This is very, VERY bad: Eleven years ago, thousands of master tapes of albums burned up in a fire. Now there’s a lawsuit involving “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

Just before 5 am on June 1, 2008, while maintenance workers were using blowtorches to repair the roof of a building at Universal Studios Hollywood. Somehow, a fire broke out that destroyed the King Kong attraction and a video vault that contained nothing of consequence. Or so we were told.

The fire consumed Building 6197, the site of the vault. Inside were film reels, old videotapes, and a library of master sound recordings and multi-track records that were property of Universal Music Group.

Master tapes refer to the original recording of a piece of music. It’s the final product of the recording sessions, the thing from which all CDs, MP3s, and vinyl records are copied. The vault also featured unmixed multitrack tapes, the source for reissues and remasters. And then there was all the unreleased material from hundreds (thousands?) of recording sessions over the decades.

It was bad. Firefighters had to resort to taking the warehouse apart to keep the flames from spreading any further. In the process, thousands of recordings–possible 500,000 songs or more–were destroyed. (Here’s a list. It’s sobering.)

Like what? Material from Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. Chess tapes featuring Chuck Berry. Aretha Franklin’s early work. Buddy Holly’s masters. Lots of John Coltrane. “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. “Rock Around the Clock” from Bill Haley and the Comets.

It gets worse. Material from the following was lost: Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, REM, Police and Sting, No Doubt, Eminem, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Eagles, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Beck–the list goes on and on.

Funny thing, though: We’re only hearing about this now. At the time of the fire, we were told that only the King Kong exhibit and a few video/film were lost. Nope.

The New York Times calls this “The Day the Music Burned” and says it was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. Read about the entire tragedy here.

Meanwhile, Universal is denying that things are as bad as the New York Times story says. But with this lawsuit, we’ll find out, won’t we?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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