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Artists File $100 Million Suit Against Universal Music Over 2008 Fire

The late rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994 photo. Shakur's estate is among the parties suing Universal Music over a 2008 fire in the label's vaults.
Steve Eichner
Getty Images
The late rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994 photo. Shakur's estate is among the parties suing Universal Music over a 2008 fire in the label's vaults.

Several prominent bands, musicians and artist estates sued the world's largest record company, Universal Music Group [UMG], on Friday after an investigation published by the New York Times earlier this month alleged that hundreds of thousands of master recordings, protection copies, unreleased music and other materials had burned in a massive fire at a UMG vault in 2008.

The suit, which seeks damages in excess of $100 million, was filed by the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, the bands Hole and Soundgarden, and singer-songwriter Steve Earle; it is seeking class action status, so that any other "similarly situated," UMG-affiliated musicians and estates may enter the suit as well. According to the Times report, the blaze allegedly destroyed the work of scores of top musicians over many decades, ranging from Louis Armstrong to The Roots.

The plaintiffs contend that UMG breached its contract with artists by failing to archive the materials properly, instead allegedly stowing masters and other materials "in an inadequate, substandard storage warehouse located on the backlot of Universal Studios [Hollywood] that was a known firetrap." Moreover, they say that after the fire, "UMG concealed the loss with false public statements such as that 'we only lost a small number of tapes and other material by obscure artists from the 1940s and 50s.' "

The suit also claims that even as UMG allegedly hid devastating losses from their artists and the public, the company "successfully pursued litigation and insurance claims which it reportedly valued at $150 million," and that the musicians are entitled to share in those claims.

The suit was filed in U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles and is the first legal action taken since the Timespublished its investigation. The plaintiffs are being represented by three firms: King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano; McPherson LLP; and Susman Godfrey LLP.

Universal Music Group declined to comment to NPR on the class action lawsuit. In a previous statement on June 11, UMG said that the Timesinvestigation contained "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings." Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the chairman of UMG's parent company, Vivendi, told Variety on Thursday that the Times investigation was "just noise."

Courtney Love Cobain — the former frontwoman of Hole (and the widow of Kurt Cobain, whose band Nirvana was another UMG group) — tweeted an anguished response to the Times investigation, writing: "Read [Timesjournalist] Jody Rosen's devastating, frightening exposé on the UMG fire disaster. Our history has been ripped apart, what a terrible, sad tale this is."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.