The Courthouse facade is visible to the left of the smoke plume from the 2008 fire
|Date||June 1, 2008|
|Location||Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California|
|Cause||Heated asphalt shingle|
|Outcome||Destruction of three acres of Universal backlot, King Kong Encounter, original master tapes for popular music, and digital TV and film backups|
On June 1, 2008, a fire broke out on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, an American film studio and theme park in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles County, California. The fire began when a worker used a blowtorch to warm asphalt shingles that were being applied to a facade. He left before checking that all spots had cooled, and a three-alarm fire broke out. Nine firefighters and a Los Angeles County sheriffs' deputy sustained minor injuries. The fire was extinguished after 12 hours.
Universal Pictures claimed that the fire destroyed a three-acre (1.2 ha) portion of the Universal backlot, including the attraction King Kong Encounter and 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies.
A 2019 New York Times Magazine exposé asserted that the fire also destroyed 118,000 to 175,000 audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG). This included original recordings belonging to some of the best-selling artists worldwide. UMG initially disputed the story, but CEO Lucian Grainge later confirmed that there had been a significant loss of musical archives.
On June 1, 2008, a three-alarm fire broke out on Universal Studios Lot, the backlot of Universal Studios. The fire started when a worker was using a blowtorch to warm asphalt shingles being applied to a facade. The Los Angeles County Fire Department reported that Brownstone Street, New York Street, New England Street, the King Kong attraction, some structures that make up Courthouse Square, and the Video Vault, which contained duplicates of Universal's film library, had burned down. Aerial news footage captured the Courthouse building surviving its third fire, with only the west side slightly charred.
Over 516 firefighters responded, as well as two helicopters dropping water. Nine firefighters and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy sustained minor injuries. The fire took at least 12 hours to extinguish, in part because of the low water pressure due to the low capacity of Universal's pipes; firefighters had to tap streams and lakes.
Universal executives initially claimed the fire destroyed 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies of Universal movies and TV shows, some almost a century old, and including the films Knocked Up and Atonement, the NBC series Law & Order, The Office, and Miami Vice, and the CBS series I Love Lucy. Universal president Ron Meyer told the media that "nothing irreplaceable was lost" and that the company had duplicates of everything destroyed.
Several days after the fire, it was reported that the King Kong attraction would be replaced by a new attraction. However, Universal reverted to its original plan, basing the new attraction, King Kong: 360 3-D, on the 2005 King Kong film.
2019 New York Times report
The fire destroyed Building 6197, a warehouse adjoining the King Kong attraction. In addition to more videos, it housed a huge archive of analog audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG). The collection included the master tape catalogues of many labels acquired by UMG, including Chess, Decca, MCA, Geffen, Interscope, A&M, Impulse!, and their subsidiary labels. Estimates of the individual items lost range from 118,000 to 175,000 album and 45 rpm single master tapes, phonograph master discs, lacquers and acetates, as well as all the documentation contained in the tape boxes. Many tapes contained unreleased recordings such as outtakes, alternative versions of released material, and instrumental "submaster" multitracks created for dubbing and mixdown. Randy Aronson, manager of the vault at the time, estimates that the masters of as many as 500,000 individual tracks were lost.
Among the possible losses were the entire AVI Records catalog, all of Decca's masters from the 1930s to the 1950s, most of the original Chess masters which included artists such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, as well as most of John Coltrane's master tapes from his later career on Impulse! Records. On Twitter, Rosen stated that the Coltrane masters were among the most checked-out Impulse! items in the vault, and a source had told him that the masters for A Love Supreme were likely elsewhere during the fire.
On June 25, Rosen wrote a follow-up article, listing at least 700 additional artists named in internal UMG documents as possibly affected. Rosen wrote that it was impossible to determine which recordings had been destroyed, or how much of an artist's discography had been affected. For example, Rosen said it was difficult to confirm whether the Neil Young recordings listed in the documents were the original master tapes of the albums he recorded for Geffen Records in the 1980s, or session outtakes from those records. Rosen tweeted that the documents also listed several Broadway cast recordings among the tapes destroyed. Additionally, several non-musical audio recordings were reported as destroyed, including the original recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1968 "Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution" speech.
Bryan Adams, Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter, and Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz said they had been told that UMG had misplaced their tapes. Richard Carpenter told the Times he had been informed about the destruction of his tapes by a UMG employee while he was working on a reissue, and only after Carpenter had made multiple, persistent inquiries. Following the publication of Rosen's articles, several affected musicians posted reactions on social media, with some noting specific tapes that may have been lost. For instance, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule said she had lost two masters in the fire, including tapes for an unreleased album produced by Joe Jackson.
