This week, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth account of a 2008 fire on the Universal Studios Hollywood <http://nyt.et.e.sparkpost.com/f/a/zBFw5Ht76azmDSpP7XDrZQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRe5NVeP0TyaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAxOS8wNi8xMS9tYWdhemluZS91bml2ZXJzYWwtZmlyZS1tYXN0ZXItcmVjb3JkaW5ncy5odG1sP3RlPTEmbmw9Y2FsaWZvcm5pYS10b2RheSZlbWM9ZWRpdF9jYV8yMDE5MDYxMz9jYW1wYWlnbl9pZD00OSZpbnN0YW5jZV9pZD0xMDE2NiZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTE0MjUzJnVzZXJfaWQ9M2U4ZTg1NGJlY2Y2ZDNlMjQ3YTc3MzMyNDE3MGNlMGUmcmVnaV9pZD0zMDc1NjQ0MjAxOTA2MTNXA255dEIKACdeUAJdrXbfTFINZHJzZmdAYXR0Lm5ldFgEAAAAAA~~> backlot that hadn’t previously been understood as the cultural calamity that it truly was. Thousands of masters of recordings by artists ranging from Al Jolson to Yoko Ono, Patsy Cline to Tupac Shakur, had been incinerated.
As Jody Rosen <http://nyt.et.e.sparkpost.com/f/a/TM93VtrpPDnRWoX4EaIOsw~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRe5NVeP0TGaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vYnkvam9keS1yb3Nlbj90ZT0xJm5sPWNhbGlmb3JuaWEtdG9kYXkmZW1jPWVkaXRfY2FfMjAxOTA2MTM_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9NDkmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MTAxNjYmc2VnbWVudF9pZD0xNDI1MyZ1c2VyX2lkPTNlOGU4NTRiZWNmNmQzZTI0N2E3NzMzMjQxNzBjZTBlJnJlZ2lfaWQ9MzA3NTY0NDIwMTkwNjEzVwNueXRCCgAnXlACXa1230xSDWRyc2ZnQGF0dC5uZXRYBAAAAAA~>, a contributing writer to the magazine, put it in the piece: “Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability.”
I asked Jody to tell us a little more about how the story came together:
The Universal fire was dramatic event, a story of flames consuming buildings, of precious artifacts going up in smoke, of historical loss on a vast scale. But the story first came to my attention in the most banal form imaginable: in the dry bureaucratese of legal documents and company reports.
About five years ago, I obtained a bunch of paperwork related to the fire. It took me some time to orient myself and begin to wrap my head around what those documents were saying. It took me even longer to find people who knew about the fire and the master recordings that were destroyed in it — and it took longer still to persuade those people to speak to me, both on and off the record.
[Here are the top takeaways <http://nyt.et.e.sparkpost.com/f/a/GAR99wzPX_wYDNSYQKj-5w~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRe5NVeP0TsaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAxOS8wNi8xMS91cy9tYXN0ZXItcmVjb3JkaW5ncy11bml2ZXJzYWwtZmlyZS5odG1sP3RlPTEmbmw9Y2FsaWZvcm5pYS10b2RheSZlbWM9ZWRpdF9jYV8yMDE5MDYxMz9jYW1wYWlnbl9pZD00OSZpbnN0YW5jZV9pZD0xMDE2NiZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTE0MjUzJnVzZXJfaWQ9M2U4ZTg1NGJlY2Y2ZDNlMjQ3YTc3MzMyNDE3MGNlMGUmcmVnaV9pZD0zMDc1NjQ0MjAxOTA2MTNXA255dEIKACdeUAJdrXbfTFINZHJzZmdAYXR0Lm5ldFgEAAAAAA~~> from the piece.]
It was really those interviews that parted the mists for me. My sources helped me understand that the destruction of the Universal Music Group vault was a major cultural catastrophe, and they helped me to place that disaster in a larger frame, to understand the huge challenge of archiving and preserving the physical relics of recorded sound in the age of streaming media.
One of the people who agreed to speak on the record was Randy Aronson, who worked as UMG’s director of vault operations for years, both before and after the fire. Mr. Aronson was — still is — very emotional about the fire and the huge toll it took. He told me: “The way I felt in the months after the fire — the only thing I can compare it to is when my mother passed away.”
[Here’s what artists like Questlove and R.E.M. had to say <http://nyt.et.e.sparkpost.com/f/a/oPrvBkcKQrv9hAYO3clIew~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRe5NVeP0TzaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAxOS8wNi8xMi91cy91bml2ZXJzYWwtbXVzaWMtZmlyZS1tdXNpY2lhbi1yZWFjdGlvbnMuaHRtbD90ZT0xJm5sPWNhbGlmb3JuaWEtdG9kYXkmZW1jPWVkaXRfY2FfMjAxOTA2MTM_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9NDkmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MTAxNjYmc2VnbWVudF9pZD0xNDI1MyZ1c2VyX2lkPTNlOGU4NTRiZWNmNmQzZTI0N2E3NzMzMjQxNzBjZTBlJnJlZ2lfaWQ9MzA3NTY0NDIwMTkwNjEzVwNueXRCCgAnXlACXa1230xSDWRyc2ZnQGF0dC5uZXRYBAAAAAA~> about the losses.]
The first time I visited Mr. Aronson at his home near Los Angeles, we sat together and I showed him some of the documents I’d gotten. One of these was an internal UMG report that included a huge list of recording artists, page after page famous musicians, alphabetized by first names.
I went through the list with Mr. Aronson: “John Lee Hooker, did he have recordings in the vault?” “Yes.” “Joni Mitchell, did she have recordings in the vault?” “Yes.” “Judy Garland, did she have tapes in the vault?” “Yes.” I remember kind of staggering out of Mr. Aronson’s house that day, getting into my rental car and driving back to L.A. in a daze.
[Read the full story <http://nyt.et.e.sparkpost.com/f/a/zBFw5Ht76azmDSpP7XDrZQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRe5NVeP0TyaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAxOS8wNi8xMS9tYWdhemluZS91bml2ZXJzYWwtZmlyZS1tYXN0ZXItcmVjb3JkaW5ncy5odG1sP3RlPTEmbmw9Y2FsaWZvcm5pYS10b2RheSZlbWM9ZWRpdF9jYV8yMDE5MDYxMz9jYW1wYWlnbl9pZD00OSZpbnN0YW5jZV9pZD0xMDE2NiZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTE0MjUzJnVzZXJfaWQ9M2U4ZTg1NGJlY2Y2ZDNlMjQ3YTc3MzMyNDE3MGNlMGUmcmVnaV9pZD0zMDc1NjQ0MjAxOTA2MTNXA255dEIKACdeUAJdrXbfTFINZHJzZmdAYXR0Lm5ldFgEAAAAAA~~> of the day the music burned.]