In historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering
June 11, 2019 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Despite initial statements minimizing the extent of the loss, court documents reveal that a 2008 fire at Universal Studios wiped out an immense collection of irreplacable master tapes of some of the 20th century's greatest recording artists: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Buddy Holly, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra. The list goes on. (SLNYT)
posted by Horace Rumpole (56 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
this is horrifying beyond words

there's a metaphor here for climate change and capitalism and humanity and culture but i am too stunned and gutted to articulate the connection
posted by entropicamericana at 7:13 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


And it's not just the magnitude of the loss that rankles. The story of UMG's successful cover-up, which involved convincing journalists that the only unreplaceable masters that were lost were by minor artists, is really something. And then the fate of the masters that did survive — now tucked away in vaults run by third parties like Iron Mountain, where they are ostensibly safer but also less visible/accessible to the Powers That Be and thus less likely to be explored and released for public consumption. It's a long story but well worth reading.
posted by Mothlight at 7:14 AM on June 11 [15 favorites]


"Chess output of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Little Walter"

"John Coltrane’s Impulse masters"

"Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders"

"Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man"

"the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”


Welp that is pretty close to 90 percent of anything that has ever mattered to me trodding this mortal coil. I'm numb, I guess the depression kicks in later.
posted by Chitownfats at 7:22 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


The loss is sad, but the coverup is just offensive.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:33 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


If you haven't gotten that far in the long 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. A New York Times article on June 3 cited recordings by “pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw” as examples of the “small number of tapes and other material by ‘obscure artists from the 1940s and ’50s’ ” that were affected by the fire. The Times ascribed these assertions to a UMG spokesman. The Daily News article also invoked the loss of “original recordings from organ virtuoso Lenny Dee and 1950s hitmaker Georgie Shaw.” A possible explanation for the highlighting of Dee and Shaw comes from Aronson: He says that a UMG executive asked him, the day after the fire, for the names of “two artists nobody would recognize,” to be furnished to journalists seeking information on lost recordings.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:35 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


Louis Armstrong's recordings from 1923 are in the public domain as of this year. But I get the impression that labels would rather let the master tapes burn than to give up control. Even for the recordings that were released, many never even made it to CD, much less streaming.

In any case, proliferation is the only long-term archival strategy. It's both depressing and reassuring that the collection of software for the Apple ][ is more completely preserved than UMG artists' music.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:36 AM on June 11 [15 favorites]


Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire.

The day the music died.
posted by Kabanos at 7:39 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


In any case, proliferation is the only long-term archival strategy.

how do you propose to proliferate analog master tapes
posted by entropicamericana at 7:49 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


In any case, proliferation is the only long-term archival strategy.

how do you propose to proliferate analog master tapes
posted by entropicamericana


I used to work in museum collections! Preservation is a tough game, because in the long run you're up against the second law of thermodynamics. You're going to lose in the end; all you can do is bust your ass to keep that end out into the distant future, presumably when the sun blows up or whatever.

Kind of joking there, but the bigger point is that physical objects are inherently vulnerable to, uh, physical destruction. So aside from whatever you do to protect the physical objects, the secondary strategy we took was to digitize the entire collection (through hi-res photography, in that case, since it was visual art, but digitized audio would follow the same principle) and then distribute copies of that digitized archive in several different secure locations so that a disaster at one wouldn't take the rest out. There was even an acronym for this in the preservation world: LOCKSS, for Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. It's not a 100% replacement (especially if your digitization happened at a time when you couldn't get really high fidelity), and digital preservation has its own problems (endless kick-the-can with file formats, storage media degradation, the ultimate reliance on a ubiquitous, functioning electrical grid), but it's the best you can do for safety through proliferation.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 8:04 AM on June 11 [36 favorites]


I know I'm a weirdo, but I'm even more saddened by the loss of the more obscure artists' work, that we now don't get to become familiar with.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:13 AM on June 11 [32 favorites]


I don't think that "recordings enter public domain" = "anyone can walk into your vault and take the masters."

If anything, having the masters means that while the original releases can be re-issued by anyone, whoever physically holds the masters can remix and remaster on modern equipment and put it out as a Definitive Edition. Holding those masters and putting effort into rereleases is a way to counter low-quality public domain editions
posted by thecjm at 8:26 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Louis Armstrong's recordings from 1923 are in the public domain as of this year.

