Maybe you saw that amazing story in The New York Times Magazine last month. “The Day the Music Burned” by Jody Rosen is an amazingly detailed analysis of a music story most of us knew little to nothing about. Seth covered it in his “Connecting the Dots” blog – and its relevance to radio struck me, especially with last week's headline about Taylor Swift's first five albums.
So, here's the story. In 2008, a fire blew through a Universal Studios Hollywood lot, including several familiar movie sets, as well as a back warehouse. It turns out that building contained a treasure trove of classic Universal Music Group recordings – the original raw masters of individual studio tracks by hundreds of musicians.
The fire was downplayed at the time, but it turns out irreplaceable archive material – and a ton of it – was destroyed in that fire.
Rosen sums it up this way:
“It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
From the old days, we're talking about recordings from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland.
Then there was the blues – Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Etta James and many more – recordings that were lost forever.
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Rosen tells us almost all of Buddy Holley's masters went up in flames, along with a list of other iconic artists that is mind-boggling:
Sammy Davis, Jr, Neil Diamond, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the Four tops, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Guns N' Roses, Beck, Steely Dan, Aerosmith – and hundreds more. And those are just some of the ones they know about. Think about all the obscure artists whose recordings literally went up in flames that June day, never to be heard again.
In his story, Rosen lovingly describes what it means to have lost these treasures in the Universal fire. I'll leave the task of reading his amazing chronicle of this disaster to you, rather than try to paraphrase his brilliant writing. It speaks for itself.
But suffice it to say, I read Rosen's potent essay and began to think about just how many radio station archives are treated as cavalierly as this stash of priceless recordings. There was no fireproof vault or even great care taken to protect these gems, unlike the ways in which galleries protect paintings.
Why was the Universal fire hushed up at the time? Rosen suggests it was about how the artists themselves might have reacted had they known the full extent of the blaze. These masters are precious to musicians.
And Rosen quotes Prince who once noted while involved in a dispute with Warner Brothers, “If you don't own your masters, your master owns you.”
The Universal blaze may, in fact, be the worst disaster of its kind. But Rosen chronicles other debacles that ended up destroying all sorts of recordings. A lot of these have been due to what he calls “shoddy storage practices,” along with mislabeling, misfiling, and other screw-ups.
Rosen points the finger at how the structure of the music business has changed over the years, as smaller companies have consolidated into a handful of big ones. He points out that in the heat of sales, IPOs, and calculating EBITDA, no one may be thinking a whole lots about the archives.
Rosen also notes that proper storage and protection of recordings is far from cheap. And as we know from radio experience, the first thing that happens in a merger, buyout, or takeover is cost-cutting and economies of scale.
And that's what Taylor Swift is experiencing right now, as a result of the sale of her former label, Big Machine, to manager Scooter Braun.
That rekindled a Swift/Braun feud that dates back to that uncomfortable interlude with Kanye West. Braun now owns the master recordings to Swift's first six albums. As The New York Times remind us, that means controlling the rights to song licensing for movies, TV, and video games, in addition to how and where her tunes appear.
In this case, Swift lost her archives to a questionable business deal. But that doesn't change the importance of these irreplaceable assets.
So, what does this have to do with radio, aside from the obvious music connection?
When I read “The Day the Music Burned,” it was around the time that WPLJ was in its final throes, waiting to be extinguished by a new owner and a completely different format.
Yes, the call letters were going away, the format was over, and management was left to selling commemorative T-shirts.
But what of the WPLJ archives? Who ended up with them? And have they even existed all these years, as the station was sold from ABC to Cap Cities to Citadel to Cumulus?
Like the majority of radio stations in America, WPLJ changed hands, not once, not twice, but several times. That describes some of the biggest and best call letters in the U.S.
And here's an example that occurred to me during the “celebration” of PLJ a few weeks back: Elton John famously recorded a live album that was broadcast on PLJ (then WABC-FM) in front of a small audience. Called 11-17-70, it is an amazing performance by an artist who was just emerging at the moment in time. The pictures, the interviews, the songs that never made the album?
I was thinking of that amazing moment – capturing an emerging superstar on the radio – while watching Rocket Man a few weeks ago. No, that moment wasn't covered in the film, but New York radio fans of a certain age probably recall it well.
So what of PLJ's archives, its rich history, the photos, the interviews, the TV spots, the merch, the recordings?
For every station like KSHE where so much of their material was lovingly saved, protected, and ultimately put on display in their online “Real Rock Museum,” there have to be scores of stations where the archives have been lost, disappeared, or pillaged by staffers during moves and sales.
Think about stations like WBCN, KMET, the Loop, and so many others. What happened to their histories, their pasts? How will we remember them even a decade or two from now if these artifacts from their past no longer exist?
It makes you wonder if the radio industry – and certainly the bigger companies – could derive value out of archivists – record-keepers, protectors of radio's past.
But that would cost money – perhaps plenty of it – to save, salvage, preserve, and protect these materials.
Come to think of it, the only consistent “archiving” the radio industry has been engaged has been done voluntarily by an aging videographer here in Michigan – Art Vuolo.
Everyone knows Art – if you go to virtually any radio conference, from Don Anthony's Boot Camps to Conclave to the Worldwide Radio Summit, there's Art, recording the event on video so that future generations might understand just what the business was all about last year, last decade, or during a time when you weren't even born.
Watching Art's Archives from the early days of radio is a reminder of how the business has changed – and how it hasn't.
Over the years, Art Vuolo has become known as “Radio's Best Friend.” That's because he has selflessly took it upon himself to get his beloved industry down on video so we – and our kids and grandkids – can enjoy it. If you've had a chance to talk to the man behind the camera over the years, you know he loves radio more than many people who have earned riches and fame from being behind the mic or sitting in the corner office.
But if you've also noticed the past few years, Art is no longer that bouncy thirtysomething guy wearing his prized WLS sweater, running around hotel ballrooms with a camera on his shoulder. Travel has become more difficult, and you can look in Art's eyes and know the day will come when he will put that lens cap on his video camera for the last time and call it a career.
He's “Radio Best Friend” alright, but he's also “Radio's Only Archivist.”
There's a handful of others – “Radio Rewinder” (@radiorewinder) publishes old playlists, photos, and stories from long-gone publications like Radio & Records. My old MSU radio buddy, Scott Westerman, has done an amazing job archiving Keener 13 – the legendary Top 40 station here in Detroit that so many Baby Boomers grew up with in the '60s.
But these efforts are few and far between. Oddly enough, the phrase “keepers of the flame” came to mind when I started thinking about the Universal fire, and the neglect that has surely happened throughout the radio industry and its history these past several decades.
The past is the past.
But not to be able to remember it, celebrate it, and share it with future generations is just sad.
You can read Jody Rosen's story here.
Thanks to Randy Kabrich who was the first to send it to me.
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