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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6 Responses:

  1. Nick Lamb says:

    "there's a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting [...] It's exactly the same with sound recordings." [...]

    Yeah, no. So, a painting is like a performance. There really is a big difference between being there when Prince first sang Purple Rain and listening to it on CD. Likewise the actual Mona Lisa is a physical artifact and cannot be entirely captured by a postcard photograph. Even a detailed raking light image and spectroscopic analysis for restoration teams isn't "the Mona Lisa" but just an aspect of the real thing. If we put that data onto a web site instead of selling you a cheap postcard at the gift shop, the real Mona Lisa is still qualitatively different.

    The recording gives its nature away in its name, it was only ever a recording. We can and do duplicate this trivially, like those postcards of the Mona Lisa. Having the "original" postcard of the Mona Lisa may make you feel special, perhaps you can sell it to a collector, but it isn't the Mona Lisa any more than any of the other postcards are.

    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." [...]

    This works for paintings too. We can X-ray a painting and see that in the sketch the artist drew before they started, Mary is holding Jesus differently and we can write long articles about what that means (probably nothing). But a reasonable person might ask themselves whether in seeing something that the artist would definitely not have known was there to be seen, they are making something more or, as seems likely to me, less faithful. More importantly they certainly might ask if it's better.

    If nobody could hear this "information" (most often noise, but sure, let's say "information") at the time, then it's not actually part of the art they intended. Maybe "decoding" this makes the art better. Probably not. It's doing the same thing as a mash-up of two recordings, but with a bogus claim to "authenticity".

    Is "Paint it Black" better if you have Keith getting a note wrong the first time through? He probably did at some point, so it's arguably "authentic" but is it better? I'm dead certain that if you claim it's more authentic you can sell it to more Stones fans, but I'm also certain that they'll listen to it once, wince at the mistake, then go back to playing the version that was actually released or whichever subsequent re-release they most prefer. There's a reason "Aftermath" sold better than "Trout Mask Replica" even if Trout Mask Replica is in some sense a more interesting accomplishment.

    • Jason Kaczor says:

      ... Well yes, and no - there are some demos/takes on "With the Lights Out" that I prefer better than the versions produced for mass release... If you are a fan, you can enjoy the quirks of a live or under produced demo - it might not be for everyone, but it doesn't have to be (this is the long tail here) - no one is forcing you to locate and purchase these experiences...

    • Phil Wildcroft says:

      These aren't just outtakes and discarded versions though, these are the multitrack masters of the actual released versions. If you want to create a surround version or do a full remix (as Steven Wilson has done for his 70s prog heroes) then these are (were) the tapes that you need(ed). Losing the masters severely limits what can be done with this music in the future. I don't think the painting analogy was meant to be reduced to such absurdity, but to take it further down that rabbit hole ... the multitrack master isn't a high quality postcard, it's the screens for a complex screen print preserved for future re-use.

  2. Patrick Berry says:

    Bet the wish Oink was still around...

  3. M.E. says:

    This and the loss of the MySpace archive are both very sad. I can't even begin to fathom what kind of budget would be required to do this right.

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