Scene of the devastation from Universal Studios fire of 2008 (photo: Evan Wohrman CC by 2.0)

Scene of the devastation from 2008 (photo: Evan Wohrman CC by 2.0)

The ripples are just being felt from Jody Rosen’s bombshell New York Times Magazine exposé on the Universal Studios fire of 2008.

The losses felt by Universal Music Group were staggering — not to mention the broader music community.  Yet nobody knew about the horrific losses, including affected artists, their managers, or their estates.

That wasn’t by accident.

The Times’ Jody Rosen pointed to a well-coordinated effort by Universal Music Group to lie about the actual damages incurred, with former PR exec Peter Lofromento effectively tricking major media outlets into completely misreporting the situation.

“We were able to turn [L.A. Times reporter Jon] Healey around on his L.A. Times editorial so it’s not a reprimand on what we didn’t do, but more of a pat on the back for what we did,” Lofromento gloated in an internal email obtained by the Times.

Healey, none the wiser, parroted the line that the damage was minimal.  “At this point, it appears that the fire consumed no irreplaceable master recordings, just copies,” Healy reported.

Zach Horowitz, then UMG’s president/COO at the major label, was reportedly copied on the email but declined to comment.  Doug Morris, CEO of the major label at the time, also declined to discuss the issue.

Similar non-truths were spoon-fed to the New York Times itself, which also reported the misinformation back in ’08.  But even those that caught wind of the real damage were silenced.  Deadline’s Nikki Finke originally pointed to thousands of destroyed masters, only to issue a clarification the next day based on UMG’s pushback.

Beyond the media, artist representatives and industry executives were also misled.  According to Rosen, that included Irving Azoff, who inquired about a specific Steely Dan archive but was subsequently uninformed about the destruction of others.  According to UMG whistleblower Randy Aronson, the lost Steely Dan archive included outtakes and other recordings that were never released — and are lost forever.

Universal is still downplaying the incident in 2019, specifically by pointing to digitized versions and other remasters that make the original versions less important.

Of course, that sounds a lot like the damage control from 2008, and it’s now uncertain whether the major label will face serious litigation or other repercussions from affected artists and their estates.  Already, a number of artists have confirmed that their masters were lost in the blaze, including R.E.M., Questlove of the Roots, Eminem, and surviving members of Nirvana, who believe that the original copy of Nevermindwas destroyed.  It’s also believed that the entirety of Buddy Holly’s catalog was permanently lost.

Also unclear is whether UMG’s broader valuation will suffer.  At present, UMG parent Vivendi is shopping a 50% stake in the major label, though most of that valuation is predicated on streaming music’s explosion and the underlying IP ownership of UMG’s catalog.  Just recently, UMG’s valuation was pegged at more than $50 billion.

It’s impossible to determine what exactly was lost in the fire, though Rosen estimated more than 500,000 different recordings were obliterated.  Here’s a list of all of the artists mentioned in the Times article that lost original masters.

50 Cent
Aerosmith
Al Green
Al Jolson
Albert Ayler
Alice Coltrane
Aretha Franklin
Art Blakey
B.B. King
Barry White
Beck
Benny Goodman
Big Mama Thornton
Bill Haley and His Comets
Billie Holiday
Bing Crosby
Bo Diddley
Bobby Bland
Bobby Brown
Buddy Guy
Buddy Holly
Burl Ives
Burt Bacharach
Cab Calloway
Captain Beefheart
Cat Stevens
Charles Mingus
Chuck Berry
Clara Ward
Coleman Hawkins
Count Basie
Dizzy Gillespie
Don Henley
Duke Ellington
Ella Fitzgerald
Elton John
Eminem
Eric B. and Rakim
Eric Clapton
Ernest Tubb
Etta James
Fats Domino
George Jones
George Strait
Gladys Knight and the Pips
Guns N’ Roses
Hole
Howlin’ Wolf
Iggy Pop
Ike Turner
Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats
Janet Jackson
Jimmy Buffett
Joan Baez
John Coltrane
John Lee Hooker
Joni Mitchell
Judy Garland
Kitty Wells
Lefty Frizzell
Les Paul
Lionel Hampton
Little Walter
Loretta Lynn
Louis Armstrong
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
Lynyrd Skynyrd
Mary J. Blige
Max Roach
Merle Haggard
Muddy Waters
Neil Diamond
New Edition
Nine Inch Nails
Nirvana
No Doubt
Ornette Coleman
Patsy Cline
Patti LaBelle
Pharoah Sanders
Queen Latifah
Quincy Jones
R.E.M.
Ray Charles
Rufus and Chaka Khan
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sheryl Crow
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Snoop Dogg
Sonic Youth
Sonny Rollins
Sonny and Cher
Soundgarden
Steely Dan
Steve Earle
Sting
Sun Ra
The Andrews Sisters
The Carpenters
The Eagles
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Four Tops
The Impressions
The Ink Spots
The Kingsmen
The Mamas and the Papas
The Mills Brothers
The Police
The Roots
The Weavers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tupac Shakur
Willie Dixon
Yoko Ono

We’ll add more names as we learn them.