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Universal master tape fire revelations could result in litigation

By | Published on Monday 17 June 2019

Universal Music

That recent report in the New York Times that Universal Music massively underplayed the significance of a fire at one of its storage facilities back in 2008 might result in legal action because, well, of course it might.

Citing internal memos, the Times said that a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood more than a decade ago could have destroyed up to 500,000 master recordings owned by the Universal record companies.

At the time of the blaze more media attention fell on what impact it had had on assets owned by the Universal film business. Meanwhile, Universal Music – a separate company to the film studio by that point – insisted that, while it did still store things at the Hollywood site, the fire had had a nominal impact on its recordings archive.

Reps for the music major denied many of the allegations in the new Times report, saying that the article contained “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets”.

However, with recordings from a long list of legendary artists alleged to have been lost in the fire, lawyers in LA are now investigating whether litigation should follow.

Prominent entertainment lawyer Howard King told the LA Times last week: “We have many very concerned clients. 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”.

Even if the total number of master tapes lost was anywhere near the 500,000 figure, many of the recordings contained on those tapes may well exist elsewhere, including in digital form.

The Times conceded this point in its article, though pointed out that the original tapes may contain higher quality recordings than other copies, and that while music that had been commercially released probably did exist elsewhere, the tapes may well have also contained unreleased tracks that might now never be heard by anyone.

Universal declined to comment on the threat of litigation over the big fire allegations.