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Following Universal fire revelations, DJ Shadow laments the record industry’s attitude to master tapes

By | Published on Friday 22 November 2019

DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow has criticised the music industry over the way it stores its master recordings, following the recent controversy surrounding the fire at a Universal Music archive in Hollywood over a decade ago.

In an interview with Billboard, he was asked about the impact the 2008 fire had had on his archive recordings. It seems he was only affected in a very minor way, but he is nevertheless concerned about how much archive material is routinely lost across the industry.

That 2008 fire has been big news this year, of course, because of a New York Times article which claimed that many more masters were lost in the blaze than originally admitted by the major at the time. Litigation has followed that article with some of the artists who now know that they lost assets in the fire suing for a share of the insurance pay-out and damages payment Universal secured a decade ago.

DJ Shadow was one of the artists that the New York Times alleged was affected by the fire. Asked if he was aware of that prior to the article’s publication, or if the major had been in touch since, he replies: “No, they didn’t reach out to me. A friend of mine sent me the article. It was so, sort of shocking”.

“Supposedly the only thing that was lost was a safety of a video”, he reveals later in the interview. “I was initially concerned because I recorded my 2002 album mostly in LA and we recorded to two-inch reels. And I know I don’t have those. I could have easily imagined them going from Larrabee West Studio right to [Universal’s storage in Hollywood] … because I was on [Universal label] MCA at the time … so I was a little bit concerned, because I didn’t know where those were housed. And that would have been a blow, because it would have meant I would never be able to remix that album”.

Since the New York Times article was published Universal has gone to great lengths to both deny much of what the newspaper reported and also to big up how much work it does to log, protect and secure all the tapes and videos in its archive. While not specifically commenting on Universal’s work in this domain, Shadow has lots to say about the music industry’s wider approach to storing all its old tapes and recordings.

Referencing the friend who had alerted him to the NYT article, he says: “This particular friend is probably my best friend and also the smartest person I know when it comes to talking about music. One of the things we talk about all the time is the horrific waste and lack of accountability when it comes to master archiving”.

He then talks about an earlier fire at an MTV building. “We talk all the time”, he goes on, “about the infinite number of hours of interviews that MTV collected, and the fire that happened there and how much was lost. And just like, where is that stuff? Why can’t we watch it? To me, it’s so irresponsible”. When discussing such things, he says, the aforementioned friend will say “and it continues to this day”

It’s not just the occasional fire that’s the problem, Shadow adds. There’s the fact that masters are often randomly stored and moved around. “You’ll see an eBay listing pop up like ‘all the VJ masters’ and you’re like ‘what is happening?’ It’s crazy”.

“I’ve seen all kinds of stuff”, he goes on. “Without going into detail, I’ve seen entire DAT closets just… someone gets fired, and they’re loading up their duffel bag like ‘fuck you guys’. And it’s like… well, that sucks. That’s really shitty. Why is there no lock on that door? But, that’s the biz”.

You can read the full interview on the Billboard site here.