A recent article by The New York Times Magazine's Jody Rosen revealed that the June 1, 2008 fire on a Universal Studios back lot in Hollywood may have wiped out a sizable and irreplaceable chunk of popular music history. Per the report, an estimated 500,000 master recordings--the original, high-quality tracks from which vinyl and digital copies were made--were destroyed.
Some of country music's most important albums and singles would have been impacted, including the groundbreaking work of Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Steve Earle, The Eagles, Sheryl Crow and numerous others. Without the original masters, you'll still be able to hear these artists' commercially-released material, but better-sounding reissues would likely be out of the question.
Per Rosen's story, UMG downplayed the loss for over a decade to avoid a public relations nightmare.
"The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse," Rosen wrote. "It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG's internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements."
In a statement to Variety, UMG officials dismiss the article's "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets."
"While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBC Universal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident--while deeply unfortunate--never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists' compensation," the statement continues.
In the same statement, UMG admits that at least some masters by legacy artists were destroyed.
"John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot," it reads. "But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained -- music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape."