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Then there are masters for largely forgotten artists that were stored in the vault: tens of thousands of gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word records that may now exist only as written entries in discographies. Last year, Vivendi announced a plan to sell up to 50 percent of UMG. The sale is the talk of the music business; rumored potential buyers include Apple, Amazon and the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba. The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse.

It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. The recordings that burned up in the Universal fire — like the songs that are blasting from car windows on the street outside your home, like all the records that you or I or anyone else has ever heard — represent a wonderment that we have come to take for granted. For most of human history, every word spoken, every song sung, was by definition ephemeral: Air vibrated and sound traveled in and out of earshot, never to be heard again.

The act of listening again has defined music culture for a century. It is also the basis of the multibillion-dollar record industry. Today a stupefying bounty of recordings is available on streaming audio services, floating free of the CDs, LPs and other delivery systems that once brought them to audiences. The metaphors we use to describe this mass of digitized sound bespeak our almost mystical sense that recorded music has dematerialized and slipped the bonds of earth.

The Cloud. The Celestial Jukebox. Something close to the entire history of music hovers in the ether, waiting to be summoned into our earbuds by a tap on a touch-screen. This is the utopian tale we tell ourselves, at least.

In fact, vast gaps remain between the historical corpus of recorded music and that which has been digitized. Gerald Seligman, executive director of the National Recording Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Library of Congress, estimated in that less than 18 percent of commercial music archives had been transferred and made available through streaming and download services. That figure underscores a misapprehension: the assumption that the physical relics of recorded sound are obsolete and expendable.

The objects in question are master recordings: millions of reels of magnetic tape, stored in libraries like the one that occupied the backlot vault. These archives hold other masters of various vintages: the lacquer, glass and metal masters that predated tape, and disk drives and digital tapes from the past few decades. It is sonic fidelity, first and foremost, that defines the importance of masters. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.

This is not an academic point. A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. Audiophiles complain that the digital era, with its rampant copy-paste ethos and jumble of old and new formats, is an age of debased sound: lossy audio files created from nth-generation transfers; cheap vinyl reissues, marketed to analog-fetishists but pressed up from sludgy non-analog sources.

The remedy is straightforward: You go back to the master. This is one reason that rereleases of classic albums are promoted as having been painstakingly remastered from the original tapes. Right now, sound-savvy consumers are taking the next leap forward into high-resolution audio, which can deliver streaming music of unprecedented depth and detail. You have to return to the master and recapture it at a higher bit rate. But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs.

It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself.

George Orwell

It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. The comparison to paintings is instructive. With a painting, our task as cultural stewards is to hang the thing properly, to keep it away from direct sunlight, to guard it from thieves. A painting must be maintained and preserved, but only in rare cases will a technological intervention improve our ability to see the artwork. If you were to stand before the Mona Lisa in an uncrowded gallery, you would be taking in the painting under more or less ideal circumstances.

You will not get a better view. In the case of a recording, a better view is possible. The reason is a technological time lag: For years, what people were able to record was of greater quality than what they were able to play back. The process of revisiting and decoding can transfigure the most familiar music. These epiphanies would not have been possible without masters. The tapes themselves feature additional recordings — alternate versions, overdubs, studio chatter — that were included on the rerelease.

But the masters in the London archive are unique. They have more documentation than any version anywhere. And the masters contain more Beatles music too.

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming | Books | The Guardian

The same is surely true of many masters destroyed in the Universal fire. John Coltrane and Patsy Cline music has not vanished from the earth; right now you can use a streaming service to listen to Coltrane and Cline records whose masters burned on the backlot.

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But those masters still represent an irretrievable loss. When the tapes disappeared, so did the possibility of sonic revelations that could come from access to the original recordings. Information that was logged on or in the tape boxes is gone. And so are any extra recordings those masters may have contained — music that may not have been heard by anyone since it was put on tape.

They are corporate assets.

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In , most commercial recordings from the past century-plus are controlled by three gigantic record companies: UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group. But they are also the warehousers of millions of cumbersome master recordings. That task is expensive and complex, and if the past is an indication, it may be a job for which record companies are ill suited. The Universal fire brought losses on an unprecedented scale, but it was only the most recent disaster to strike the masters holdings of American record labels.

These disasters include not only events like fires but also instances of neglect and even willful destruction by the labels themselves, a hair-raising history that reaches back to the beginnings of the music business.

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A number of these insiders, including individuals with knowledge of the backlot fire, spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned they could face professional consequences with UMG and other labels. The result is a crisis, a slow-motion assault on our musical heritage that is poorly understood by many within the record industry, to say nothing of the public at large.

Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability. Yet the conservation mission faced by record labels may be no less vital than those of museums and libraries. How should it be safeguarded? And by whom?

I met Randy Aronson for the first time on a spring day in He was living in the same three-bedroom house where he had been jolted awake by a phone call on the morning of the fire. As a young man, Aronson did some acting, and he recently returned to the stage, starring in a community-theater comedy about the s golden age of radio.

Aronson has the look of a guy who can do a good screwball turn. He is tall and husky, with an elastic face and eyes that hold a gleam. When I arrived at his house, he led me into the living room, where I noticed a BB gun. His father worked as a repairman for the Otis Elevator Company for 35 years. I sought out Aronson more than a year after learning about the vault fire.