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A painting must be maintained and preserved, but only in rare cases will a technological intervention improve our ability to see the artwork. If you were to stand before the Mona Lisa in an uncrowded gallery, you would be taking in the painting under more or less ideal circumstances.


You will not get a better view. In the case of a recording, a better view is possible. The reason is a technological time lag: For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. The process of revisiting and decoding can transfigure the most familiar music. These epiphanies would not have been possible without masters.

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The tapes themselves feature additional recordings — alternate versions, overdubs, studio chatter — that were included on the rerelease. But the masters in the London archive are unique. They have more documentation than any version anywhere. And the masters contain more Beatles music too.


The same is surely true of many masters destroyed in the Universal fire. John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot. But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings.

Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape. They are corporate assets.

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In , most commercial recordings from the past century-plus are controlled by three gigantic record companies: UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group. But they are also the warehousers of millions of cumbersome master recordings. That task is expensive and complex, and if the past is an indication, it may be a job for which record companies are ill suited. The Universal fire brought losses on an unprecedented scale, but it was only the most recent disaster to strike the masters holdings of American record labels. These disasters include not only events like fires but also instances of neglect and even willful destruction by the labels themselves, a hair-raising history that reaches back to the beginnings of the music business.

A number of these insiders, including individuals with knowledge of the backlot fire, spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned they could face professional consequences with UMG and other labels. The result is a crisis, a slow-motion assault on our musical heritage that is poorly understood by many within the record industry, to say nothing of the public at large. Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability.

Yet the conservation mission faced by record labels may be no less vital than those of museums and libraries. How should it be safeguarded? And by whom? I met Randy Aronson for the first time on a spring day in He was living in the same three-bedroom house where he had been jolted awake by a phone call on the morning of the fire. As a young man, Aronson did some acting, and he recently returned to the stage, starring in a community-theater comedy about the s golden age of radio. Aronson has the look of a guy who can do a good screwball turn. He is tall and husky, with an elastic face and eyes that hold a gleam.

When I arrived at his house, he led me into the living room, where I noticed a BB gun. His father worked as a repairman for the Otis Elevator Company for 35 years. I sought out Aronson more than a year after learning about the vault fire. Aronson admits he would not have consented to interviews were he still with UMG. But he insists he is not motivated by animus toward the company. He agreed to talk, he said, because he hopes the story of the fire will lead to a broader conversation about preservation. He expressed anxiety about his job prospects in light of his participation in this article.

In dozens of conversations and email exchanges, he described the event as a personal trauma. The fate of all those tapes has been an open secret for years. It hides in plain sight on the internet, popping up on message boards frequented by record collectors and audio engineers. References to the loss of Decca and Chess masters in the fire appeared more than three years ago in the Wikipedia entry for Universal Studios Hollywood and were still on the page at the time of this writing. Yet the news has never reached the broader public.

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In part, this represents a triumph of crisis management. In an email sent to UMG executives and P. Horowitz, who has since left the company, declined to comment for this article. Other newspaper accounts described damage to master recordings by little-known artists, whose names may have been cherry-picked by UMG in an effort to downplay the gravity of the loss. The Times ascribed these assertions to a UMG spokesman. But company documents, and testimony given by UMG officials in legal proceedings, make clear that the project was modest; records show that at the time of the fire approximately 12, tapes, mostly analog multitracks visibly at risk of deterioration, had been transferred to digital storage formats.

All of those originals and digital copies were stored in a separate facility in Pennsylvania; they were not the items at issue in the fire. In a statement provided to The New York Times last month, a current UMG spokesman said that the company was unable to comment on the fire. Back in , UMG undoubtedly feared the public embarrassment that news of the losses could bring. But Aronson and others suggest that UMG was especially concerned about repercussions with the artists, and the estates of artists, whose recordings were destroyed.

Record contracts are notoriously slanted in the favor of labels, which benefit disproportionately from sales and, in most cases, hold ownership of masters. It is a paradox of the record business: Labels have often been cavalier about physically safeguarding masters, but they are zealous guardians of their ownership and intellectual-property rights. Certain musicians, usually big stars, negotiate ownership of masters.

It is unclear how many of the artists whose work was lost in the Universal vault had ownership of their physical masters, or were seeking it. But by definition, artists have a stake in the intellectual property contained on those masters, and many artists surely expected UMG to safeguard the material for potential later use.

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That scenario could have exposed UMG to a storm of questions, threats and reputational damage from across the industry. But in the decade since the fire, UMG has faced little apparent blowback from artists or their representatives.

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It is probable that musicians whose masters were destroyed have no idea that a vault holding UMG masters had burned down. The closest UMG came to a public imbroglio may have been in , when, Aronson says, he was sent on an unusual business trip to Pennsylvania. He had been told by a UMG executive that one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Irving Azoff, was asking questions about the loss of Steely Dan masters in the fire.

Azoff, the former chairman of MCA Inc. A quarrel with Azoff was an unwelcome prospect. Azoff sent Elliot Scheiner, a celebrated record producer and mixer who had worked with Steely Dan, to confirm the tapes were intact. Aronson accompanied Scheiner to the Pennsylvania facility, the tapes were pulled, the matter was dropped. Asked about this incident, both Azoff and Scheiner declined to comment. In fact, UMG documents suggest that Steely Dan masters — different tapes than those sought by Azoff — were in Building when the fire hit. According to Aronson, these likely included certain album masters, as well as multitrack masters holding outtakes and unreleased material.

UMG avoided bad publicity, but in the months after the fire, the feelings of shock and chagrin remained acute for Aronson and his vault operations colleagues.

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There were many such meetings. In December , UMG filed a lawsuit against NBCUniversal, its former landlord at the vault, seeking compensatory damages for losses suffered in the fire. Much of what we know about the event comes from depositions and documents that emerged from this litigation. Legal wrangling ensued for more than three years, until February , when UMG dropped the suit and the parties settled for an undisclosed sum. The position staked out by UMG in the lawsuit was the opposite of that in its public statements.

He was deposed multiple times and asked by UMG lawyers to submit declarations to the court on four occasions. It stretches back decades and encompasses nearly every significant record label. During World War II, labels donated metal parts masters to salvage drives.

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Three decades later, employees of CBS Records carved up multitrack masters with power saws so the reels could be sold to scrap metal dealers. Catalog material by top stars sometimes suffered the same fate as obscure recordings. Countless more recordings have been lost to shoddy storage practices. Tapes have been mislabeled, misplaced and misfiled; tapes have been marooned on high shelves in disorderly warehouses, left at loading docks, abandoned at shuttered recording studios.

Holland reported that masters for MGM and the jazz label Verve were damaged or destroyed in the fire and in the months following, when surviving recordings were kept in an open shed. The preservation laxities were dictated by what seemed at the time to be common sense.

On the contrary: They were expensive to warehouse and therefore a drain on resources. To record-company accountants, a tape vault was inherently a cost center, not a profit center.