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Universal Fire Plot Thickens as New York Times Uncovers List of Affected Artists

Lawsuits have been filed asking the Universal Music Group to come up with a complete accounting of recordings lost in the 2008 fire on the studio lot that destroyed untold thousands of master recordings, and UMG is unlikely to comply with those requests soon, for any number of practical or legal reasons. But the New York Times may have just provided a lot of the affected artists — and their attorneys — with a head start.

In a follow-up to the Times’ original investigative piece of two weeks ago, journalist Jody Rosen has dug deeper and reported a list of more than 700 additional artists whose tapes were destroyed, culled from UMG’s own “Project Phoenix” effort to assess what was lost in the months and years following the devastating blaze.

In an element of the story that veers toward tragicomedy, the Times reports that, at the time, Universal broke down the affected artists into “A” and “B” lists that did not necessarily correspond to Robert Christgau’s famous letter grades or any other artistic assessment. In the late 2000s, fleeting past or present superstars like the Pussycat Dolls, Limp Bizkit, Chuck Mangione and Whitesnake were on the A-list deemed among the company’s greatest losses, along with less historically assailable acts like Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell. The B-list included the likes of Merle Haggard, the Roots, Captain Beefheart and the Neville Brothers.

Rosen spoke with several artists who’d tried to assemble archival projects over the years and thrown up their hands when Universal reps told them their master tapes couldn’t be located — without the 2008 fire ever coming up as a reason for the recordings being MIA. Richard Carpenter, of the Carpenters, was the only musician Rosen was able to find who’d actually been told that he had master tapes that burned up. The story leads with Bryan Adams talking about trying to put together a deluxe reissue of his “Reckless” album, one of the biggest sellers of the late 1980s, and running into a mystery about where all the material — released and unreleased — had disappeared to.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I couldn’t find anything at Universal that had been published to do with my association with A&M Records in the 1980s,” Adams told the Times. “If you were doing an archaeological dig there, you would have concluded that it was almost as if none of it had ever happened.” The rocker told the newspaper he had never even heard about the fire until he read the Times’ “The Day the Music Burned” story.

Said Courtney Love, “No one knows for sure yet, specifically what is gone from their estate, their catalog. But for once in a horrible way people believe me about the state of the music business which I would not wish on my worst enemy. Our culture has been devastated, meanwhile UMG is online with cookie recipes and pop, as if nothing happened. It’s so horrible.”

Although the paper couldn’t reach Counting Crows for comment, Rosen quoted from an interview Adam Duritz did three years ago in which he said that Geffen had “lost the master tapes” for 1996’s “Recovering the Satellites.” “Geffen, because they’re a record company, it’s their sovereign right to lose everything,” Duritz said at the time — referencing the fact that major record labels typically retain ownership of the master tapes recorded by artists under contract. That raises the question of whether said artists can claim it was their property that was destroyed — but the Times also references copyright provisions that sometimes allow artists to reclaim their tapes after 35 years, which might open the door to artists suing for future losses, if nothing else.

A small assortment of the more than 700 artists listed within Universal’s internal documents, as reported by the Times: Aerosmith, the Andrews Sisters, Joan Baez, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Beck Elmer Bernstein, Chuck Berry, Mary J. Blige, Blink 182, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Buffett, T Bone Burnett, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Peter Frampton, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland, Amy Grant, Al Green, Guns N’ Roses, Don Henley, Hole, Janet Jackson, Jodeci, Elton John, George Jones, Toby Keith, Ramsey Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meat Loaf, Charles Mingus, Bill Monroe, Wes Montgomery, No Doubt, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Oingo Boingo, Tom Petty, the Police, Sun Ra, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Steely Dan, George Strait, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ernest Tubb, Weezer, Kitty Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, Neil Young and Rob Zombie.

Sheryl Crow reacted in an interview with the BBC, saying she now believes all her pre-2008 master tapes had been destroyed in the fire. “

“It absolutely grieves me,” said Crow. “It feels a little apocalyptic. I can’t understand, first and foremost, how you could store anything in a vault that didn’t have sprinklers. And secondly, I can’t understand how you could make safeties [back-up copies] and have them in the same vault. I mean, what’s the point? And thirdly, I can’t understand how it’s been 11 years. I mean, I don’t understand the cover-up.”

Added Crow, “There are many songs on my masters that haven’t come out. My peace of mind in knowing I could come back someday and listen to them and mine those [sessions] for basement tapes and outtakes (is) gone. But what grieves me more than any of that is the fact that Buddy Holly and Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington — all this important music has been erased. And it’s not just the music, it’s the dialogue between the music; it’s the takes that didn’t make it; it’s the versions we’ll never hear.”

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