Eleven years ago this month, a treasure trove of rock history was lost and almost no one knew about it. On June 10, 2008, a fire swept through the vaults on Universal Studios’ lot containing the master tapes of some of rock’s most iconic albums. The New York Times Magazine story that blew the lid off the coverup calls it “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
According to the report, the fire started on the roof of a movie set where before maintenance workers had used blow torches to heat asphalt shingles the night before. After the workers left, a hotspot flared up and the flames quickly spread through the wooden set. Security guards discovered the fire early the next morning, but the blaze engulfed the music vault before it was contained. The fire, of course, was initially reported on by the media, but Universal failed to reveal the destruction of thousands of master tapes.
The scope of the devastation to rock music history is extreme. A small sample of what the fire destroyed includes almost every single Buddy Holly master tape as well as a sizeable portion of John Coltrane’s library. The master tapes of albums from musical luminaries like Nirvana, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., Ray Charles, B.B. King, Guns N’ Roses, Neil Diamond, and Eric Clapton were destroyed. All in all, around 500,000 songs were lost according to estimates made by Universal. Of great historical value, Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” was among the songs lost.
For those unsure about why this matters, the master tapes are the highest quality and detailed recordings from which all copies (all good copies) are sourced. Not to mention that the music vault also contained recording sessions that had yet to be released.
According to The New York Times Magazine, Universal hid the losses out of the fear of legal action from the artists and their representatives. Not to mention that the studio wanted to avoid public humiliation and the ensuing backlash. Instead of releasing the information, Universal initially claimed that the worst destruction was contained to the video vaults.
Time will tell how this tragedy affects future music lovers. For now, though, Universal has egg on their face and a lot of explaining to do.