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Master recordings by artists spanning decades and genres, including Elton; Chuck Berry; Nirvana; Yoko Ono; Eminem; Guns N’ Roses; and Aretha Franklin were reportedly destroyed in 2008 when a fire ripped through the Universal Studios backlot— although their doomed fate has been kept under wraps until now.

The blaze made headlines in June 2008, as it destroyed parts of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, as well as several sets used for filming and a large warehouse that stored videotapes and film reels. It was then reported that the King Kong exhibit was nearly gone while the New York set was totally lost.

But according to a recent New York Times investigation, Universal Music Group’s sound-recordings library, which held thousands of master copies of various songs, was also largely destroyed by the fire. In total, somewhere between 118,000 and 175,000 masters went up in flames in 2008. By UMG‘s own estimate, they contained about 500,000 individual songs from hundreds  of world-renowned artists. explains why is this is so upsetting, noting that as a group plays, the moment goes directly onto a reel of tape. ”From that tape, known as a multitrack, we get the master recording. The master captures a piece of history that will never exist again, a sound that can never be recreated: It is the sole, original, physical document of the sound in that room, at that time.

”Every song ever cut has a master recording, whether it’s captured on tape or digitally on a hard drive. It is the purest form of that recording; there are details, textures, and sounds that one can hear on a master recording but that are imperceptible once they have been transferred off of it. Every step you take away from the master is a step away from that pure sound.” So one loses detail from master to LP or CD; from CD to MP3, etc.

The article continues:

 ”It’s not just quality that makes a master so valuable. Often, during the course of a session, artists record songs—sometimes dozens of them—that never actually make it onto their albums. Often, the only place this unreleased material exists is on the master recording and the multitracks. When those burned in UMG’s vault, fans lost an untold number of  tunes that have never been heard and that are now gone forever.”
Several prominent musicians are now suing Universal Music, the world’s largest record label.

The case, which seeks damages in excess of $100m (£78m), was filed by the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, the bands Hole and Soundgarden, and singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

They are seeking class action status, which means other affected artists will be able to join the legal action.

Universal Music has yet to respond.