In June 2008, a fire roared through a building at Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying thousands of audio recordings by music luminaries like Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Tom Petty.
The severity of the fire long went undisclosed, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine that was published on Tuesday, despite the fact that a confidential report in 2009 by Universal Music Group estimated the loss at about 500,000 song titles.
The disclosure — along with the extent to which the damage was hidden from the public and artists — has drawn criticism from musicians who worked for Universal Music Group or its subsidiaries. Other artists have expressed worries about important recordings lost in what the article described as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
Questlove, the record producer and drummer for the Roots, suggested on Twitter on Tuesday that the fire was the reason that two of the band’s albums, “Do You Want More?!!!??!” and “Illadelph Halflife,” would not get “reissue treatment.”
R.E.M. said it had been receiving inquiries about the article and was trying to get information on the status of its recordings.
Master recordings are one-of-a-kind originals that are the source from which reproductions like CDs, vinyl records and other recordings are derived.
According to the Times Magazine article, studio recordings that had not been released were destroyed as well. Other bands and their managers continued to assess the damage. Steely Dan’s manager, the entertainment executive Irving Azoff, told Pitchfork, “We have been aware of ‘missing’ original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now.”
The website also reported that the band Hole had not been told about lost recordings.
The list of artists who were affected spans decades and includes Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Elton John, the Eagles, Tupac Shakur and Eminem.