From the New York Times:
“A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”
The 2008 Universal fire is a big deal. Big ups to Jody Rosen at NYT for investigating a sad and disappointing story. The lack of transparency from UMG was alarming. The fragility of the masters—the most coveted asset in the music industry—is a reminder of how much can change in an instant. The report estimates that over $150 million worth of material and over 500,000 songs were lost.
The rap sheet of artists impacted is too long to post here, but here’s a list of the hip-hop acts: Eric B & Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Roots.
Some fans, especially those who grew up in the digital era, may question the importance of the physical asset. But audiophiles care, music purists care, and artists care. Listening to an original master is a sought-after experience that some fans and artists may value beyond sentiment.
When a fan discovered an original master recording of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, it was a big deal for the fanbase. As long as the masters are in decent condition, it’s an experience that can be replicated for fans who are diehard and willing. If anything, the degrading quality adds an element of authenticity that diehard fans will crave.
It will be interesting to see if this incident impacts an artist’s willingness to let record labels own their masters in the future. If this can happen at UMG, it can happen anywhere. But then again, Gen Z rappers might not feel as attached to masters as their predecessors do.
Universal CEO Sir Lucian Grainge made a statement in response to the article, stating that artists deserve transparency in this matter.
A number of the artists may file lawsuits against UMG. Once I saw 50 Cent’s name on that list, my eyes lit up. For those following, 50 has been relentlessly collecting money from all his debtors. Apparently, Biz Markie recently paid 50 in food stamps.
Now, I take most self-reported 50 Cent news with a grain of salt. But he might come at this one differently since it’s Universal–a company worth $33 billion. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.