Estates of rapper Tupac Shakur and rocker Tom Petty are among a group seeking at least $100 million in damages from Universal Music Group (UMG) after revelations that a 2008 fire allegedly torched precious master recordings.
The class-action lawsuit filed just before the weekend is the first legal action lobbed at UMG since The New York Times published a bombshell investigation saying that a trove of some 500,000 recordings including masters were destroyed in the June 1, 2008 blaze.
Three law firms filed the suit in US Central District Court in Los Angeles on behalf of artists including Tupac and Petty’s estates along with members of the band Soundgarden, alt-rock group Hole and folk-rocker Steve Earle.
“UMG stored the Master Recordings embodying Plaintiffs’ musical works in an inadequate, substandard storage warehouse located on the backlot of Universal Studios that was a known firetrap,” reads the filing.
The suit also alleges UMG “concealed the loss with false public statements” while pursuing a confidential settlement with its sister company, Universal Studios.
Citing the terms of their recording contracts the artists say they are entitled to at least half of that settlement, estimated to be worth at least $150 million, according to court documents.
“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,” the suit says.
The work of stars including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny and Cher, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Janet Jackson and Nirvana was reportedly engulfed in the flames.
Master recordings are one-of-a-kind source material used to create vinyl, CDs and digital copies, the loss of which would be particularly devastating for posthumous releases and lucrative reissues.
The head of Universal Lucian Grainge said the company owes artists “transparency” over the devastating fire, but in the wake of the Times expose the conglomerate has largely downplayed the losses.
“It happened 11 years ago and [recent] headlines are just noise,” Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the CEO of Vivendi, Universal’s parent company, tells Variety.
French media titan Vivendi is currently seeking to sell 50 per cent of Universal, by far the world’s largest music company, a closely watched deal that de Puyfontaine said remains on track.