In December , UMG filed a lawsuit against NBCUniversal, its former landlord at the vault, seeking compensatory damages for losses suffered in the fire. Much of what we know about the event comes from depositions and documents that emerged from this litigation. Legal wrangling ensued for more than three years, until February , when UMG dropped the suit and the parties settled for an undisclosed sum.
The position staked out by UMG in the lawsuit was the opposite of that in its public statements. He was deposed multiple times and asked by UMG lawyers to submit declarations to the court on four occasions. It stretches back decades and encompasses nearly every significant record label. During World War II, labels donated metal parts masters to salvage drives.
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Three decades later, employees of CBS Records carved up multitrack masters with power saws so the reels could be sold to scrap metal dealers. Catalog material by top stars sometimes suffered the same fate as obscure recordings. Countless more recordings have been lost to shoddy storage practices.
Tapes have been mislabeled, misplaced and misfiled; tapes have been marooned on high shelves in disorderly warehouses, left at loading docks, abandoned at shuttered recording studios. Holland reported that masters for MGM and the jazz label Verve were damaged or destroyed in the fire and in the months following, when surviving recordings were kept in an open shed. The preservation laxities were dictated by what seemed at the time to be common sense.
On the contrary: They were expensive to warehouse and therefore a drain on resources. To record-company accountants, a tape vault was inherently a cost center, not a profit center.
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These attitudes prevailed even at visionary labels like Atlantic Records, which released hundreds of recordings by black artists beginning in the late s. Vogel suggested moving the material to the empty Long Branch building. Vogel was on vacation on Feb. The 5,plus lost tapes comprised nearly all of the session reels, alternate takes and unreleased masters recorded for Atlantic and its sublabels between and , a period when its roster featured R. But to Atlantic in , the tapes were a nuisance. It seemed like a good deal.
Eventually, the true value of those recordings became apparent. When Randy Aronson began working as a music archivist in the mids, he had no idea what a master was. He grew up in central Los Angeles and, like many L. He did some theater during the years he attended college and continued acting into his early 20s, performing in dinner theater while making ends meet with odd jobs.
In , when he was 25, Aronson took a full-time position on the Universal Studios lot, in the mailroom. To work on the lot was to bask in Hollywood history and Hollywood kitsch. The site was opened in in a rural stretch of northern Los Angeles.
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Gradually, that pastoral site became the lot, a bustling maze of offices, sets and soundstages. In , MCA executives, seeking a new source of revenue, developed a studio tour, which soon expanded into a full-fledged amusement park, with rides and attractions. After two years in the mailroom, Aronson sought new work on the lot. In the spring of , he got a temporary position in the tape vault of MCA Records, the music conglomerate that would later be renamed Universal Music Group.
The archive was huge and poorly organized, with thousands of tapes misshelved or improperly labeled. He had no previous experience with preservation work; he was fuzzy on the basics of sound recording. When he arrived at the vault each day, he had the feeling he was entering a cathedral stocked with relics. Less than a year after taking the temp job, Aronson was asked to run the archive. It was a period of sea change in the music industry.
In the early s, the first compact discs had appeared in American record stores.
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LPs had dominated for more than 30 years, but the arrival of CDs encouraged listeners to replace record collections at huge markups, paying up to three times the price for an old album in a crisp new format. The avidity with which consumers snatched up even poor-quality CD reissues was a revelation: proof that catalogs could be cash cows. The result was a reissue boom. Master tapes were essential to this new line of business. But at the MCA vault, Aronson and his colleagues faced challenges, the consequences of archiving failures dating back decades.
The vault facility itself was problematic. The temperature in the vault was 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the correct conditions for storing film, but too cold for music tapes. When masters were pulled and transported to recording studios, they emerged from the frigid vault into the Southern California heat.
Aronson received reports that tapes were arriving at studios in bad shape, cracked and crumbling. A new concrete foundation was poured to accommodate a heavy load of tapes, and HVAC systems were installed. Yet problems persisted.
The inventory was still kept on 5 x 7 cards, and the checkout system involved scrawled notes in three-ring binders. It was hard to sell a return-on-investment on an inventory. It was not a company priority. Soon, new concerns arose.
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The guard was convicted of arson. The fire reached the doorstep of Building , but firefighters beat back the flames. Aronson began to reconsider the prudence of maintaining a tape library on the studio backlot. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress smoking a cigar.
There were camels and elephants walking past. In , another major fire was ignited by an overturned set light. There were pyrotechnic materials on the backlot, used in films and featured in tourist attractions. Right next door to the vault. Most PolyGram masters — including material released on such sublabels as Mercury, Island and Motown — were housed in a rented warehouse in Edison, N. One day in May , Aronson got a call from a colleague.
A crisis was unfolding at the New Jersey warehouse. Aronson flew to New Jersey, where he learned that the upstairs tenant, a food-service company, had loaded too many pallets of salad dressing into its storage hold, caving in the ceiling above the UMG vault and rupturing a pipe as it crashed down. At the warehouse, Aronson beheld a gory scene: collapsed Sheetrock, dangling electricity lines, hundreds of shattered salad-dressing bottles and a foot of water flooding a vault that held , master tapes, including the entire Motown catalog.
Aronson says he urged UMG to abandon the backlot, shifting the recordings to a safer location. Eventually, Aronson says, a compromise was reached: Most of the session reels and multitracks stored on the backlot, about , tapes, were moved to the archive in Pennsylvania. These were the recordings that burned on June 1, But still I look back on it and I wonder: What the [expletive] was anybody thinking putting a tape vault in an amusement park?
On May 27, , a group of celebrities, politicians and Universal Studios officials appeared at a news conference on the Universal backlot to mark the reopening of New York Street.
The speakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and the president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, praised the firefighters who had battled the inferno and rhapsodized about the rebuilt set. The name given by Universal to its rebuilding effort struck a heady note of regeneration and renewal: The Phoenix Project. A year and a half earlier, Universal Music Group embarked on its own recovery project. In the decade-plus since the fire, UMG has shifted many of its masters into the hands of third parties.
The plan was to gather duplicates of recordings whose masters were lost. Those copies would then be digitally transferred to reconstitute the lost archive — albeit in sonically inferior form, with recordings generations removed from the true masters.