Recording artists are preparing for legal action against Universal Music Group in response to a bombshell report about the losses of hundreds of thousands of master tapes in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios in Hollywood.
The reported losses are staggering and if true, represent one of the world disasters in the history of recorded music.
"We have many very concerned clients," attorney Howard King told the Los Angeles Times. "This has a potentially huge impact on their future, coupled with the rather disturbing fact that no one ever told them that their intellectual property may have been destroyed. There is a significant amount of discussion going on, and there will be formal action taken."
The master recording is the original and highest-quality recording of a piece of music; it is the recording from which all copies (traditionally) have been made. Essentially, with each new advance in audio storage technology, we are getting closer to the fidelity of the master. So in all likelihood, we will never get to hear high-quality versions of songs lost in the fire that what we currently have.
King did not specify to the L.A. Times which artists or artist estates with whom he's working, but he confirmed the number is "more than 10 and but fewer than 100."
Included in the Universal vault were more then 500,000 titles, plus original multi-track tapes with isolated instruments on them.
The losses span decades of crucial music since 1940, including albums by Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Elton John, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Police, R.E.M., Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Beck, Tupac, Eminem, Nirvana and many, many, many more.
Forbes points out that many of the albums presumed to be lost in the fire have been reissued since 2008. It's possible that those albums were reissued using safety masters, which were often used for overseas distribution. Most big hit records — especially from the days of vinyl and CD — likely have safety masters. While safeties are made with care and sound close to the original, they still suffer from natural sonic degradation that comes with each successive copy.
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