July 11, 2019

Opinion: Masters of the Masters


The recent revelation mostly through New York Times Magazine writer Jody Rosen’s investigative reporting that a massively large, major music corporation apparently lied to its recording artists, managers, lawyers, etc. eleven years ago regarding the true state of their master tapes after a massive fire took out the facility in which they were stored should surprise no one. After all, though it can be quite generous to charities and on the kinder or progressive side of social issues, the music entertainment field is not exactly known for its honesty nor fair royalty distribution. Beyond other famous exploitive practices by commercial music institutions, the fact that a recording artist routinely has to audit their affiliated labels to recoup overlooked or unaccounted for royalties pretty much is Exhibit A regarding an egregious business model.

Not to demonize but for an industry that somewhat reinvented itself by taking advantage of scores of talented though naive and sometimes desperate kids in the fifties and early sixties (mob influence, car hood signings, etc.), it never should be mistaken for being a shining beacon of enlightenment. It never wanted to be and that never was its mission, even pre-phonograph. That said, in all fairness, it also helped soothe the masses for decades and actually did enlighten the public as it followed cultural trends and challenges, promoting works by influential artists/acts such as The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, etc., and socially-charged genres like rap and alternative/indie. However, an artist’s nature, motivations, and aspirations being what they are, traditionally, personal business concerns mostly took a backseat to the presentation of the art, providing a perfect prey for the hunters.

The point of the preamble was to be a reality check about an industry whose music companies are neither total devil nor saint but definitely have gotten so large by gorging themselves on assets that some have grown into Jabba The Hutt. After a while, the act of devouring is what matters with no emphasis on digestion. With little to no appreciation for what is being consumed for the sake of quarterly earnings, a music company can just buy, buy, buy then swallow the new assets with little concern. Put another way, that attitude creates a tinderbox environment where more musical “knowledge” potentially can be lost to time than the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It fosters a culture of carelessness that cares more about insurance payouts than the loss of recorded history. Proper stewardship of irreplaceable musical artifacts, in this environment, seems to have little to no chance.

Out of respect to a place that once employed me, I intentionally have not referenced the company that was the center of the New York Times piece by name. But to be clear, intentional or unintentional disrespect to masters is nothing new, and certainly not practiced exclusively by one organization. Prior to working for that entity and speaking from experience, in the nineties in L.A. and in what was supposed to be a safe environment, I saw piles of horizontally stacked (a real no-no, must be vertical), important analog masters by iconic artists stored in a pretty warm, easily accessible unsafe place. Over the years, some masters were tossed by tape vaults due to bankruptcy or non-payment of outstanding bills by labels. Before MCA bought it, ABC supposedly jettisoned enough analogs to theoretically supply Ampex with years of erasable tape to sell. Add to that tales of producers “borrowing” heritage masters, many of which were stored indefinitely in garages, some never returned. Though many labels and music entities including the above-referenced have utilized Iron Mountain facilities countrywide to protect their possessions, many tapes possibly have been lost there as well due to some inaccurate data entry.

Yes, it’s horrible that a planet-sized company apparently lied about the fire at the time of its occurrence then covered-up the extent of the damage. Gee, what a surprise, hey, how ’bout them Cubbies. But this NYT story changes everything. The fact that the spotlight currently is shining on the deception is fine and necessary, but how something like this will be prevented in the future should be the immediate fallout. There is no perfect, inexpensive system for protecting masters, that’s a given. But if a music company grows to the point that it no longer knows what it owns, especially in an allegedly “sensitive to the artists and their concerns” industry, and it can’t handle the overwhelming amount of analog tapes it possesses, maybe there should be some form of archiving that gives that responsibility to a more logical partner.

Perhaps the masters should be dispersed to university music departments across the country that could use UCLA’s methods of restoration and storage as the prototype. How about ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or even the Grammy and Rock And Roll Hall of Fame folks getting involved? Can the subject with the goal of finding a solution be discussed at music industry conventions? In general, it does seem logical for a music company with innumerable, priceless assets to warehouse them in multiple facilities, removing many of the precious eggs from one questionably safe basket. Maybe one answer could involve artists and bands retaining or regaining the physical possession of their masters, putting them in the responsibility loop. Maybe a clause could be written into an artist or band’s contract demanding guaranteed safe storage of all their recorded assets in perpetuity. Or maybe music companies just shouldn’t become too big to fail if they are the stewards of history. Should it be mandated? Should they be balkanized? That will never, ever happen but this is a moment in time when everyone who owns analog and even digital masters should plan for their properties’ longevity. Otherwise, especially after a fire that reportedly took out possibly up to 500,000 masters, “those who don’t learn from the past…”

written by Mike Ragogna

Love it? Share it?