Minnesota musicians including Semisonic, the Jets, Judy Garland, and the Andrews Sisters likely had original master recordings destroyed in a 2008 Los Angeles studio fire that claimed a vast swath of historic tapes by artists ranging from jazz founders to ’90s rockers. Original recordings made in Minnesota by Janet Jackson and Nirvana may also have been lost, along with masters from some of the bedrocks of American popular music — from Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry to Joni Mitchell.
The fact that a fire occurred at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008 has been widely known since the accident happened. Musicians are only now, however, learning that an original Back to the Future set was far from the gravest casualty of the blaze. A vault of original master recordings from many different record labels, all acquired or merged over the years into Universal Music Group, was also destroyed.
Universal acknowledged at the time that an archival vault had been destroyed, but at the time the company said that “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work,” as reported by the Times in 2008. Further, reporters didn’t initially realize any sound recordings were lost: the building known as the “video vault” was thought to contain only moving pictures.
Regarding rumors of music going up in flames, at the time a Universal Music Group spokesperson told Billboard unambiguously, “We had no loss.” Earlier this month, the Times ran a bombshell report citing internal documents that tell a very different story, starting with the revelation that the “video vault” did in fact contain musical recordings, including masters of as many as half a million songs.
Internally, according to the Times, a Universal Music Group report admitted that “lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.” While in many, though far from all, cases the lost recordings had already been duplicated (12 million times, in the case of Bryan Adams’s 1984 hit Reckless), the tapes destroyed were the original master recordings: the music in its best possible quality. After the fire, only derivative copies were left.
One reason all the recordings were stored in Hollywood was that it made them accessible for artists and archivists working on reissue projects. It was just such a project that alerted Minneapolis band Semisonic to the fact that some of their masters were missing.
When they were preparing to reissue their 1998 album Feeling Strangely Fine last year, “Universal couldn’t locate some of the masters,” says the band’s manager Jim Grant. “I didn’t ask them why. I just assumed that Universal’s record keeping was disorganized. They didn’t mention a fire, and I didn’t ask about one, but they had no explanation about the missing masters.”
David Z is a Minnesota native (he’s the brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z) who’s well-known for his work as a producer and engineer on albums like Purple Rain. He co-produced the 1985 debut of local family band the Jets, recorded in the same Minneapolis studio where “Surfin’ Bird” and “Liar Liar” were cut, and he also co-produced Jody Watley’s 1987 solo debut in collaboration with Minnesota music great André Cymone.
Those albums produced indelible hits like “Crush On You” (the Jets) and “Don’t You Want Me” (Watley). Both The Jets and Jody Watley were released on MCA, which became part of Universal Music Group; it’s likely the masters were consumed in the 2008 fire.
Echoing what other artists have suggested about the industry’s persistently poor archival practices, David Z says about the labels’ master tapes, “They probably can’t even find half of them if they had them.” He emphasized that although the lost masters were original recordings, the music was duplicated many times: “The media exists in a lot of other forms.”
Among the other Minnesota-connected masters that may have been lost are those for classic albums by Janet Jackson, recorded with collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at their Flyte Tyme studios in Minneapolis and Edina. Her ’80s albums were released on A&M. That label was later absorbed by Universal, which would have gained control of the masters for albums like Control (1986) and Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989).
Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic has tweeted that he thinks the band’s Nevermind masters are “gone forever”; follow-up In Utero (1993) was recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Novoselic didn’t speak specifically to that album’s masters; fans are holding out hope, given that In Utero was reissued in 2013, but that reissue may have drawn from other sources.
The fact that artists themselves don’t know exactly what was destroyed may evince stonewalling by Universal — a class action suit has already been filed, with the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur among the plaintiffs — but also speaks to the opacity and the sometimes indifferent archival practices of the record industry more broadly. At the Times notes, “Musicians have come to expect that labels may not be able to find their masters, which in most cases are owned outright by the labels.”
This week, the Times published a list of hundreds of artists that Universal Music Group believes had masters destroyed in the blaze. That list includes the Andrews Sisters and Judy Garland, women born and raised in Minnesota who went on to become American music legends. We don’t know what recordings, exactly, burned, or whether there were safety copies preserved in the process of creating reissues like Garland’s Decca box set.
“I haven’t seen the official list of artists affected by the fire,” says Grant. “Semisonic’s apparently on the list. We’re taking steps to formalize that with Universal.”
So how did Semisonic proceed with the reissue? “We had hoped the 20th anniversary edition of Feeling Strangely Fine could be remastered,” Grant says. “The complete set of final master mixes, however, could not be located, so remastering was not an option. Because the mastering engineer kept backups of his original work, including for the four bonus tracks, Universal used those for the anniversary edition.”
So we can still hear “Closing Time” — but in coming weeks and years we may learn more about the legacy that was closed out in what the Times calls “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”