Although the fire was widely reported at the time, the extent of the damage was mostly unknown to the public. The New York Times report details how Universal Media Group downplayed the event to avoid artist backlash and public embarrassment, claiming that the video vault contained only copies of old work. The studio also deflected the loss by directing focus to the studio’s King Kong tour attraction, which was damaged in the blaze.
According to the New York Times, the fire – initially caused by blow torches used by maintenance workers on the set of one of the studio’s lots – spread to Universal’s video vault, home to videotapes, film reels and master sound recordings. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage,” read a 2009 internal assessment.
Among the damages were masters of some of Aretha Franklin’s first appearances on record, Chuck Berry’s work for Chess Records and most of John Coltrane’s masters in the Impulse Records collection.
In a statement on Tuesday to the BBC, Universal Music Group said that the fire had been "deeply unfortunate", but claimed the New York Times article included “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets”.
“Music preservation is of the highest priority for us and we are proud of our track record,” the statement reads in part. “While 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, the incident – while deeply unfortunate – never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation," said the company.