First published June 11, 2009 in The New York Times Magazine.
For most of human history, every word spoken, every song sung, was by definition ephemeral: Air vibrated and sound traveled in and out of earshot, never to be heard again. But technology gave humanity the means to catch sounds, to transform a soprano’s warble, a violin’s trill, Chuck Berry’s blaring guitar, into something permanent and repeatable, a sonic artifact to which listeners can return again and again.
The fire that swept across the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood on Sunday, June 1, 2008, began at 4:43 in the morning. Hundreds of firefighters responded, but they were not able to stop the fire before it reached a 22,320-square-foot, Building 6197, known to backlot workers as the video vault. The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music.
The master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits.
According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. Among the incinerated Decca masters were recordings by titanic figures: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nirvana, Soundgarden, R.E.M. and Elton John. The fire most likely claimed most of Chuck Berry’s Chess masters and multitrack masters, a body of work that constitutes Berry’s greatest recordings.
Music from many masters destroyed in the Universal fire has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot. But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape.