Every album recording session finishes with a final product called a “master,” the version of all the songs in their complete and finished version. It’s from this Ur recording that all subsequent copies of the album — CDs, vinyl, digital files — are made. While it’s possible to make a perfect digital copy of a master, it’s still not the original.
In most cases, master recordings become the property of the artist’s record label. As an artist, you assume that these precious tapes — part of your life’s work — will be stored safely and securely.
This was apparently not the case at around 4:30 a.m. on June 1, 2008, when a fire started tearing through a movie set at Universal Studios Hollywood. The famous courthouse seen in Back to the Future was torched on two sides and engulfed the King Kong Encounter building. It also spread to an unimpressive-looking warehouse known as Building 6197. Inside was a vault containing the master tapes to hundreds of thousands of recordings.
When the fire was put out, Universal’s spin was that outside of the movie sets going up in flames, damage was minimal. But according to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Universal allegedly engaged in a coverup of what was lost in the Building 6197 vault. Master tapes featuring everyone from Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, and Ella Fitzgerald to Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana were consumed.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the fire also destroyed an undetermined number of irreplaceable unmixed multitrack tapes, the source material for things like remixes and creating new master recordings using modern technology to make them sound better. While some of the two-track masters were digitized, it’s unlikely that the unmixed multitrack tapes were backed up in the same way.
A great music treasure trove has been lost forever. A lot of people are demanding an explanation. Why was this allowed to happen? How could Universal be so careless and cavalier about caring for something so precious?
It turns out that labels have a long history of not caring for master recordings.
Magnetic recording tape can be both expensive and bulky. The thinking was now once a recording project was complete, none of the raw material that went into it needed to be preserved so the tapes were erased and used again. This was especially true in the early days of television when videotape was precious. Much of comedy great Ernie Kovacs’ TV work from the late ’40s and through the ’50s was lost this way.
I have in my collection a series of bootleg CDs featuring alternate recordings, demos, and other ephemera from sessions by some pretty big-name acts. These recordings were never supposed to see the light of day. How did they escape into the wild?
Many were just thrown in the garbage by employees (even interns) who were told to free up storage space. The tapes were then salvaged by people rooting through the dumpster out back. More tapes were thrown out during big digitization projects in the ’80s and ’90s. Some labels allowed employees to root through what was to be discarded. They ended up preserving a lot of material that might have otherwise been lost.
Sun Studios famously sent seven early Elvis masters to landfills back in the late ’50s. There was wholesale destruction of an RCA warehouse in Camden, N.J., in the early ’60s, when four floors of archives were left in place when demolition crews dynamited the place. More Elvis stuff — including multitrack sessions from the soundtracks he recorded for his movies — were just thrown away.
In the ’70s, an order went out at MCA records to destroy masters from ancient (pre-1950) metal masters of records on Decca, Brunswick, and Vocalian. CBS in New York had a massive purge in the middle ’70s when anyone walking around East 52nd Street could have just reached into garbage cans and pulled out everything from masters and test pressings to studio session notes.
There was a terrible fire at the Atlantic Records storage facility in Long Branch, N.J., in February 1978. Virtually everything — unreleased masters, alternate versions, and other session tapes — recorded between 1948 and 1969 were destroyed. Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 reels of tape were lost.
You’d think Atlantic would have learned, right? They had an almost completely unsecured warehouse on 16th Street where it would have been easy for anyone to walk out with something irreplaceable.
In the ’80s, CBS sawed up the metal reels storing magnetic tape so they could make a little money on scrap. A few horrified employees managed to spirit away 30 or 40 of those reels before they were destroyed. Employees at Sony Records in 1980 were stunned to find boxes and boxes of tapes marked with an “S” for scrap, including unreleased live material from Louis Armstrong. Capitol Records once stored old tapes in an un-airconditioned warehouse near Hollywood and Vine.
There was a legendary 1987 dump of master tapes by Olympic Studios in London after the facility was acquired by Virgin/EMI and the contents of the building were ordered liquidated. Boxes and boxes of tapes were dumped into bins behind the building where they sat for days. Calls went out to artists to come and dig through the trash to grab what they could. Many were beaten to the punch by private citizens who were tipped off including someone who walked away with some unreleased Led Zeppelin material from the late ’60s. There are stories of tapes featuring The Stones and The Who being carted away. At least they were saved.
The same happened at Windmill Lane in Dublin in 2013, but artists (U2, Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode) were alerted ahead of time and invited to pick up their non-digital assets before any purge took place. That same year, master tapes featuring songs from acts like Joy Division, New Order, and the Psychedelic Furs were found in a dumpster. Whoever threw them out remains a mystery.
Ironically, the collapse in physical music sales may end up saving this material.
Labels are finding tremendous profit by going through their archives and warehouses for material that can be included in high-margin, highly collectible box sets as well as album reissues. Sony has seen the errors of its ways and now has a special Iron Mountain storage facility in upstate New York. There’s also apparently a BMG underground vault in Slippery Rock, Penn.
Other labels are faced with going through thousands, even tens of thousands, of reels whose contents are unclear or unknown. What “lost” music lurks in those rooms?
Let’s hope that there’s always going to be someone around to save the past.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.