On June 21, 2019, five plaintiffs—singer-songwriter Steve Earle, the estates of the late Tupac Shakur and Tom Petty, and the bands Hole and Soundgarden—filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against UMG. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claim UMG never told artists about the effects of the fire and had breached their contracts by failing to properly secure its master tape collection. They further allege that UMG did not share insurance or legal payouts received as a result of the fire.
The lawsuit also alleges that Universal had compiled a master inventory list of master tapes that had been destroyed. The plaintiffs seek to recover half of any insurance payments UMG received from the fire, and half of any losses that were not covered by those settlements. An uninvolved industry attorney told Billboard that the case concerned property rights, as in whether UMG or the artists owned the master tapes.
On July 17, Universal moved to dismiss the class action lawsuit. On August 16, 2019, Hole dropped out of the class action lawsuit after UMG assured them that the band's masters were not affected by the fire. Slightly over a month later, UMG also claimed that Shakur, Earle, and Petty did not lose their masters in the fire, and that an investigation with Soundgarden was still ongoing.
Five days later, Universal demanded Soundgarden drop the suit, which the label had also moved to dismiss, citing documentary proof that the label had informed the band about the lost masters in 2015 and accusing their lawyer of "[failing] to conduct pre-suit diligence in your rush to be the first to file." The surviving band members declined. "Their arbitrary deadlines have zero force or effect", Howard King, their attorney, told Rolling Stone. "Until UMG reveals what it collected for their litigation claims to extensive damage to master recordings, we cannot accept their belated claim that no damages were actually suffered.” Universal's dismissal motion also publicly confirmed that master tapes for Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger album had been destroyed in the fire, and that members of the group had been made aware of the destruction in 2015 while they were working on a remaster of the album that was eventually completed with a backup safety copy. In December 2019, district court judge John Kronstadt ruled that Universal must hand over discovery evidence, and denied the label's request to postpone the delivery. In March 2020, Soundgarden and the Shakur estate dropped out of the class action against UMG. On March 23, Steve Earle also dropped out, leaving Tom Petty's widow as the only remaining plaintiff. The lawsuit was dismissed by Kronstadt on April 6, 2020.
UMG disputed the New York Times article, saying it contained "numerous inaccuracies" and "fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets", but was unable to disclose details due to "constraints".
In a Billboard interview, UMG archivist Patrick Kraus said that several Impulse! Records, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Ahmad Jamal, Nashboro Records, and Chess Records masters survived the fire and were still in Universal's archive. Rosen responded in his June 25 piece, noting that some of the masters that Kraus had mentioned may have survived the fire because they were being used for remastering projects at the time, or were not the primary source master. Aronson also confirmed to Rosen that the vast majority of items in the vault at the time of the fire were original, primary source master recordings.
In an email to staff following the publication of Rosen's story, Lucian Grainge confirmed that UMG had suffered a serious loss of archival material. Grainge wrote, "While I've been somewhat relieved by early reports from our team that many of the assertions and subsequent speculation are not accurate, one thing is clear: the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking." He wrote that it was "completely unacceptable" that their artists did not know the details and pledged to deliver "answers". On June 26, Kraus issued a memo to staff which detailed UMG's plan to determine which assets had been affected.
A month after the story broke, Kraus issued an internal note to Universal staff, which claimed that only 22 original master recordings by five artists were lost in the fire, and backup copies had been found for each lost master. He added that UMG has been fielding requests from over 200 artists and their representatives. Kraus said his team had reviewed over 26,000 assets by 30 artists. From that sample, 424 assets (including 349 audio recordings) might have been lost due to the fire. On November 4, 2019, a lawyer representing Universal claimed the artists would receive no compensation.
A February 2020 court filing by UMG confirmed that master tapes from at least 19 artists had been damaged or destroyed in the fire. The artists whom UMG confirmed as affected are: Bryan Adams, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, David Baerwald, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Jimmy Eat World, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Nirvana, Les Paul, R.E.M., Slayer, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, the Surfaris, Suzanne Vega, White Zombie, and Y&T.
List of artists affected, according to The New York Times
- 2008 in music
- 2008 in the United States
- List of building or structure fires
- 1937 Fox vault fire, destroyed many of the studio's pre-1932 silent films
- 1965 MGM vault fire, destroyed many of the studio's silent and early sound films
- Myspace, another company involved in a loss of music that also went unreported by the media until 2019
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