[This was my column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
Every album recording session finishes with a final product called a “master,” the version of all the songs in their complete and finished version. It’s from this Ur recording that all subsequent copies of the album — CDs, vinyl, digital files — are made. While it’s possible to make a perfect digital copy of a master, it’s still not the original.
In most cases, master recordings become the property of the artist’s record label. As an artist, you assume that these precious tapes — part of your life’s work — will be stored safely and securely.
This was apparently not the case at around 4:30 a.m. on June 1, 2008, when a fire started tearing through a movie set at Universal Studios Hollywood. The famous courthouse seen in Back to the Future was torched on two sides and engulfed the King Kong Encounter building. It also spread to an unimpressive-looking warehouse known as Building 6197. Inside was a vault containing the master tapes to hundreds of thousands of recordings.
When the fire was put out, Universal’s spin was that outside of the movie sets going up in flames, damage was minimal. But according to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Universal allegedly engaged in a coverup of what was lost in the Building 6197 vault. Master tapes featuring everyone from Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, and Ella Fitzgerald to Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana were consumed.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the fire also destroyed an undetermined number of irreplaceable unmixed multitrack tapes, the source material for things like remixes and creating new master recordings using modern technology to make them sound better. While some of the two-track masters were digitized, it’s unlikely that the unmixed multitrack tapes were backed up in the same way.
A great music treasure trove has been lost forever. A lot of people are demanding an explanation. Why was this allowed to happen? How could Universal be so careless and cavalier about caring for something so precious?
It turns out that labels have a long history of not caring for master recordings.