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Universal Now Claims Only 22 Master Recordings, and Not 500,000, Were Lost in 2008 Fire

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Universal is striking back at the lawsuit that alleges 500,000 master recordings were lost in a 2008 fire.

Last month an investigative New York Times article revealed that a fire at Universal Studios back in 2008 had initially been heavily downplayed by the company, and that the number of master recordings lost in the blaze was roughly half a million. Original tapes containing classics by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and Papas, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Tupac Shakur, amongst many others, were incinerated.

In response to a class action lawsuit brought by attorneys representing Hole, Soundgarden, Steve Earle and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, Universal is now claiming that only 22 original masters were lost, containing recordings of just five artists (presumably the five bringing the suit, although it isn’t specified). The linguistic gymnastics and legalese boil down to the term “original masters,” which Universal is employing to claim that copies of suitable quality of the allegedly lost recordings exist.

A new report in Variety details how Universal came to the above conclusion, citing an internal memo circulated by the company’s own archivist:

“… [the] team has been working around the clock, fielding requests from approximately 275 artists and representatives. To date we’ve reviewed 26,663 individual assets covering 30 artists. Of those assets, we believe we’ve identified 424 that could be missing or lost due to the fire, with audio assets accounting for 349 of them. Our data suggests that 22 of those could be ‘original masters’ which are associated with 5 artists. For each of those lost masters, we have located high-quality alternate sources in the form of safety copies or duplicate masters.”

How is that a Times investigation determined 500,000 recordings were missing and Universal only claims that 424 are gone? That’s a MASSIVE discrepancy, and surely comes down to the definitions of pesky words such as “original,” “master,” “recording” and “lost,” simple on the surface but not so much when billions of dollars are at play. I’m inclined to believe an independent news organization known for its thorough research over Universal’s in-house guy. How about you?

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