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Universal names nineteen artists who lost recordings in its 2008 fire, but continues to fire back at class action lawyers

By | Published on Monday 17 February 2020

Universal Music

Original master tapes and recordings of music by the likes of Elton John, Nirvana, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden, Beck and REM were all lost in the 2008 fire at Universal Music’s LA archive, it has been confirmed in new legal filings. However, the major continues to strongly criticise those lawyers pursuing legal action in relation to the blaze.

The 2008 fire at the Universal archive became newsworthy again last year after the New York Times ran a report accusing the Universal music company of covering up the scale of the losses caused by the blaze at the time of the incident. It claimed that hundreds of artists potentially lost master recordings in the fire, most of which had never been told about the losses.

Universal’s PR team went into damage limitation, insisting there were numerous errors in the NYT article. But that didn’t stop lawyers approaching some of the allegedly affected acts. A class action lawsuit then followed with Soundgarden, Steve Earle, and the estates of Tupac Shakur and Tom Petty, among those listed as plaintiffs.

That legal action is ongoing, with a side dispute over how much information Universal is obliged to hand over regarding the fire. Lawyers leading on the class action reference legal and insurance claims made by Universal back in 2008 that said the incident had affected “118,000 original music recordings dating back decades” featuring music from “17,000 artists”.

According to Rolling Stone, in a new legal filing – made as part of the ongoing case – Universal lists nineteen artists who were definitely affected by the fire.

In some cases, the major says that it found other copies of the affected recordings. Regarding the lost Elton John masters, it is “still working with the artist to determine the extent of such impact”. The filing also suggests that recordings from Sonic Youth, Peter Frampton and Slayer were lost without back-ups being found elsewhere in the company’s archives.

One of the lawyers representing Soundgarden et al, Howard King, continues to criticise Universal over its handling of the archive fire, both in 2008 and over the last year.

He told reporters: “Universal claimed 17,000 artists were affected by the fire when they were suing for damages. Now that they face a lawsuit by their artists, they claim a mere nineteen artists were affected. This discrepancy is inexplicable”.

But Universal claims that the lawyers – like the New York Times – continue to misunderstand the original documents relating to the fire, which they say were based on what was estimated to be lost at that time; include lots of assets which were not master recordings; and were compiled before much of the work to locate other back-up copies had begun.

In a statement, a rep for the major said: “Recognising the lack of merit of their original claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys are now wilfully and irresponsibly conflating lost assets – everything from safeties and videos to artwork – with original album masters, in a desperate attempt to inject substance into their meritless legal case. Over the last eight months, UMG’s archive team has diligently and transparently responded to artist inquiries, and we will not be distracted from completing our work, even as the plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue these baseless claims”.

They added: “The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already been informed that none of the masters for four of their five clients were affected by the fire – and the one other client was alerted years earlier and UMG and the artist, working together, were still able to locate a high-quality source for a reissue project”.