Sound recordings aren't on the same schedule.
posted by hades at 8:36 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


I admit all those artists are wonderful, recordings are fun, and recording companies tend to be devious, but don't we spend enough time with recordings already? how about the tragedy of not knowing the artists who live in our local neighborhoods because we're addicted to hearing the same people over and over again??
posted by danjo at 8:57 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


damn man where do you live where your local artists are in the same league as aretha franklin, louis armstrong, and billie holiday and how much is rent
posted by entropicamericana at 9:06 AM on June 11 [42 favorites]


posted by entropicamericana

Sobponysterical
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:29 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]


It's a major loss. The idea of archiving being a cost center is depressing. Especially since UMG and other media companies are gifted the ability to make money from music publishing by us, the public.

Through copyright law, we grant exclusive monopoly power to media companies for very long periods of time, during which copyright owners make a great deal of money.

In return, we deserve extensions to copyright law that oblige the owners of copyrighted material to take precautions to archive original recordings during the timeframe they are gifted by us, so as to ensure these works can ultimately enter the public domain and become our collectively shared and publicly-owned cultural wealth.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:40 AM on June 11 [13 favorites]


A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. That file was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD

Kind of a minor thing in the scope of this but - does Spotify really serve files transcoded between lossy formats? I mean, I guess they probably serve whatever the label gives them, and once in a while it might be true that somebody cares that little?
posted by atoxyl at 9:56 AM on June 11


I mean, I'd like to believe that the origin of streaming music is not some intern sticking CDs into a computer and ripping them to mp3s to be uploaded to the iTunes store, but who really knows.
posted by Automocar at 10:05 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Another (rather poorly written) story on it. This one features this unusual take:

Jody Rosen, the writer of the article, described the successful effort to play down the scope of the loss as a “triumph of crisis management” that involved officials working for Universal Music Group on both coasts.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 10:10 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


I've been to enough loud concerts sans earplugs that these days I really can't tell the difference between crappy mp3 rips and high quality remasters. Isn't it funny how music saved me from experiencing any negative personal fallout from this tragedy
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:11 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


I mean, I'd like to believe that the origin of streaming music is not some intern sticking CDs into a computer and ripping them to mp3s to be uploaded to the iTunes store, but who really knows.

That's about the level of quality I'd expect. CD to MP3 to [other lossy codec] (as any reputable torrent tracker would ban) is not. Though as I said I can believe it's happened when people really didn't care or know what they were doing.
posted by atoxyl at 10:13 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:22 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


i mean, i dont know if spotify's metadata is any different, but one look at apple music's metadata should make it abundantly clear the labels don't give a damn (in case the priceless-collection-destroying fire left any doubt, that is)

anyone who tried to seed something to oink using apple-music-quality metadata would have been banned (er, or so i hear.... or something...)
posted by entropicamericana at 10:26 AM on June 11


For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. “Most people don’t realize that recording technology was decades more sophisticated than playback technology,” Sapoznik says. “Today, we can decode information off original recordings that was impossible to hear at any time before.”

I did not know that until now. Thanks for the post, OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:32 AM on June 11 [9 favorites]


damn man where do you live where your local artists are in the same league as aretha franklin, louis armstrong, and billie holiday and how much is rent

Honestly, pretty much everywhere. Showbiz, and music specifically, are far from merit-based when it comes to stardom. I see hugely talented nobodies all the time.
posted by rocket88 at 11:04 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


I mean, I'd like to believe that the origin of streaming music is not some intern sticking CDs into a computer and ripping them to mp3s to be uploaded to the iTunes store, but who really knows.

I know (well, not for Spotify specifically, but for other places you have heard of).

At a former gig, I even worked on ingestion of UMG content into our system. We were given lossless files and we transcoded everything on delivery into the very many formats our customers either downloaded or streamed. Some stuff was hand delivered for some reason (we did a whole bunch of marketing for Arcade Fire's Reflecktor album, so someone drove over from Santa Monica with the lossless files on an external hard drive weeks before the launch), but most of the time it was via UMG's incredibly complicated digital delivery platform.

Current gig: We probably forced UMG to build that incredibly complicated digital delivery platform in order to get their content in our store, so I'm would strongly guess they are also giving us the lossless files.
posted by sideshow at 11:11 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:25 AM on June 11


Kind of a minor thing in the scope of this but - does Spotify really serve files transcoded between lossy formats?

There was definitely something wrong with their version of Jellyfish's "Spilt Milk", but it may have been fixed
posted by thelonius at 11:40 AM on June 11


I admit all those artists are wonderful, recordings are fun, and recording companies tend to be devious, but don't we spend enough time with recordings already? how about the tragedy of not knowing the artists who live in our local neighborhoods because we're addicted to hearing the same people over and over again??

This disregards the fact that these are extremely historically significant recordings (at least WRT to some of the jazz stuff) and are studied by a great many people when learning the musical language and history. People consume music for reasons other than just their listening pleasure.

