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Debris clutters the New York Street facade at the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot, on June 2, 2008.Ric Francis/The Associated Press

In the predawn of June 1, 2008, a three-alarm fire raged through a backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. Workers with a blowtorch had accidentally started an inferno that took more than 12 hours and some 400 firefighters to douse. Reporting on the blaze at the time, the Los Angeles Daily News noted damage to a Spider-Man 3 set and the obliteration of a popular King Kong exhibit.

There was no mention of an annihilation of a massive archive of analog audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group (UMG), the world’s biggest record company. Few people knew then what everybody now knows: That the music business’s Hindenburg moment had happened, and that the repercussions are deeply troubling.

“I don’t weep over shallow things,” says the Montreal-born hit-maker Andy Kim, speaking from Los Angeles. “But when I heard about the extent of the losses, I felt my childhood had died.”

Kim learned of the lost trove of master tapes the same way a lot of other recording artists had, when music journalist Jody Rosen wrote about the fire last month in an investigative piece that ran in New York Times Magazine. Rosen reported that UMG had downplayed the damage and had failed to notify musicians about what happened more than 10 years ago. The rosters of artists involved in the loss of the master recordings is overwhelming – everyone from Buddy Holly to Howlin’ Wolf, from Dolly Parton to Duke Ellington, from Nirvana to Chuck Berry, from Counting Crows to Sheryl Crow, from Bing Crosby to David Crosby.

An analog album master is a magnetic tape that contains recorded music in its rawest form. It is the source from which all copies are produced and remastered – the original canvas. Yes, digital copies of the albums involved still exist. But the master tapes often include alternate takes of songs, along with songs that didn’t make it onto the original albums.

“When I read the New York Times article, I ran to my storage box just to make sure that all is still well," Kim told The Globe and Mail. He says a master copy of Rock Me Gently, his biggest hit, is safe in a temperature-controlled storage space in Los Angeles. He’s not as sure about other recordings of his.

Artists sue Universal Music Group over losses in 2008 fire

American singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow told the BBC the original tapes of her albums, including 1993′s Tuesday Night Music Club, went up in flames. “It absolutely grieves me,” said Crow, who only found out about the loss when she saw her name mentioned in The New York Times. “It feels a little apocalyptic."

UMG issued a statement saying the NYT Magazine story contained “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.”

In addition to Kim, the list of Canadian acts possibly affected includes Paul Anka, Nelly Furtado, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Watchmen, Rufus Wainwright, the Tragically Hip, Neil Young and Bryan Adams.

Adams suspected something was amiss when, in 2013, he attempted to put together a 30th-anniversary reissue of his album Reckless. “I searched for masters, artwork and video at Universal and I couldn’t find anything,” the Kingston-born rocker told The Globe in an e-mail. Adams eventually found an “unmastered final assembly mix tape” of Reckless in his own vault in Vancouver, but he’s still in the dark. “I’m remaining hopeful for the moment, as Universal hasn’t officially confirmed that my masters were destroyed,” he said.

UMG and other labels make their money from streaming. The loss of masters isn’t significant financially. Still, in response to the crisis that they’d failed to fully address for years, UMG has created a team of 70 archivists, recording engineers, musicologists and media-storage professionals to handle documentation, liaise with artists and deal with asset retrieval.

For the artists involved, the response is insufficient. On June 21, five plaintiffs – Steve Earle, Soundgarden, Hole and the estates of Tupac Shakur and Tom Petty – filed a class-action lawsuit against UMG. The plaintiffs contend Universal never told artists about the effect of the fire and that the company had failed to properly secure its master tape collection.

Another alarming matter is the insurance resolution received by UMG. “They got a settlement for the fire, and they haven’t revealed how much they got and they didn’t tell the artists about it,” one Canadian music insider said. “To me, that’s the most disparaging thing about all of this.”

When contacted by The Globe and Mail about the litigation, UMG had no comment.

When it comes to an act such as the Tragically Hip, there is much at stake, given that with the death of singer-lyricist Gord Downie the band will no longer be making new music. Any forthcoming unheard material to be released would come from master recordings stored away. For example, there are as many as 60 master tapes of the Hip’s 1991 album Road Apples, according to the band’s former manager. “They kept playing and producer Don Smith kept recording," Jake Gold said of the sessions in New Orleans. “I remember having the conversations about moving all the reels to Los Angeles. It was expensive.”

Expensive to move and priceless to lose. “You look back on your life, and you want to share your story,” Kim says. “You look for that photo or you try to find that file. And now that file is gone.”

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