The Day the Music Burned

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.

UMG's internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 "Vault Loss Meeting," The company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. "The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety," the document read. "Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage. [...]

Other newspaper accounts described damage to master recordings by little-known artists, whose names may have been cherry-picked by UMG in an effort to downplay the gravity of the loss. [...] A possible explanation for the highlighting of Dee and Shaw comes from Aronson: He says that a UMG executive asked him, the day after the fire, for the names of "two artists nobody would recognize," to be furnished to journalists seeking information on lost recordings. [...]

But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record's details in their purest form [...] "there's a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting [...] It's exactly the same with sound recordings." [...]

For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. "Most people don't realize that recording technology was decades more sophisticated than playback technology," Sapoznik says. "Today, we can decode information off original recordings that was impossible to hear at any time before." [...]

For years, rumors have circulated among insiders about legendary albums whose masters have gone missing in Iron Mountain because labels recorded incorrect bar-code numbers. The kind of mass tape-pull that would be necessary to unearth lost recordings is both financially and logistically impractical.

"I've always thought of Iron Mountain as that warehouse in the last scene of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " says Thane Tierney, who co-founded Universal's now-defunct reissue label Hip-O Select. "Just endless rows of stuff. It's perfectly safe, but there's no access, no possibility of serendipity. Nearly all the tapes that go in will never come off the shelf. They're lost to history." [...]

If the sole vestiges of thousands of old recordings are a few stray 45s lining the shelves of collectors -- perhaps that's not a cultural tragedy, perhaps that's a commercial-art ecosystem functioning properly.

Perhaps. But history holds a counterargument. Many recordings were ignored for decades, only to be rediscovered and enshrined as Imperishable Art. [...] "The music business intercepted about a century's worth of sounds, the vast majority of which it lost money on," says Andy Zax, the producer and writer. "Much of that music, at any given moment, may seem dated, irrelevant, terrible. The most powerful argument for preservation is simply: 'We don't know.' The sounds from the past that seem vital to us in the present keep changing. Since we don't know what's going to be important, we have to err on the side of inclusivity and insist that the entities that own our cultural history do the same."

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Radiohead does not negotiate with terrorists

A MiniDisc archive owned by frontman Thom Yorke was hacked last week by an unnamed person, who reportedly asked for a $150,000 ransom to return the recordings.

The band's guitarist Jonny Greenwood confirmed the hack, and said: "Instead of complaining -- much -- or ignoring it, we're releasing all 18 hours on Bandcamp in aid of Extinction Rebellion. Just for the next 18 days. So for £18 you can find out if we should have paid that ransom. Never intended for public consumption (though some clips did reach the cassette in the OK Computer reissue) it's only tangentially interesting. And very, very long. Not a phone download."

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