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A Generation of Hip-Hop Was Given Away for Free. Can It Be Archived?

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In 2008, a 24-hour inferno ripped through a Universal Studios backlot, incinerating a massive archive of musical history. As detailed this month in the New York Times Magazinethe fire spread to a warehouse where Universal Music Group—by far the world’s largest record company—stored huge portions of its master tapes from nearly a century of recorded music. According to a confidential 2009 report obtained by the magazine, UMG estimated that “an estimated 500K song titles” were destroyed.

The losses include a trove of recordings from legendary artists such as Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, John and Alice Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, Etta James, 2pac, and Nirvana—the list of casualties goes on and on. It includes not only the masters for recordings released as albums and singles, but also reams of heretofore unheard material that may one day have been dusted off and made public, as well as thousands of commercially forgotten recordings—sonic snapshots of American history that “may now exist only as written entries in discographies.”

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