Honestly, pretty much everywhere. Showbiz, and music specifically, are far from merit-based when it comes to stardom. I see hugely talented nobodies all the time.

Coltrane is one of the most important and influential musicians in jazz and Louis Armstrong is arguably the most important figure in modern American music. Not all that was lost was meritless "showbiz" music. This is a loss of the primary record of a whole lot of great and important art.
posted by Television Name at 12:27 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]


you are completely right but also you are setting off hella flashbacks to boomers lecturing me about The Important Music Of Their Youth and that just makes me want to play kazoo covers of Baby Shark at maximum volume until their ghosts depart
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:30 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


Honestly, pretty much everywhere. Showbiz, and music specifically, are far from merit-based when it comes to stardom.

*returns to thread after chasing down eyes which are rolling inexplicably away.*

I can't even form a coherent analogy for coming into a thread about the destruction of an archive of what a tumultuous decade considered its best recordings by its most talented performers and dismissing it so casually, but it's not completely unlike all the insensitive threadshitting after the Notre Dame burned.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:44 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]


I mean, I'd like to believe that the origin of streaming music is not some intern sticking CDs into a computer and ripping them to mp3s to be uploaded to the iTunes store

I knew someone who worked at the Music Genome Project way back before Pandora was really a thing - this does basically describe his job, although IIRC it was lossless encoding and there was a little more data entry.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:46 PM on June 11


Look, most of the scrolls in the so-called "Library of Alexandria" were just stupid junk, anyway. We have Twitter now, so who cares that it all burned down?
posted by vibrotronica at 12:46 PM on June 11 [18 favorites]


Look, most of the scrolls in the so-called "Library of Alexandria" were just stupid junk, anyway. We have Twitter now, so who cares that it all burned down?

This whole thread is reminding me of how mad I was, and why, when What.CD shut down.
posted by atoxyl at 1:17 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


you are completely right but also you are setting off hella flashbacks to boomers lecturing me about The Important Music Of Their Youth and that just makes me want to play kazoo covers of Baby Shark at maximum volume until their ghosts depart

Just making a note to refer to this post, the next time I ever need to stop before posting and ask "Am I just being an asshole now to a bunch of upset people?"
posted by happyroach at 1:41 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]


The part about Iron Mountain was fascinating. On-site studios to ensure the masters don't leave the archive!
posted by emelenjr at 1:44 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


My buddy worked as a temp for Sony in the early 2000s in their NYC studio. He was payed $11/hr (no bennies) to do QC on their gold masters before they were sent to the CD plants for production.

Basically, it meant listening to the album start to finish. If nothing weird happened, it got sent off for production. If there was any sort of glitch, the time/track got logged and you started over from the beginning of the album. You would do this until the entire album was listened to and all defects logged, so a bad master could mean hours listening to a single album - all with the knowledge that a new master of that album would be waiting for you the next day.

He said it was soul-crushing work knowing he was getting paid crap money to ensure quality on an item that could make Sony millions of dollars. He also said his worst day was when he had to listen to a Céline Dion album multiple times because it played perfectly until the very last track before it started glitching.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 4:48 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]


Yeah, the record companies are the last folks to be trusted with master recordings. At various points while reading the article I was shouting "IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!"
posted by Cash4Lead at 5:02 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]


Great article. If it helps, technically many of these tapes were probably in pretty bad shape. Some of those mentioned were a half-century old. Recording tech at the time was *really* primitive.

Analog masters were recorded on strips of plastic coated with iron oxide. After 20 or so years, the deterioration is usually audible. Had UMG made digital copies (of more than the 5-10% mentioned), they would have faithfully reproduced the existing flaws.

We continue to accept these risks. To this day, there is no permanent archival format. *For none of the music* or anything else. CDs (plastic & aluminum) rot. Hard drives store on iron oxide. We'd be safer printing the binary codes on papyrus with typewriter ribbons.
posted by Twang at 5:21 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


A thing about the history of recorded jazz that blows my mind: critical years in the development of bebop did not even get documented, because there was a ban on recording during WWII, due to a strike.
posted by thelonius at 5:27 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


you are completely right but also you are setting off hella flashbacks to boomers lecturing me about The Important Music Of Their Youth and that just makes me want to play kazoo covers of Baby Shark at maximum volume until their ghosts depart

Look, no joke, I feel you. In my embryonic boomic phase, I was contemptuous of people holding up Bing Crosby or Louis Armstrong as cultural icons. I mean, some kind of ironic joke, right, having these baggy has-beens shoved in my ears and eyes all the time? Well, later on, on my own dime, I explored crucial, almost totally unlistened-to recordings of young Bing Crosby as a dangerous edgy jazz singer, of Armstrong changing the world of music (and beyond) with unimaginably fertile and creative soloing in Kid Ory's band, in his own Hot Five. I merely encountered them during immensely well-earned career victory laps, relaxed and clowning.

