We may never know the extent of the damage done to music history when thousands of priceless, irreplaceable master recordings by hundreds of iconic artists went up in flames in a devastiating 2008 fire on the Universal Studios lot.
According to a New York Times investigation, the Universal Music Group estimates that nearly 500,000 songs were lost in the blaze, which reportedly included master tapes by artists including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, nearly all of Buddy Holly and John Coltrane's masters and works by Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden, the Roots and many more.
Among the artists named in the report was Eminem, and though it's hard to get a detailed account of all the things lost in the fire, his spokesperson, Dennis Dennehy, told the Detroit Free Press that it appears his masters were saved just in the nick of time. "I'm fairly confident that most, if not all, of the masters are backed up," he told the paper, though the rapper's reps were unable to say which, if any, of his master tapes may have been stored in the affected vault. A spokesperson for Eminem could not be reached for comment at press time.
According to the Free Press, the Eminem tapes appear to have been "painstakingly duplicated onto digital media just in the nick of time -- months before the June 2008 disaster." Joel Martin, who runs the Detroit-area 54 Sound studio in Ferndale and manages the rapper's former production team, the Bass Brothers, said his team digitized all of the tape reels they had in early 2008. That group of recordings included music Slim Shady tracked at 54 Sound, such as such as 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP, 2002's The Eminem Show and hits including "Lose Yourself," as well as recordings he made in L.A. with producers including Dr. Dre.
Ironically, Martin said he was inspired to dive into the "thorough process" of backing up the tapes when Em's label, Universal, asked that all of his recording reels be sent to L.A. "They was some type of effort underway to get all of the master tapes into one place," Martin said, adding that he wasn't sure where Universal ultimately stored them. Though the backups are not as clean as the first-generation magnetic tapes with the originals and digital has long-term degredation issues, Martin was happy that he backed-up Eminem's raw 24-track tapes, which include "assorted vocals, instruments, beats and other sounds captured in isolation," which could be used for future remixing projects.
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. Elsewhere in its statements, the company did infer that some physical items didn't make it, but that digital copies were already made. "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," the rep told Billboard at the time.
In a new statement shared with Billboard, UMG cited "constraints" preventing them from publicly addressing certain details of the fire, but said investments have since been made "in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings." The company also stated The Times report "contains numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets."