Firefighters look over the debris after a fire in June 2008 at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles. (Ric Francis/AP)
Media critic

On June 1, 2008, a fire broke out on the back lot of Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying film iconography, including a set from “Back to the Future" and a New York City facade. Good thing, then, that the fire mostly spared original master recordings of the Universal Music Group (UMG), which rented space in the lot.

Or, at least that’s what UMG officials assured reporters at the time. Examples include this one from Billboard:

“We had no loss, thankfully,” a Universal spokesperson tells Billboard. “We moved most of what was formerly stored there earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and awaiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years.”

This one from the New York Daily News:

"In one sense it was a loss. In another, we were covered," said Peter LoFrumento of Universal Music Group. "It had already been digitized, so the music will still be around for many years."

LoFrumento said master recordings from major artists, including Judy Garland and the Carpenters were not harmed, as was reported elsewhere.

“We had no loss, thankfully,” he said.

This one from the New York Times:

A spokesman for the Universal Music Group, a separate company that was storing material in the studio vault, said that a small number of tapes and other material by ''obscure artists from the 1940s and '50s,'' including the pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw, had been damaged.

The spokesman added that all recording tapes had been duplicated digitally.

And this one from a Los Angeles Times editorial:

At this point, it appears that the fire consumed no irreplaceable master recordings, just copies. The studio and the record company both are fortunate enough to have the resources to preserve multiple copies of their source materials around the country. They’ve also been duplicating their recordings in high-quality digital formats, creating additional backups in the event the originals are lost.

Yet one reporter offered a different version of events: Nikki Finke, the famed Hollywood scribe, wrote that thousands of masters could have been incinerated. A company spokesperson contested that account at the time. “Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come,” the company told Finke. "And in addition to being digitized, physical back up copies of what was still left at that location were made and stored elsewhere. So thankfully, smart care, administration and preparation of these gems prevailed.” In a typical rejoinder, Finke wrote, “Funny, because my insiders insist it’s a BIG problem. . . . My final thought: the public may never know the truth.”

But 11 years later, the public knows the truth, thanks to the New York Times Magazine. And it turns out Finke’s insiders were right. In a big-heave narrative that turns the dry pursuit of archiving into a compelling yarn, Jody Rosen describes the magnitude of the damage:

The list of destroyed single and album masters takes in titles by dozens of legendary artists, a genre-spanning who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music. It includes recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

In all, the fire claimed “an estimated 500K song titles," according to an internal UMG report cited by Rosen.

Why the discrepancy? Well, Rosen’s investigation yields an answer: The company fed journalists a bogus line about what had happened to the recordings. They even boasted about it — privately, of course. Referencing Jon Healey, who wrote the Los Angeles Times editorial, UMG spokesman Peter LoFrumento wrote in an email to colleagues, “We stuck to the script about physical backups and digital copies. We were able to turn Healey around on his L.A. Times editorial so it’s not a reprimand on what we didn’t do, but more of a pat on the back for what we did.”

And as Rosen shows, the claims about digitization were “pure spin" — a massive exaggeration.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Healey zeroed in on the problem faced by journalists in a situation such as the back-lot fire. “Some studios are super-good at this and tech companies are better — to the extent they control the message in response to a news event, that is the risk for us as journalists,” noted Healey, who, as a deputy editorial page editor, covers a wide topical range. “Everyone got lied to,” he said, referring to opinion types such as himself, as well as the news-side folks.

And then? “Journalists moved on from the story, and there has never been a full accounting of film and video losses in the fire,” writes Rosen. The company provided this statement to the New York Times Magazine:

In this case, there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios’ facility more than a decade ago. However, in the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments — in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts — in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings.

Though UMG was surely concerned about its image with the general public, a bigger preoccupation may have related to the artists whose work went up in flames. Rosen wrote: “Had word of the fire’s toll emerged, many of the biggest names in pop music, and many profitable artist estates, would have learned that UMG had lost core documents their catalogs rest on — a source for everything from potentially lucrative reissues to historical preservation to posthumous releases.”

One lesson from the episode applies to any journalist writing on corporate America: Don’t let PR types provide information on background. In many of the stories following the fire — though not all of them —representations about the lack of damage to the music archive are attributed to company spokespeople, with no name attached. That formulation allows PR types to escape any reputational damage whatsoever from dishing out slanted or inaccurate talking points. Full disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog has followed this approach in the past, so we hardly speak from a position of strength here.

The gulf between what the media reported and what the fire destroyed couldn’t be wider; it’s the difference between “no loss” and what Rosen terms a “catastrophe.” Healey says that he’ll speak with his boss about the possibility of updating his editorial, on the chance that someone lands on the story via a Google search and comes away with a mistaken impression. “We got the company line into the paper, which is to our great discredit,” he said.

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