Over a decade later, a bombshell New York Times report out today says the damages were far more extensive than that, including perhaps hundreds of thousands of original master recordings from Universal Music Group companies.
However, it has since been revealed that that statement was inaccurate, and an estimated 175,000 tapes were lost in the flames, according to Randy Aronson, former senior director of vault operations for Universal Music Group. Universal Music Group denied that, definitively saying "we had no loss". Masters of some of Aretha Franklin's first recordings were lost, along with nearly all of Buddy Holly's and John Coltrane's masters, and countless hit singles such as Etta James's "At Last", The Kinsmen's "Louie Louie", and Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock". "Rock Around the Clock" from Bill Haley and the Comets.
A master is the one-of-a-kind original recording of a piece of music and the source used to create any other recording. It's the final product of the recording sessions, the thing from which all CDs, MP3s, and vinyl records are copied. And just as when you make a copy of a copy of a copy, none is ever as flawless or authentic as the original master.
On June 1, 2008, a fire burned a portion of Universal Studios. However, according to legal and internal documents seen by The New York Times, UMG put the number of music tapes destroyed when flames reached Building 6197 at about 175,000.
The investigation piece notes that, while the fire made headlines, "officials at UMG's global headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., and in NY scrambled to spin and contain press coverage".
Jody Rosen, the original author of the article for NYT, called the original release of information in 2008 a "triumph of crisis management". However, a new article by the New York Times Magazine is reporting that approximately 500,000 song titles were also irreparable because of the damages.
The destruction of master tapes contradicts official statements at the time, including from a Universal spokesperson who told Billboard "we had no loss", adding that the company had recently moved "most" of the stored material on the movie lot to other facilities.
Original sound recordings of numerous greatest names in popular music since the 1940s - from Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland to Tom Petty and 50 Cent - are believed to have gone up in smoke in what the article described as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business".