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Judge Dismisses Artists' Lawsuit Against Universal For Recordings Lost In Fire

Smoke pours out of a sound stage as Los Angeles City firefighters attempt to save a historic studio set as a fire continues to burn at Universal City Studios on, June 1, 2008(Kevork Djansezian/AP)
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More than a decade ago, a massive fire gutted a music storage facility on the Universal Studios backlot. Tens of thousands of archived recordings were destroyed, including irreplaceable masters.

Although the full extent of the damage was never made public, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Universal Music Group by several musicians who wanted an accounting of the loss and a share of a possible $150 million insurance settlement.

The litigation was prompted by a 2019 New York Times Magazine article that said the fire was “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.” The story said the blaze had incinerated more than 100,000 audio recordings containing as many as 500,000 songs controlled by UMG, the world’s largest music company.

The Times story also reported that single and album master recordings by Tom Petty, Tupac Shakur, Steve Earle and the bands Soundgarden and Hole were destroyed in the fire.

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UMG said the article misrepresented the loss, and that it and a follow-up piece were “stunning in their overstatement and inaccuracy.” The Times said it stands by its reporting.

Lawyers for several artists, their estates and Tom Petty’s ex-wife sued UMG last June, saying the storage facility was a “known firetrap,” that UMG tried to conceal the full extent of the loss, and that the company was required to share any legal or insurance settlements with the musicians for the loss of their masters.

But U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt ruled Monday that UMG was not obligated to pay the artists any insurance monies, because their contracts could not be interpreted to mean that such a settlement was somehow an exchange for the use of their music.