Steve Earle, Other Artists Suing Universal Music Group Over 2008 Vault Fire
Steve Earle, Tom Petty's ex-wife Jane Petty, the Tupac Shakur estate and the bands Hole and Soundgarden filed a class-action lawsuit on Friday (June 21) over the 2008 fire that damaged or destroyed as many as 500,000 master recordings held by Universal Music Group (UMG). The lawsuit, filed 10 days after a lengthy New York Times investigative piece about the fire and its aftermath, alleges that UMG failed to share a reported $150 million in litigation and insurance claims with the affected recording artists.
"UMG concealed its massive recovery from Plaintiffs, apparently hoping it could keep it all to itself by burying the truth in sealed court filings and a confidential settlement agreement," reads the complaint (quote via Billboard). "Most importantly, UMG did not share any of its recovery with Plaintiffs, the artists whose life works were destroyed in the Fire — even though, by the terms of their recording contracts, Plaintiffs are entitled to 50 percent of those proceeds and payments."
Per Billboard, the lawsuit also alleges a "systematic and fraudulent scheme of misrepresentation and misdirection" by UMG over the years to hide the extent of the damage caused by the fire, which broke out in a Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood, Calif., on June 1, 2008. Such statements make it plausible -- as several artists, including Rosanne Cash, alluded to on social media after the Times report was published -- that artists found out about the alleged lost masters at the same time as the general public.
When major media outlets were reporting on the fire in 2008, almost none mentioned the existence of the music archive stored in the torched warehouse, focusing instead on the TV and film recordings that were lost. However, a portion of the archive housed a massive cache of master musical recordings, including tapes dating as far back as the late 1940s, as well as session recordings that have never been released to the public.
Decades of corporate mergers have shifted a bulk of popular, commercially recorded music from the past 70-plus years to one of three companies: UMG, Sony Music and Warner Music Group. The artists whose recordings would've been stored in the fire-damaged vault include Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Merle Haggard, George Strait, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizell, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Holly and Don Henley, along with many others.
"The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety. Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage," reads an internal UMG document, published in March 2009. However, UMG employees downplayed the fire's destruction publicly, and shortly after the Times' story was published on June 11, UMG issued a statement claiming that the story contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets."
"While there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios facility more than a decade ago, the incident -- while deeply unfortunate -- never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation," the statement notes. "UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music."
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