It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned it, so since you may have forgotten because we all have Spotify now, record labels and the people who make decisions for them have always been and continue to be pretty terrible. If you have trouble believing that or for lord knows what reason want to dispute it, have a look at this absolutely insane story. Universal Music Cashed In On Insurance After It Let Thousands Of Master Recordings Burn… And Didn’t Give Any To Artists
Basically, there was a huge fire at Universal Studios back in 2008 that did significant damage to a vault owned by Universal Music. And when I say significant damage, what I really mean is that it destroyed, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable master recordings by some of music’s most famous and beloved artists.
This is, without a hint of hyperbole, an absolute disaster.
Without a master tape, you can’t remaster or reissue anything to take advantage of new audio formats, which will cost a lot of people a lot of money. Thankfully good quality copies of many of the recordings exist, but that only gets us so far. NO matter how good a copy is, it’s still a copy, and a copy is never as good as the original. The best way to explain this is actually the one used in the article. It’s the difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting. They’re similar, but they’re not the same.
Even worse, many of the tapes contained unreleased music that’s now lost forever.
Universal had started a digitization project, but it hadn’t gotten far. At the time of the fire about 12,000 tapes had been archived.
All of this is awful, obviously. But then Universal went and made it even worse by blatantly covering it up, lying to the media about the scale of the destruction. Depending on the story, there was either no loss at all, very little loss that only involved copies, or even yes some masters were lost, but they were limited to a few little known artists from the 40s and 50s.
These lies were also being told to artists and their estates, it appears.
Why was UMG so deliberately misleading? First, as the article goes into detail to explain, these recordings were potentially worth a ton to artists themselves. They would be the basis for any future re-issues and re-mastered works, which can be big moneymakers for some artists. Second, tons of the artists signed to UMG would be fucking pissed off to find out that their masters had been lost. Third, and most importantly, UMG decided to cash in on the loss — and not tell the artists about it.
First, it sued its landlord and former partner company, Universal Studios. The two companies settled for an undisclosed sum. None of that went to artists. Then, there was the insurance. All in all, according to the lawsuit filed on Friday, Universal Music in its fight with Universal Studios and various insurance companies valued the losses at $150 million. Remember the “nothing was lost” quotes above? Behind the scenes, UMG was saying it lost $150 million, and asking others to pay for it. And you know who got none of that and likely didn’t even know their masters had been destroyed? The artists.
So far, UMG is being sued by Soundgarden, Hole and Steve Earle, plus the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur. They’re hoping to turn it into a class action because of the scope of the deception.
So yeah…terrible. Maybe there’s a better word for secretly profiting off of the destruction of people’s life’s work, but for now, we’ll stick with that one.