The Day The Music Burned: A euology and indictment on our preservation failures
Jun 12th, 2019 by Isaiah Beard

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article that recounts a day the music industry lost a great deal of its history, and yet very people knew or understood the impact. Deemed “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business,” the 2008 Universal Backlot Fire was one in which an estimated 175,00 recordings – master tapes from studio sessions, in various formats from analog to digital – burned and were lost forever.

Of course, “lost” is a relative term. Popular recordings obviously didn’t disappear from our iPhones or CD collections as a result of this fire. However, there is an important point about what we listen to, and what many of us actually never hear, that is lost in the nuance:

It is sonic fidelity, first and foremost, that defines the importance of masters. “A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”
This is not an academic point. The recording industry is a business of copies; often as not, it’s a business of copies of copies of copies. A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. That file was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD, which itself may have been created from a suboptimal “safety copy” of the LP master — or even from a dubbed duplicate of that dubbed duplicate. Audiophiles complain that the digital era, with its rampant copy-paste ethos and jumble of old and new formats, is an age of debased sound: lossy audio files created from nth-generation transfers; cheap vinyl reissues, marketed to analog-fetishists but pressed up from sludgy non-analog sources. “It’s the audio equivalent of the game of ‘Telephone,’ ” says Henry Sapoznik, a celebrated producer of historical compilation albums. “Who really would be satisfied with the sixth message in?”


It is the master recordings from which “good” copies of albums for public consumption are created, and now, many of them are lost. So, too, are recordings that the public never heard: outtakes and demos of well known artists who are no longer with us; as well as obscure artists that might not have made it in their time, but could have been rediscovered later had their music survived.

The article is a critique on the state of archival preservation, and how much of it is driven by commercial appeal and monetary gain. At UMG, one of the largest holders of musical recordings in the world, archives have often been seen as a burden, and only when format changes happens that require remastering have management been reminded of the importance of keep and preserving good original masters. So too, is often the case in other fields: Television, Film, and even in libraries where ever-shrinking budgets cause hard choices to be made about what to keep, and what to throw.

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