Estates of Tupac and Tom Petty Join Massive Lawsuit Over ‘Biggest Disaster in History of Music’

A lawsuit was filed Friday in connection with what was was dubbed “the biggest disaster in the history of music.” Back in 2008, a warehouse fire tore through the Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood, destroying master tapes of recordings by a long list of universally known A-list artists.

The destruction reportedly wiped out more than 500,000 song titles, including recordings by John ColtraneJoni MitchellNirvana, R.E.M., Janet JacksonAretha Franklin, BeckNine Inch Nails, Ray Charles, Elton John, Al Green, Tupac Shakur, Eric Clapton, EminemHoleSoundgarden, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Petty, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, and many more. In the recording industry, master tapes are crucial to preserving the integrity of the work of an artist. For an in-depth discussion of the importance a master recording has within the music business, see here.

At the time of the fire, Universal Studios said that the damage had been limited to part of the King Kong attraction and a video vault of some old television shows and movies. A spokesperson for Universal Music Group (UMG) flatly denied that any music had been damaged, saying, “We had no loss.”

But in mid-June 2019, the New York Times published a piece headlined, “The Day the Music Burned,” which reported the actual details of the 2008 fire. An archive building had been destroyed, and many original one-of-a-kind recordings ruined. An internal Universal memo surfaced; the damage originally downplayed as minor proved catastrophic in nature.

The general public wasn’t the only group of people shielded from details about the massive loss from the 2008 fire; in many–if not all cases–the artists themselves had no idea their works had been lost. Now, more than a decade after the fire, a class-action lawsuit has been filed in U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs are a growing group of artists, most recently joined by the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur.

The lawsuit alleges that in failing to adequately protect and store the master recordings, UMG breached its contractual responsibility to the plaintiff artists. The lawsuit also alleges that UMG should have disclosed –and shared– any insurance or other compensation it received as a result of the fire. The plaintiffs reportedly seek upwards of $100 million in compensatory damages.

Per 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. Most importantly, UMG did not share any of its recovery with plaintiffs, the artists whose life works were destroyed in the fire — even though, by the terms of their recording contracts, plaintiffs are entitled to 50% of those proceeds and payments.

The enormous lawsuit filed by artists and their estates is only just hitting its opening bars. We’ll keep you posted as things move toward a crescendo.

[image via screenshot/ABC News]

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. She is a frequent media contributor, and is Of Counsel to Smedley & Lis, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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