, when tape came in and studios eventually abandoned that form of session recording to the less cumbersome method of reel to reel tape.

Everything I remastered was done on a Betamax format in Digital and, at the then-state-of-the-art recording format, which was 16bit resolution — at the time, the be-all/end-all in CD production. The way technology works, is that one advance is discovered and it is quickly overtaken by another, even better, advance shortly after. 16bit resolution gave way to 24bit resolution and eventually gave way to 96bit resolution, all within the decade of the 90s.

And with all those advances, it was necessary to go back to the original reel-to-reel (or 16” disc) master as your source to upgrade everything. But we had the masters — those original session recordings by Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Roy Milton and everyone of the artists originally on that label. We could improve on things because we had the originals, not copies to rely on.

It’s true that, when you make a Digital copy of something, you can make a thousand copies and the quality will be the same from the first to the thousandth. That’s not the case with analog. Every time you copy an analog tape to another analog tape, you lose what is called a “generation” of quality from the original tape. Your masters; those session and mixdown tapes are your benchmark. As long as you have those, any technological advances that come along you will have the absolute original to rely on. The same with the pre-tape 16” session master discs.

The reason I bring up the discs, aside from representing all the music produced by Decca and their subsidiary labels at the time, is that those were also destroyed. And I know this for a fact because, during one of my excursions around the vault in search of Classical session tapes, I ran across an entire wall of 16” acetate session masters, mostly for Bing Crosby. Those discs had carefully written session information, including Union information to indicate if the session was “colored or white” — another slice of history that was lost — information; that vital element that brings the story and the event to life. Those are gone too. Those discs represented takes, unissued tracks, songs that were never released — a whole array of information and music that will now be lost forever.

And not everything housed in the doomed space had been digitized, not by any stretch of the imagination. One report at the time, when the incident was being glossed over and downplayed by Universal spokespeople, claimed that the facility only housed “minor artists from the late 40s to early 50’s”. Completely false. There was a wall of A&M masters, as well as 3/4” digital masters for most all the labels through the 1990s. There was also a massive amount of unidentified material — sessions and master tapes that had, for one reason or another, suffered from faulty cataloging or had important information missing from the tape boxes over the years. From ABC-Dunhill alone, there was a wall; about 18 feet high, top-to-bottom with tapes marked “unidentified”. Those tapes were a mystery — and it would have been up to the archivists and concerned historians of the future to make potentially important discoveries of “long lost sessions” from artists who went on the become legends and household names.

The only thing worse than the loss of all this history is the cavalier attitude taken on the part of Universal executives to downplay the degree of loss. It smacks of a certain ignorance over what constitutes history, but it also indicates a lack of concern that, with record companies, your back catalog is your bread and butter — it’s the thing you rely on for income when the new artists don’t live up to hype and expectation. Back catalogue material is also important just by the sheer declaration that “it’s new if you haven’t heard it before”. A lot of discoveries have been made that way — and now that it’s not available; our culture has lost something important to our development and the potential to enhance our creative lives.

Is this the first time something like this has happened? No — but certainly not to this degree. Historic tales of a warehouse fire destroying a considerable number of Atlantic Records masters became a much-talked about topic among archivists in the 1970s. So too was the mass destruction of tapes at Warners — the justification being “we have those digitized, we don’t need them anymore” or the destruction of CBS (Sony) masters because “storing session masters is a waste of money”. Those stories go on and on.

But when you talk about something of this magnitude, when it’s not just one label, but most all the labels acquired by Universal Music Group over time, it’s a huge and devastating loss. This is one reason why the conglomeration of record companies into one or two enormous entities is fundamentally a bad idea. Forget the spirit of competition, it’s the idea that all your assets are sitting in one place that makes it a perfectly lethal idea.

Some have said that “all the really important masters are in other vault spaces” — to a degree, that’s true — I did not see many Impulse masters at Universal, so I am led to assume they are still safely tucked away in New Jersey, as were many Verve sessions. But even the New Jersey facility is bordering on shameful. When I took a look at the computer print-out vault sheets for the storage site in New Jersey, I found a massive number of tapes listed simply as “10-inch reel; unknown contents” for page after page. One of the reasons the Westminster masters went missing for so long, is that the original library at ABC Records in the 1970s had the masters listed by Record Manufacturer Matrix number (from the pressing plant) while the original masters sat in boxes, largely ignored. Even in the 70s, there was little in the way of concern for old things.

It is unclear how this story will end. There will be lawsuits, that’s for sure — there will be public shaming, which is going on now. There will be much hand-wringing and promises and firings. There will be all that.

But it doesn’t bring back what has been lost and what will continue to be lost if we go on paying lip-service and short-shrift to those elements that are crucial to our culture and our heritage.

As someone who has taken part in these historic preservations and is an archivist in his own right, I have seen too much evaporation of important history at the hands of those who don’t know, don’t care and only see the economic side of things to be anything less than cynical. Music, like every other art form, is who we are, it captures us at a certain place and time — and it is something we can learn and grow from. Points of view are everything and should be preserved at all costs.

Without them, we are a society doomed to vanish, just like those recordings.

Gordon Skene is a two-time Grammy nominee, author and operator of Past Daily, a website that features his extensive collection of historic news, popular culture and music recordings every day.

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Two-time Grammy nominee, author and archivist of history, news, and popular culture. Runs Past Daily — runs The Gordon Skene Sound Collection. Hardly sleeps.

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Gordon Skene

Gordon Skene

Two-time Grammy nominee, author and archivist of history, news, and popular culture. Runs Past Daily — runs The Gordon Skene Sound Collection. Hardly sleeps.

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