Archives of pain: Why the music biz must safeguard its master recordings

Tom Petty

The furore over the 2008 fire at Universal Music’s archive vault in California, housed at the non-UMG owned Universal Studios, much like the blaze itself, is showing few signs of dying down.

While the New York Times investigation alleged as many as hundreds of thousands of recordings could have been lost, apparently including ones by the likes of Billie Holiday, Tom Petty (pictured) and Nirvana, the full extent of the loss is still being debated. Given the passing of time and the disorganised nature of many music business repositories, it may never be fully known.

But what is clear is that the archiving of precious recordings has not been taken seriously enough by many across the entire industry. It’s perhaps understandable that, in a business where the driver has always been new music and new formats, that catalogue and obsolete storage methods haven’t been anyone’s priority.

But, ironically, given that we are now fully immersed in a digital age that has removed the imperative for physical storage, those ancient recordings could be more valuable than ever. And not just in the historical sense of the word, but the business one.

Streaming has recalibrated the industry to the point that catalogue is now more important than at any time since the CD boom. And, while physical formats are generally on the wane, the ultra high-value box set industry is being kept alive by two things: unheard material and remastered originals. No archive, no more of that.

Furthermore, with the power balance shifting back to artists and away from labels, more artists than ever will expect to retake ownership of their masters at some point in their careers. For some, that can be the difference between keeping musical professions alive or leaving the business altogether, so everyone has a duty to safeguard those recordings.

It’s to be hoped that the finally-revealed events of 2008 have prompted labels everywhere to review their practices and perhaps try and make renewed sense of what they own, where it is and what it might be worth. Certainly, the pledge from Universal Music Group CEO/chairman Sir Lucian Grainge – who was not running UMG back in 2008 – to bring “transparency” to the artists affected is a welcome one. With reports of a class action lawsuit surfacing over the weekend, UMG will find plenty of people in need of reassurance. 

But it’s maybe also time for the wider business to look at the things it places value upon and the things it doesn’t. After all, those who forget rock history are condemned to repeat it. Or, in this case, condemned to listen to a bad facsimile of it, forever.

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