News Artists take class action against Universal Music after songs go up in smoke
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Artists take class action against Universal Music after songs go up in smoke

Over 500,000 recordings were lost in the fire
More than 500,000 recordings were lost in the fire Photo: AAP
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By the time firefighters had put out the raging flames at Universal Music studios, everyone thought that a King Kong ride and some old videos were the only things among the ashes.

But the 2008 blaze had actually destroyed up to 500,000 recordings – a large chunk of the 20th century’s musical heritage had literally gone up in smoke.

Tracks by Elton John, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin and Nirvana were among those lost.

Now a group of high-profile musicians, their heirs and representatives of their estates have filed a class action lawsuit against Universal Music Group.

Soundgarden, Tom Petty’s ex-wife, Hole, Steve Earle and the estate of Tupac Shakur have accused Universal, the biggest record company in the world, of negligence in not doing enough to prevent the fire.

Soundgarden, Tom Petty’s ex-wife, Hole, among artists suing
Soundgarden, Tom Petty’s ex-wife and Hole are among the artists suing. Photo: AAP

The recordings included master tapes – the original recordings from which albums are made – by some of the world’s biggest music names.

No era or genre was spared. From jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to some of rap’s biggest names – Tupac and Eminem.

Sting, Ray Charles, Aerosmith, Joni Mitchell, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Iggy Pop, the list goes on.

At the time representatives from Universal said it had only destroyed part of a King Kong attraction and a video vault containing clips of television shows and movies dating back to the 1920s.

It was not until a recent New York Times investigation that the true extent of the damage was revealed.

The destruction of the master tapes means that it will be more difficult to release high-quality reissues and reproductions of those recordings in the future.

In 2013 it was estimated that less than 18 per cent of commercial music archives had been digitally transferred and made available through streaming services – potentially making the fire the biggest cultural catastrophe of the century.

“A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” former president of Legacy Recordings Adam Block told the Times.

“Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

Taking to Twitter, Questlove of The Roots, which lost their master recordings in the fire, said that it meant their hit singles, Do You Want More and Illadelph Halflife would not be reissued.

“For everyone asking why Do You Want More & Illadelph Halflife won’t get [the] reissue treatment,” he tweeted.

“I been dying to find all the old reels and mix the 8 or 9 songs that never made DYWM. My plan for both DYWM & IH was to release all the songs and instrumental/acapella mixes on 45.

“They sent someone to check out the vault log and then it hit them: B-F & O-S artists took a hit the most. I think everything else was salvaged.”

Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic also responded to a fan’s question about the status of the original Nevermind recordings over Twitter, saying “I think they are gone forever.”

The suit also claims that Universal was simultaneously pursuing litigation and insurance claims valued at $150 million. The claim seeks damages in excess of $100 million.

“UMG concealed its massive recovery from plaintiffs,” the suit says, “apparently hoping it could keep it all to itself by burying the truth in sealed court filings and a confidential settlement agreement.”

While UMG has continued to dispute the extent of the damage, CEO Lucian Grainge sent a memo to staff seen by the LA Times vowing to be as transparent as possible.

“We owe our artists transparency. We owe them answers. I will ensure that the senior management of this company, starting with me, owns this,” it read.

It still remains unclear which master tapes and recordings were lost in the fire and the artists leading the class action suit have not named and recordings that may have been destroyed.

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