... I do sometimes think that McCartney is pushing acceptability, though.
posted by Chitownfats at 5:40 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


you are completely right but also you are setting off hella flashbacks to boomers lecturing me about The Important Music Of Their Youth and that just makes me want to play kazoo covers of Baby Shark at maximum volume until their ghosts depart
I'm just curious, when do you think the Baby Boom is supposed to have happened? Also, you should probably print this post and put it in your sock drawer so some day you can pull it out and admire it when some younger person reminisces about how annoying your passions were to them.

P.S., would have been funnier if I knew who Bobby Shark was.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:10 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Lol the important music of my youth was 90s jungle which BTW is superior to modern dnb
posted by Television Name at 7:59 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


I can't even form a coherent analogy for coming into a thread about the destruction of an archive of what a tumultuous decade considered its best recordings by its most talented performers and dismissing it so casually.

I dismissed nothing. I responded to a comment that was dismissing non-famous music.
As for the lost masters, anything that wasn't digitally archived is a tragedy. Anything that was is still with us in every important way.
posted by rocket88 at 10:05 PM on June 11


If you mess up and destroy stuff you created yourself I kind of get it, can't really blame you.

As long as ownership =! stewardship, copyright "ownership" of human cultural heritage can rightfully be viewed as a crime if not done responsibly.
posted by ipsative at 10:28 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


I mean, I'd like to believe that the origin of streaming music is not some intern sticking CDs into a computer and ripping them to mp3s to be uploaded to the iTunes store, but who really knows.

I actually have evidence that for one well-known indie label, that’s pretty much what they did. This means that certain types of CD read errors (both audible and inaudible) which are ignored when you rip with iTunes (no error message) cause some tracks to have audible pops or otherwise not be 100% accurate to the CD masters. Because these rips are the record label’s official files for streaming or download both now and in the future, that means there is corruption in what are effectively being used as the masters. They are no longer pressing new CDs when something sells out, so already the corrupt versions of tracks (as downloads) are the only ones that can be bought from the label.

If they had used XLD (Mac) or Exact Audio Copy (Windows) and had taken time to do it properly, they could have had 100% accurate rips.
posted by D.C. at 11:12 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Words fail me re: the magnitude of the destruction (in terms of both physical loss and historical significance), and even I don't have enough obscenities to cover my thoughts about UMG's shortsightedness and cover-up, so I'll just have to settle with this quote from the article: "What the [expletive] was anybody thinking putting a tape vault in an amusement park?”

Also, listen to enough early jazz vocals (especially male vocals), and you'll see why Crosby (and Sinatra) were treated as the Second Coming when they arrived on the scene.
posted by gtrwolf at 11:17 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


*reads thread* *looks at recent Radiohead minidisc hack release...*

There's... there's a connection here?
posted by Molesome at 8:18 AM on June 12


Recording tech at the time was *really* primitive.

Primitive? Maybe. But recording equipment - especially post-WW II - was remarkably good.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 9:26 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


To this day, there is no permanent archival format. *For none of the music* or anything else. CDs (plastic & aluminum) rot.

Supposedly, nanostructured glass and femtosecond laser writing could make records that are highly resistant to segregation over time, at least. But that's still in development, and really doesn't help with this.

Maybe someday we'll use lasers to inscribe records in artificial diamond plates, but for now all we can do is mourn the loss.
posted by happyroach at 10:31 AM on June 12


I'm curious how hiding this loss from their own shareholders isn't a major securities crime.
posted by srboisvert at 6:06 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]


Here's a question:

Suppose I am an artist, and UMG owns the master to my album. That means they alone can profit from selling that recording, and I only get a piece of the action if my contract says so.

Now I find out that the master of said album was destroyed a decade ago in the UMG fire, and no one told me about it. If the master of the recording no longer exists, and indeed was destroyed due to the negligence of UMG, and that fact was deliberately covered up by UMG, does UMG still retain the master rights to the recording? Or was the thing that UMG owned, the master tapes, destroyed?

Seems to me there's a possibility that they have been selling and profiting from that sound recording illegally since the fire, and they owe me money. And that the rights for all future sales of the recording revert to me.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:44 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]






“Artists Sue Universal Music Group Over Losses in 2008 Fire,” Ben Sisario, The New York Times, 21 June 2019
posted by ob1quixote at 11:02 PM on June 21 [2 favorites]




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