Universal Music Group: Decades of Masters Lost

by | Jun 11, 2019 | History, Music Business, Music Tech, News

Last year, I wrote an article detailing how record companies have a checkered past when it comes to properly archiving their master recordings. Among some of the revelations noted (thanks to a brilliant piece by Bill Holland) were:

  • A large number of masters are improperly labeled (or not labeled at all).
  • Some master tapes were recycled (taped over) with later material as a cost-saving measure (which led to the accidental discovery of previously-unknown Elvis Presley recordings while playing back another artists’ tape).
  • RCA Records once demolished a warehouse, and buried the contents (decades worth of master recordings) in the Delaware River.
  • Some masters have been found in areas ranging from hi-tech storage vaults to open-air sheds in various states of quality (including submerged in water).

While the focus on that article was primarily neglect on the part of the record labels, one aspect that was not covered was that of natural disasters and/or accidents. And if a recent New York Times article is to be believed, the labels haven’t really taken that into account much, either.

According to the article (and an extended report), back in 2008 when a fire erupted on the Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood, initially, reports were that a major crisis had been averted, as there had been minimal damage to a video archive reported (among damage to several buildings and an exhibit). However, it’s been recently uncovered that one of the buildings damaged was actually a storage vault for Universal Music Group, with master recordings dating back to the 1940’s destroyed, with an estimated 500,000 song titles destroyed.

For those of you unaware, Universal Music Group is one of three major music distributors in the world, the other two being Warner Music Group and Sony Music. The labels for which UMG is a parent include MCA, Decca, Interscope, Geffen, A&M, Chess, and a whole list of others. The article states that, in some cases, entire catalogs were lost in the fire, from analog masters to digital recordings on hard drives.

Now, even if labels went to extreme lengths to ensure that their masters were being protected and properly archived, what happens in the event of such a disaster? A warehouse fire, an earthquake, a tornado, a flood….any of these could be devastating to an archive facility.

One could make the argument that you could just make multiple copies of the masters to store in separate locations, which is definitely a possibility, but every copy you make will be at least one generation away from the original source, especially if it’s in analog format.

The other solution would be to digitize the catalogs and store them in a secure cloud storage solution (which some SG labels reportedly already do, or at least began doing with releases done over the last decade). The problem here lies with first being able to properly catalog existing archives, which, as noted previously, is something labels have struggled with in the past and continue to do so as their catalogs grow, and secondly, finding the manpower to take on such a task. That’s not even considering the cost involved with creating a digital infrastructure capable of storing all of these digital transfers.

That being said, the cost of losing these archives, as noted by the NYT article, Universal Music Group put the cost at around $150 million, but that’s arguably not counting the individual value of some of the older recordings, both from a monetary and historical standpoint.

As the extended article points out, not having the master recording of a song or album means that you have lost the source of the original sound. Every time a commercial recording is made available, it’s done so at a lower quality or bit-rate than the master, and every time a recording is remastered for a new medium, they return to the original master recording. The loss of these masters means that no further upgrades will be possible without using a lower-quality source (a copy of a copy, if you will).

If you have the time (the full article is quite lengthy), I highly suggest reading the story in its entirety. It details what UMG noted themselves in a company meeting as being “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business”.

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Kyle Boreing

Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.


  1. David Bruce Murray

    I began digitizing the early issues of Singing News last year, because I wanted to be able to do searches for key words when writing history articles.

    I stopped after completing less than 40 issues. It was incredibly time-consuming. I started with the earliest newspaper issues, some of which only have a few pages, and knew it was going to take even more time for later issues when the page count increased.

    I was talking about it with an employee of Singing News and he said they’d considered doing the same thing a few years ago. They ultimately decided not to proceed. It was going to be too costly to pay an outside company to come in and do it, and it would take more time than any of their employees had to spare to do it themselves.

    This is print media rather than recorded, obviously, but it gave me a dose of reality where in the past I might have taken the position that it was worthwhile to digitize pretty much every recording ever made for a major label.

    For old recordings, it would need to be prioritized based on market potential and historical value. For every Elvis session, there’s probably a few thousand sessions by lesser known artists that wouldn’t generate enough profit to pay for the cost of the digitizing effort, but some may have some significance attached (such as the first recording ever made, etc.) that would be worth preserving.

    Of course, saving digitized versions of new recordings for archival purposes now is a no-brainer, considering it’s recorded digitally and simple to render out raw tracks with or without processing/tuning applied.

  2. Daniel J. Mount

    One quick technical note, for the benefit of anyone who might be lurking: There’s no need to create your own digital infrastructure. Just use Amazon Glacier.

    Storage is $0.004/GB/month. For an uncompressed WAV master file, that’s about 3 recordings per GB. Say you own 50 masters, like StowTown. You pay 7 cents per month, or 84 cents per year.

    Say you own 1000 masters, like Daywind, Crossroads, Canaan, or Homeland. That’s $1.34 per month or $16.03/year.

    Retrieval is a separate price ($0.0025/GB), but that’s a cost one must only incur in the event of a disaster.

    Cost should be no barrier. It realistically shouldn’t be any barrier for backing up full ProTools sessions, either. Maybe a few hundred dollars per year and one could back up all ProTools sessions.

    • David Bruce Murray

      Yes, storage costs are plenty cheap once it has been converted to a digital format.

      (Cheaper, even, than I realized! Good to know.)

    • Kyle Boreing

      Yes, the infrastructure does exist already, and labels like UMG, Sony, and Warner are using a company called Iron Mountain to store physical copies.

      The biggest hindrance, as DBM noted, is making the effort to transfer all of the physical archives to a digital medium. Considering how little care has gone into taking care of what already exists, I find it dubious that anyone would want to take on such a massive project as a whole (one report says that historic Elvis recordings were found by accident when playing back another artists’ sessions – they had recycled the tape!).

      This was a common practice in both music and television back in the 1960’s, as tape was expensive, and it was just as easy to reuse an old tape. Johnny Carson was one of the first entertainers to realize the value in archives, and when he found out his first decade’s worth of shows had been erased and reused, he was livid.

      I guess, in a way, it’s due to limited foresight. Who would want to hear (or see) these recordings, films, shows, etc., 10, 20 years from now?

      • Daniel J. Mount

        Oh, definitely. The biggest hindrance is transferring to a digital medium.

        My point is actually this: For everything that IS digitized, there is no excuse not to have it backed up securely to the cloud. :)


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