Have Nirvana’s Nevermind master tapes been lost in a fire?
16 June 2019, 11:00 | Updated: 16 June 2019, 11:01
A report claims that the masters of the classic 1991 album - along with tapes by acts liKe R.E.M., Guns N’Roses and thousands more - were lost over a decade ago.
The master tapes of Nirvana’s classic 1991 album Nevermind may be just one of thousands of recordings lost in a fire that took place 11 years ago.
An article in the New York Times this week claimed to have uncovered documents about the fire, which took place in the early hours of Sunday 1 June 2008 at the archive vault at Universal Studios in Hollywood.
The story goes on to claim that that “single and album master takes” by artists from Nirvana, R.E.M., Guns N’Roses, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Nine In Nails, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Eminem, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, Aerosmith and dozens more were all lost in the disaster.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was asked about the state of play with the tapes on Twitter: “Does this mean that the Nevermind masters are gone?”… to which he replied: “I think they might be gone forever.”
“Virtually all” of Buddy Holly’s master tapes, along with recordings made for Chess by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, plus masters from Decca Records, including works by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday are also listed as lost in the fire. The masters of Aretha Franklin's very first recordings are also thought to be a victim of the disaster.
R.E.M.’s representatives tweeted that they were investigating the claims, saying “We are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band’s music, if any. We will detail further as and when.”
REMHQ is receiving inquiries from many people concerned about the New York Times article on the Universal Music fire 11 years ago. We are trying to get good information to find out what happened and the effect on the band’s music, if any. We will detail further as and when.— R.E.M. HQ (@remhq) June 11, 2019
However, Universal Music Group has disputed the New York Times report’s accuracy, claiming that a huge amount of material - including Nevermind’s own 20th anniversary edition in 2011 - had been released in high quality since the fire.
In a statement as reported by Variety, UMG claimed the article has “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets”.
The company went on to say that they had released "tens of thousands of back catalog recordings... including master-quality, high-resolution, audiophile versions of many recordings that the story claims were ‘destroyed’.
“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 concluded: “UMG invests more in music preservation and development of hi-resolution audio products than anyone else in music."
While this doesn't mean that albums like Nevermind are lost forever (you probably have a copy in your house or on your phone right now), any uniussed outtakes could have suffered and any attempts to create new remasters of classic recordings could be affected. In some cases, however, it's likely that unique recordings are now either lost or extremely rare, as this tweet demonstrates:
Postscript to @jodyrosen's article: Charles Wright made A Lil' Encouragement in '75. ABC Records cancelled its release after making a few 8-track cartridges. The album masters burned in the Universal fire; this tape--the only known copy--is now the sole evidence of its existence. pic.twitter.com/9qqJfM26vw— Andy Zax (@andyzax) June 11, 2019