The Universal fire that killed music

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In a report in The New York Times, we learned about one about the greatest musical catastrophes in history. Here we tell you more

The Universal fire that killed music

Last year we witnessed in Latin America one of the most tragic fires in recent history in the National Museum of Brazil. There were lost works of great value, not only economic but also historical, which are now irretrievable. Fires have caused catastrophes throughout history and we do not currently seem to be very aware of this: from when Nero began to burn Rome, through the destruction of Elizabethan theaters or even the large number of fires in the Bronx during the 70s.

Leer en español: El incendio de Universal que mató a la música

A few days ago it was revealed one of the worst music losses due to a fire that happened more than 10 years ago at Universal Hollywood Studios. As explained in The New York Times article, written by Jody Rosen, on June 1, 2008, at 4:43 am, it was reported that there were flames on the set known as New England Street, in which roofs had been repaired a few hours before.

The fire quickly expanded to other sets such as the New York imitation, Courthouse Square, another from Back to the Future and even the King Kong Encounter attraction. Near the latter was Building 6197 of 6,803 square meters, known as the 'Vault of the videos', which was also burned by the fire. Only until the morning of the next day were they able to control the fire, but the damage was already done.

The problem is that only 2/3 of the vault was of videos and in one of the areas of the missing third was a sector of 731 square meters, with several shelves of 5 meters that contained one of the largest libraries of original recordings, or masters, from the Universal Music Group (UMG). This included recordings made from 1940 to the present day of the masters, "a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music.", some of which had never been released to the public. As Randy Aronson, UMG's director of operations, exclaimed at that time, about what he felt when he arrived at the scene of the fire: "It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies (...) I felt like my planet had been destroyed."

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The losses

According to this same official who was one of the key witnesses, at least 175,000 'assets' were lost, which translates into more than 500,000 songs. In economic terms, the losses were around $150 million dollars, but their loss is much deeper in historical terms since thousands of recordings since the postwar period can never be heard again.

These where some of the artists whose masters were consumed: jazz, there were recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, that is to say, practically of all the epochs of this American music. Rock and pop, there were things from Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Queen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, REM, Janet Jackson, Eric B., Guns N 'Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige to Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow; There were even rap jewels from Tupac Shakur, Eminem and 50 Cent.


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As stated in a document called "Meeting on the loss of vault" made by UMG and consulted by Rosen, the company itself accepts the fatality of the fire. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage”, said the company valued at $ 33 billion dollars by Deutsche Bank, which has not yet accepted officially to the public what happened then. Even so that it was not a scandal, they moved the chips for the media, which at that time did not dig very deeply.

Ultimately, as Andy Zax, producer and composer, says about the importance of preservation and care, “much of that music, at any given moment, may seem dated, irrelevant, terrible. The most powerful argument for preservation is simply: ‘We don’t know.’ The sounds from the past that seem vital to us in the present keep changing. Since we don’t know what’s going to be important, we have to err on the side of inclusivity and insist that the entities that own our cultural history do the same.”


LatinAmerican Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra

Translated from "El incendio de Universal que mató a la música"