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Universal Music Denies Accusation That It Is Downplaying Damage in 2008 Archive Fire

The day after Universal Music Group revealed that it is planning an IPO within three years, an attorney for four artists who have claimed to have lost recordings in a 2008 fire that destroyed thousands of assets in the company’s archives has accused UMG of “gamesmanship” and downplaying and refusing to reveal the extent of the damage. UMG has denied the accusations.

In a third motion from attorney Howard King on behalf of Soundgarden, Steve Earle and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac (representatives for three of the acts have said they did not lose unique recordings in the fire), attorney Howard King writes that his clients “move to compel UMG to fully answer their Interrogatory No. 1 [information about what master recordings were actually lost in the fire] and to produce all documents” relating to it. The motion compares UMG’s insurance claims against NBC-Universal, which owned the Los Angeles facility at which the assets were stored, with the company’s recent statements: It notes what while a 2010 letter from UMG’s legal department stated that “118,000 original music recordings dating back decades” were lost in the fire and that nearly 17,000 artists, ranging from Chuck Berry and George Harrison to Gerry Mulligan and Run-DMC, “purportedly lost original music recordings,” UMG’s recent response “identifies just 19 artists whose ‘original master recordings’ UMG contends ‘were affected’ by the fire.”

It continues, “UMG omitted from its new list the names of artists whose recordings UMG contends that it has not yet reconfirmed as lost after the NBCU/AXA disputes were resolved and money received. That is completely improper discovery gamesmanship and, indeed, logically backwards.”

In response, a UMG spokesperson told Variety, “The plaintiffs’ lawyers have already been informed that none of the masters for four of their five clients [a fifth artist, Hole, withdrew from the lawsuit last year] 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. Recognizing the lack of merit of their original claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys are now willfully 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.”

In other words, UMG’s statement says that the assets listed in its insurance-related documents were often tape or hard drive copies, artwork and non-unique recordings (an original master tape would be a unique recording), although it has conceded that many masters were indeed lost in the fire; a source close to the situation says that copies of many lost masters existed in other UMG storage facilities, and notes that while many unreleased recordings were indeed destroyed or damaged, the archives of most major artists had already been thoroughly curated, with many unreleased recordings being issued over the years.

UMG’s moved to dismiss the lawsuit, last fall but in December a judge allowed discovery to move forward, ruling that the company still has to identify artists who had masters lost or damaged in the fire, while he continues to consider UMG’s motion. UMG has said that it responds to artists who have requested information and has completed its review of the assets for 165 of the 392 artists who have done so, in an effort that it says has cost nearly $1.5 million.

“Plaintiffs’ demand that the effort be broadened to nearly 17,000 artists would impose an extraordinary and impermissible burden on UMG,” the company’s attorneys wrote in statements included in the motion, noting that much of the original documentation of the archives’ contents was inaccurate or destroyed in the fire; recording session logs are also notoriously inexact and/or incomplete.

UMG attorneys conceded that the information used for the insurance documents was incomplete and, at times, stated that recordings had been lost that actually were not.

“UMG’s post-fire working lists were essentially well-informed estimates of what overall assets might have been destroyed,” the statement continues, claiming that the list of lost assets included in the New York Times Magazine article that first revealed the extent of the fire’s damage were overstated. “Plaintiffs’ continued misunderstanding about UMG’s post-fire investigation and the present status of UMG’s vault appears to derive largely from numerous inaccuracies and false statements in The New York Times Magazine’s reporting about the fire. Indeed, UMG has already determined through its current investigation that it has on its vault shelves assets that were incorrectly reported as destroyed in that article.”

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