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The UMG fire and Project Phoenix: Why it’s important to own your masters

Universal Music Group has not been truthful and forthcoming about the fire that took place in 2008.

When the fire took place over a decade plus ago, UMG nowhere near divulge the severity of the fire, telling Billboard at the time  “we had no loss,” and adding that the company had recently moved “most” of the stored material on the movie lot to other facilities.

Today, in what has been a follow-up to their original investigative piece two weeks ago revealing that there’s been up to 500,000 recordings loss in the fire back in 2008, not “none” as UMG claimed, the New York Times is reporting that the number of recordings loss is even larger.

Journalist Jody Rosen dug deeper and reported a list of more than 700 additional artists whose tapes were destroyed, found from UMG’s own “Project Phoenix” effort to assess what was lost in the months and years following the devastating blaze.

The unfortunate disaster claimed irreplaceable master tapes from several labels, including Decca, MCA, ABC and Chess, Interscope and featured songs from jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to Rock n’ Roll pioneer Chuck Berry to the earliest material by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.

In an interview with the times, Hole’s lead singer, Courtney Love, was clearly upset with UMG’s response to the fire. “No one knows for sure yet, specifically what is gone from their estate, their catalog,” she said in a statement.

“But for once in a horrible way people believe me about the state of the music business which I would not wish on my worst enemy.”

Now lawsuits have been filed asking the Universal Music Group to come up with a complete accounting of recordings lost in the 2008 fire.

In case you didn’t know, artists’ masters are a huge deal. At the most fundamental level, nine times out of ten, a record label owns the master the recording (unless you’re independent, then the artist owns their own masters).

Otherwise, labels own the copyright to the actual file, the file which contains the music you want to place in your recording. The tradeoff is that labels provide the artist with an advance that’s recoupable against the artist’s royalties, but that never ends up going in the artists’ favor.

Furthermore, artists who don’t own their masters are prohibited from releasing any records elsewhere with another partner, label, or even artist in some cases. And any recordings made by the artists under the contract are owned by the label — possibly forever.

It’s why we’ve seen a trend of new-upcoming artists declining to sign with majors and staying indie and why we make such a fuss whenever artists who initially didn’t have their masters, finally get it.

Back in February of this year, the internet became overwhelmingly joyed at the rumor that Seattle Seahawks Quarterback, Russell Wilson, had bought his wife, singer/actress Ciara, the masters to her music discography over the holiday season.

Although the gossip ended up being false, as she later confirmed, the praises of wisdom and nods of approval Russell got was comical, almost.

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Similarly, whenever there’s news of Rihanna or  Jay-Z getting the right to their masters, people treat it as a cause for celebration or an accomplishment, and that’s because it is.

The term financial independence and freedom is one that has been rung plenty of late in hip-hop and issues like the Universal Music Group fire is one of them. Imagine not having full rights to your life’s work then they end up being lost forever in a fire.

More artists who had their masters lost in the fire include the works of B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden, and the Roots.

One can only hope that UMG owns the responsibility for this tragic loss and that artists continue to push for the ownership to their own music.