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New York Times publishes list of over 800 artists potentially affected by Universal archive fire

By | Published on Wednesday 26 June 2019

Universal Music

As Universal Music continues in its attempts to cast doubt on recent reporting in the New York Times about the 2008 fire that damaged its Hollywood-based archive, the newspaper has published a list of more than 800 artists who allegedly lost recordings in the blaze. Based on internal UMG documents produced in the wake of the fire, the Times says that, of the “many tens of thousands of tapes” covered by the list, “nearly all [are] original masters”.

The newspaper adds that this list is not even complete, rather it’s an amalgamation of a number of lists put together by Universal in 2009 and 2010 as part of ‘Project Phoenix’, the music firm’s attempt to work out what had been lost and then try to source alternative copies, where possible. By the label’s own estimates, it reiterates, over 100,000 tapes were lost, containing up to 500,000 individual tracks.

That the fire happened on a Universal Studios backlot in 2008 is no secret, of course. It was also known at the time that the Universal music company still stored archive recordings at the Hollywood site, even though it was no longer in common ownership with the Universal film business. But the NYT’s recent articles allege that the music major greatly played down the severity of the damage caused at the time, and has continued to cover it up to this day.

Although current Universal Music CEO Lucian Grainge recently admitted to his staff that “we owe our artists transparency” on the status of their archive material, he and the company’s archiving exec Pat Krauss have both said that the original New York Times article on the fire is not accurate. For a Billboard article, Krauss even pulled out a John Coltrane master tape said to have been destroyed in order to prove his point.

In its new article, the New York Times says that it is likely that some of the tapes listed as potentially lost are indeed safe. It estimates that the aforementioned Project Phoenix was able to source around a fifth of the affected recordings – either original copies that had been out of the archive at the time or back up copies of reasonable quality stored elsewhere. But that still means a lot of masters were completely lost.

Following the publication of the first NYT article, several artists whose recordings appear on the lists commented on how they’d attempted to get hold of their masters at some point in the last decade, only to be told by Universal that they were lost. However, that they were destroyed in the fire was rarely explained. Speaking to the newspaper for its latest article on the fire, Bryan Adams recalls how in 2013 he wanted to put together a 30th anniversary release of his 1984 album ‘Reckless’.

“I contacted the archive dept of Universal Music”, he says. “I called everyone, former A&M employees, directors, producers, photographers, production houses, editors, even assistants of producers at the time. I can tell you with 100% certainty that I couldn’t find anything at Universal that had been published to do with my association with A&M records in the 1980s. If you were doing an archaeological dig there, you would have concluded that it was almost as if none of it had ever happened”.

In the end, he discovered a tape in his own vault and was able to produce a remastered release. However, he says that throughout his conversations with UMG staff “there was no mention that there had been a fire in the archive”. This despite his name appearing on the label’s own list of artists whose work was thought to have been lost.

Last week, a group of artists named in the original article, including Soundgarden, Hole, Steve Earle, and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, filed a class action lawsuit against Universal in relation to the fire. As well as claiming that the label breached its contractual duty by failing to keep their master tapes safe, they are also seeking a portion of monies Universal seemingly received from an insurance claim in relation to the fire and a negligence lawsuit it brought against NBC Universal.

While publicly playing down the extent of the fire damage in 2008, the artists’ lawsuit claims, the label received large pay outs based on its own internal estimations of the damage. It then failed to share this with affected artists, or even to inform them that they had been affected. The lawsuit is demanding $100 million in damages.

It’s thought that other lawsuits specifically relating to the 2008 fire could as yet follow. Meanwhile, other ongoing litigation could also force the music company to reveal more about the extent of the damage that occurred. A number of heritage artists in the US have already gone to court to test the reach of the so called ‘termination’ or ‘reversion’ right that exists under American copyright law, and whether this applies to master recordings.

The termination right says that ‘authors’ who assign their copyrights to another entity have a one-time opportunity to terminate that assignment and reclaim their rights after 35 years. This particular termination right comes from a piece of 1970s copyright law in the US, so only really kicked in earlier this decade.

On the songs side of the business songwriters reclaiming their US rights in this way has become routine. On the recordings side, however, many corporate rights owners have resisted efforts by artists to reclaim assigned rights.

This is based on an argument over the nature of record contracts and the status of the artist in copyright terms. Many labels insist that record deals are so called ‘work for hire’ agreements that basically make artists employees, so that the default owner of any copyrights they create is their employer, ie the label.

Lawsuits were filed against both Universal and Sony earlier this year attempting to gain court confirmation that artists are in fact able to regain their recording rights by employing the termination right. If they are, that would include the return of their master recordings. In those circumstances, the label would have to admit what tapes it does or doesn’t have.

The potential outcome of the reversion rights cases is just one black cloud hanging over Universal parent company Vivendi’s plan to sell up to 50% of its shares in the music company. The fallout from the NYT’s articles on the big fire is another. Although last week, Vivendi CEO Arnaud De Puyfontaine told Variety that the new scandal surrounding the 2008 blaze was “just noise” and would have no effect on the share sale plan. However, it seems unlikely that “noise” is going to subside anytime soon.

Responding to De Puyfontaine’s comments, Howard King, the lawyer leading the first lawsuit to be launched off the back of the New York Times’ report, told Variety: “The likelihood that their life’s works may have been destroyed by the gross negligence of Universal Music is far from ‘just noise’ to any potentially affected artist”.

He went on: “It wasn’t ‘just noise’ in 2009 when Universal Music sued NBC Universal, claiming that hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable masters had been lost in the devastating fire. It wasn’t ‘just noise’ when Universal Music collected tens of millions of dollars, or more, in compensation for the lost masters. I believe that Mr De Puyfontaine wishes this would all disappear and not interfere with his financial planning. This wish will not come true”.

Universal has not yet commented on the fire-specific lawsuit. However, with the publication of the extended list of affected artists by the New York Times, it seems likely that many more artists will now be asking questions, and potentially going legal, in the coming weeks.