NYT feature article "The Day the Music Burned" by Jody Rosen

After a bad day at the office, I've been known to tell myself "Hey, cheer up! Whatever happened, at least you didn't tape over the original master footage of the Apollo 11 landing..." The loss of the archive feels nearly as bad, as does the loss of Notre Dame in Paris.

But hey! Cheer up! A recording of Chuck Berry playing Johnny B. Goode has now reached interstellar space, and will likely persist in the universe long after our local star has died. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
 

Olson_jr

Active Member
That was depressing. Especially the part about record company executives not even knowing what 'Master tapes' are.

Should have had the subtitle: Record company 'Spins' facts about fire losses.
 

DC

Active Member
And in typical fashion, the thread on Steve Hoffman Forum is over 450 posts in under 24 hours.

Yes, next time I’m having a bad day, I’ll remind myself that I haven’t knowingly, actively contributed to the downfall of Western Civilization.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
I just finished reading this. Not the best way to wake up but at least I can hear the ocean from my bed. No masters were lost of that. What an incalculable and avoidable tragedy. Criminal.

Excellent article though.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
The mention of the NJ warehouse fire that destroyed much of the Atlantic catalog masters was also interesting. No one ever seems to remember that one, yet another good cover up job by the label execs involved. It was actually a Warner Brothers facility if I'm not mistaken, (Atlantic being owned by Warner), and yet that one is hardly ever spoken of.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
The saddest part to me is that the contents of this article probably affects more people in a meaningful way in their day to day lives than 99% of what's in the news, yet this morning it had about 300 comments. Any news involving politics of any leaning would have had 3000+ comments by now.

I did a commercial shoot in that area of the Universal backlot back in 2003, probably saw the building in question and never thought anything of it or what possibly was contained inside. My recollections are mostly "wow, I'm having lunch in the Back to the Future town square" and "this doesn't look as much like NYC as they think it does". In hindsight I should have ran into the vault warehouse and grabbed a bunch of irreplaceable musical history that they were storing in a criminally irresponsible way.
 
I think that the record companies (music conglomerates now) have always treated - since anyone can remember - musicians and the music they produce as commodities to be dealt, bought, sold, sold again, sold again, traded for other commodities owned by other record companies, remanufactured, re-issued and so on. The record companies have always known, with surety, that the musicians who mess up or fall out of sight today are the musicians who’ll be replaced by ten more tomorrow. The record companies have always treated masters in the same way.

To the record companies, the value of a master declines over time in direct proportion to the number of consumers willing to pay for the music in some direct or indirect way. To UMG, the losses in the fire were a potential public relations disaster that had the additional potential to spook shareholders even though the financial impact was relatively tiny.

There’s a marketing ad running on TV in Canada about the influence of new technologies. In the ad, a group of people are sitting around in an record exec’s office in the ‘80s. The exec is pacing back and forth. The others in the room are talking about new technologies, the future of computers and computing, the new digital data. The exec looks at them and says, “Hey that’s all great, but how will it help us sell more CDs?!?” UMG, like all its smaller predecessors, focuses on what sells now. It doesn’t care what sold in the past, because there’s no profit in it now.

The loss of masters that a relatively small number of aficionados and audiophiles mourn (myself included), pales into insignificance in contrast with the staggering number of music consumers for whom the highest fidelity is a meaningless concept. UMG knows this. The vast majority of music consumers don’t listen to and don’t seek out rare classical recordings, rare jazz, popular jazz from the ‘50s-‘70s or anything of the kind. The concern over the loss is felt far more in a part of the large and growing older demographic who happen to be fans of the music on the masters that were destroyed in the fire(s). As for Buddy Holly, Elvis and other pop masters, the backups (or even only partial backups) that UMG has are more than good enough for remastering and producing new releases for the vast majority of music consumers today (and tomorrow).

The music/record companies don’t care about the dwindling number of sales that may be possible if they release a previously unknown Archie Shepp or Billie Holiday album. The loss is real and painful to the relatively tiny percentage of music consumers who care about it, but UMG did the only thing it had to do - prevent any panic amongst its shareholders.

UMG makes its money on licensing fees, sales of the latest and hottest runners, buying and selling rights, and so on. The fire was a massive loss to some of us. To UMG, not so much. A couple of generations of execs and middle managers at UMG have firmly positioned profit and shareholder value above the music itself. Just watch what happens though when a main storage server blows up at the same time as they find out that all the backups of some of their current stars have disappeared or been hacked/deleted out of existence by cybervandals. Then you’ll see the kind of security and data preservation worthy of an NSA installation.

In a world where data is king, queen and all the courtiers, UMG treats its data the same as we treat old furniture stacked in a U-Store-It secured with the three dollar combination lock from our high school locker. Just like the record exec in the TV ad, UMG can’t see its own future and any possibility that the music legacy it owns and controls might be of tremendous value. It can’t see itself in the role of cultural guardian of generations of original music, and it can’t seem to understand that promoting the value of such a role can and would be of huge value to its shareholders and all of us.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
I generally agree but think some of that applied more ten years ago when the fire happened. As physical copy sales have plummeted the worth of new bands has declined in the face of repackaged high dollar box sets of remastered/regurgitated output from bands that the physical-copy buying consumers that are left, baby boomers and the older half of gen-x, want to buy. So when you lose the masters to Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, it’s s huge financial blow in 2019 that was maybe less apparent in 2008, when kids were still buying music and low-royalty streaming wasn’t the main source of new artist income. These nostalgia reissues are a big money maker for labels.
 
I agree, but mainly with respect to a very small percentage of any given back-catalog.

The record companies abandoned consumers decades ago. Physical media sales started plummeting in the ‘98-2002 period and then got really bad after that.

I don’t think that the classic box set reissues in any given genre penetrate the consumer market as deeply as we sometimes think they do. The record companies care only about how many classic box sets they can sell to distributors and retailers, not consumers. The record companies have marketing mavens to gin up fiction about consumer uptake. At box set retail prices the record companies know full well that, except for Sgt. Pepper’s reissues and similar sorts of famous things, consumers aren’t spending retail box set money.

The record companies have boasted for ages that they never pressed a record that didn't sell. That’s because they sell them to the distributors and retailers, not consumers.

And we’re still not talking about all the burned up jazz and classical back-catalog that used to be wholly supported at retail, box sets and all back in the physical media day, but that only a small and only occasionally barely profitable percentage of music consumers care about now.

What I’m suggesting is that as Nirvana passion ebbs in proportion to its aging consumer demographic, back-catalog owners care less and less because they treat music masters not as a cultural record but rather as only one aging component of a machine that has to be periodically replaced. To UMG, the loss of all that music is akin to the loss of an inventory of spare parts for an ancient machine. It’s either remanufacture all the parts (which is either impossible or improbably difficult or beyond expensive) or just get a new machine. Enter the marketing machine (yet another component) and the Next Big Band.

We could pitch UMG and Sony and all the rest of them about about their roles as guardians of cultural heritage, but they’d laugh us out of the room. They don’t care about that, they don’t have to care about it, and they won’t even consider it until someone comes up with a business case for it that shows clear and ongoing value to shareholders.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
Again I agree and disagree. I’ve been heavily marketed by Sony and UMG for publishing rights usage and licensing of back catalogue artists, for example, due to my job. They care. They just don’t care that much, and only for certain legacy acts that they can milk.
 
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