The world of recorded music was shaken to its core June 11, when The New York Times Magazine published “The Day The Music Burned,” a story about a devastating fire in the Universal Music Group vaults in 2008.
As journalist Jody Rosen writes, the fire (which had been … let's call it "downplayed" by Universal) consumed thousands upon thousands of original master recordings by artists such as John Coltrane, Patsy Cline, Tupac Shakur, Beck and Sheryl Crow — a very small sample of big names, in addition to dozens, perhaps hundreds more that remain obscure.
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Does this mean the best-known recordings will suddenly vanish from the Earth?
Of course not. Master tapes are the original-source documents of these recordings and often contain unreleased outtakes or studio conversations, but the albums and songs everyone has heard for decades remain documented in other formats.
Does it mean that we might never completely know what music our culture lost, given the amount of unreleased material from various sessions that was on those tapes, or that the fidelity of the recordings we have will not likely improve in the future now that those first-generation tapes are gone?
The article has sparked a conversation among musicians and fans about the preservation obligations of record companies both large and small. To put it bluntly: Do you, musicians of the world, know where your masters are? We asked a few Austin artists at various stages of their careers if they knew the answer.
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Kelly Willis has been making music since she was a teenager and releasing records since 1990 for labels such as MCA and Rykodisc. She and husband Bruce Robison have released albums on their own Premium Records label since 2007.
Willis said she has masters only for the music she and Robison released themselves: “I don’t know who has my others or where they are."
Monte Warden, whose band the Wagoneers rose to prominence with Willis in the late 1980s when both singers were still in their teens, says that "every one of my A&M masters" was lost in the Universal fire. The Wagoneers made two albums for A&M Records, which later was folded into UMG.
Warden says the band also did a gospel session for A&M that was never released and didn't get to the final mixing stage. Without the masters, remixing is now impossible. "Rough analog mixes is all we have," he said.
The news is better for his new recordings, such as an as yet unreleased album he recently completed with his pop-jazz combo, the Dangerous Few. "There are three hard copies of the original masters just here in Austin," Warden said.
Austin rock outfit White Denim declined to answer the question through its publicist, who did note that the band — which recently formed its own label called Radio Milk Recording Company — is reissuing a vinyl version of its 2010 self-released album, “Last Day of Summer.” It will be remastered from the original recordings, which White Denim always owned. The band plays an album release show Aug. 24 at its own Radio Milk performance space.
Singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada make up Austin soul act Black Pumas. Their self-titled debut is out now on ATO Records, and the masters for it remain in Quesada’s hands.
“We own our masters and I am in control of the physical possession of them, because it was all recorded and mixed at my studio,” Quesada said. “Nowadays, being that everything is stored digitally (in addition to physical master tapes), I feel like it's a lot easier to keep track of your masters. Even though I record onto analog tape, I do not store analog masters, though I probably should.”
Oddly enough, one of the most chaotic Austin acts has all its masters. King Coffey, drummer for the longtime Austin act Butthole Surfers, which has been recording and touring on and off since 1981, said the band is in possession of all its masters.
“I believe we have everything,” Coffey said. “We have a storage unit that contains a bunch of crap from the 1980s, including several shelves of tapes, including the multi-tracks (the tapes on which the music was actually recorded).
“For almost everything, we have backup copies, so if we sent a master tape to a label for production, we almost always made a safety dupe for ourselves. If that unit burns down, we’re pretty screwed.”
Coffey’s active band, USA/Mexico, recorded entirely on digital. “We have those files, but they can degrade," Coffey said. “We should be making backups.”
Perhaps in keeping with the Surfers' overall oddness, the tapes even survived the years the band had no permanent home.
“For the few years we lived on the road, we were carrying a couple of boxes of tapes in the van,” Coffey said. “It’s amazing they survived until we could put them in a safe place.” He credits Surfers guitarist (and longtime producer for other bands) Paul Leary for such care.
“Paul is the man,” Coffey said. “He is an engineer at heart and took all this very seriously.”
Not surprisingly, news came last week of artists taking legal action against Universal in a joint lawsuit that included Soundgarden, Tom Petty's ex-wife Jane Benyo and native Texan singer-songwriter Steve Earle.
That didn't surprise Warden. "I'm sure there's going to be some litigation," he said before the suit had been filed. "But who cares? That's just for some payout. This stuff is irreplaceable."
For her part, Willis refuses to dwell on the past.
“I try not to think too much about it all because it’s a bummer,” Willis said. “Why be sad? You have to live in the moment.”