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Universal gives Soundgarden 24 hours to withdraw from class action over 2008 fire

By | Published on Wednesday 28 August 2019


In the ongoing legal battle over the 2008 Universal archive fire, the major label has now attempted to pick off one more of the artists named on the class action lawsuit that seeks damages in relation to the blaze, that being Soundgarden.

Despite the lawsuit’s claim that Universal has never informed any artists of the status of their masters after the fire, the company says it told Soundgarden about said statuses four whole years ago. To that end, in a legal filing yesterday Universal gave Soundgarden a 24 hour deadline to withdraw from the case. If they do not, it says, it will ask the court to order that the band reimburse the label’s attorney fees and other costs incurred defending the lawsuit.

Soundgarden, however, are having none of it, saying that they’re not about to start accepting the label’s claims about their masters at “face value” at this stage.

The band are part of a group of Universal-signed acts who went legal after the publication of two New York Times articles earlier this year all about the 2008 fire. In them, the newspaper claimed that there had been a cover-up at the music firm over the extent of the damage caused by that fire more than a decade ago.

In 2008, the major record company said publicly that the fire in a warehouse on the Universal Studios backlot had caused minimal damage to its archive of master recordings. It no longer being in common ownership with the Universal film company by then, the label said most of its archive had already been moved elsewhere. However, it later received tens of millions of dollars from a settlement with the film studio and an insurance payout.

One other act involved in the lawsuit, Hole, dropped out earlier this month, after accepting that they had not lost masters in the fire. Universal followed this up last week by saying that Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur (or the estates of the latter two) also had no grounds to sue because no masters had been lost. In the case of Shakur, it conceded that one “generic” master of a compilation had been destroyed, but said that it had an alternative copy.

This left only Soundgarden in the list of artists specifically named on the class action. In their case, the label admits that it did lose two compiled analogue tape masters for 1991 album ‘Badmotorfinger’. However, a 25th anniversary remastered edition of that record was subsequently produced using a “digital audio tape safety copy”. And, the label says, in 2015, while preparing the anniversary edition, it informed the band that some of the analogue masters for the album had been lost. It also adds that the original multi-track recordings remain safe.

According to Billboard, the label says that it wrote to the band’s main contact, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, as well as its own Director Of A&R, Jeff Fura, four years ago, informing them that “1301 assets in the [Hollywood] vault related to Soundgarden, but that only 21 were impacted by the fire, none of which were multi-track masters”. It also cites emails from the band as proof that they were aware of this at the time, and therefore now have no grounds to claim that they were never informed.

With all that in mind, Universal’s new legal filing yesterday demands that the band “immediately dismiss their case against UMG within 24 hours”.

However – like Earle and the estates of Shakur and Petty – Soundgarden remain listed as plaintiffs on the case. Their attorney Howard King told Billboard: “For ten years, UMG concealed from artists the damage the fire inflicted on their life’s works. Why would we accept anything they say at face value now, especially since they refuse to provide us with their actual testimony given – under seal – detailing losses of masters they claimed in their $100 million damage lawsuits against [Universal Studios] and their own insurance company?”

The attorney leading the class action, Ed McPherson, added: “[Universal] keep talking about all of the masters that were supposedly saved, but they won’t let anyone see any of them! They can tell every band on the planet that their masters are safe, but that doesn’t mean it is true. It is interesting that nobody from UMG has actually testified under oath that any particular master was not destroyed!”

Soundgarden’s 24 hour deadline is not yet up, so it is feasible that they will still back down. Although King’s bullish statement implies a firm intention to fight on. The next hearing in the case is currently scheduled for 4 Nov.