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Last Updated: 11 Jun Burned , burnt : which one's right? In June , a newspaper reported that 5 books of the Natal Provincial libraries had been withdrawn from circulation and burned. By April books were still steadily being burned in Cape Town — at the rate of two per day. Could book burning happen again in contemporary South Africa? Given a similar set of circumstances, there is every reason to believe that it can. South Africans should remain diligent and alert to threats to freedom of expression.
The ashes of burnt books tell of the barbarism to which a society can descend. A contemporary Robinsonade — York, York. The polar oceans and global climate — Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Archie Dick , University of Pretoria. The Railway Depot furnace at Kaserne, Johannesburg in Banned and confiscated books and magazines were burnt weekly. Wits Student. The rise of authoritarianism State sanctioned book burnings were common as authoritarianism accompanied a growing Afrikanerisation of South African society as the dominant, ruling Afrikaner elite started to impose its culture on all spheres of society.
In October , the city librarian of Johannesburg, exclaimed : All copies are brought in to me and I destroy them personally. How should it be safeguarded?
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And by whom? I met Randy Aronson for the first time on a spring day in He was living in the same three-bedroom house where he had been jolted awake by a phone call on the morning of the fire. As a young man, Aronson did some acting, and he recently returned to the stage, starring in a community-theater comedy about the s golden age of radio. Aronson has the look of a guy who can do a good screwball turn.
He is tall and husky, with an elastic face and eyes that hold a gleam. When I arrived at his house, he led me into the living room, where I noticed a BB gun. His father worked as a repairman for the Otis Elevator Company for 35 years. I sought out Aronson more than a year after learning about the vault fire. Aronson admits he would not have consented to interviews were he still with UMG. But he insists he is not motivated by animus toward the company. He agreed to talk, he said, because he hopes the story of the fire will lead to a broader conversation about preservation. He expressed anxiety about his job prospects in light of his participation in this article.
In dozens of conversations and email exchanges, he described the event as a personal trauma. The fate of all those tapes has been an open secret for years.
It hides in plain sight on the internet, popping up on message boards frequented by record collectors and audio engineers. References to the loss of Decca and Chess masters in the fire appeared more than three years ago in the Wikipedia entry for Universal Studios Hollywood and were still on the page at the time of this writing. Yet the news has never reached the broader public. In part, this represents a triumph of crisis management. In an email sent to UMG executives and P.
Horowitz, who has since left the company, declined to comment for this article. Other newspaper accounts described damage to master recordings by little-known artists, whose names may have been cherry-picked by UMG in an effort to downplay the gravity of the loss. The Times ascribed these assertions to a UMG spokesman. But company documents, and testimony given by UMG officials in legal proceedings, make clear that the project was modest; records show that at the time of the fire approximately 12, tapes, mostly analog multitracks visibly at risk of deterioration, had been transferred to digital storage formats.
All of those originals and digital copies were stored in a separate facility in Pennsylvania; they were not the items at issue in the fire. In a statement provided to The New York Times last month, a current UMG spokesman said that the company was unable to comment on the fire.
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Back in , UMG undoubtedly feared the public embarrassment that news of the losses could bring. But Aronson and others suggest that UMG was especially concerned about repercussions with the artists, and the estates of artists, whose recordings were destroyed. Record contracts are notoriously slanted in the favor of labels, which benefit disproportionately from sales and, in most cases, hold ownership of masters. It is a paradox of the record business: Labels have often been cavalier about physically safeguarding masters, but they are zealous guardians of their ownership and intellectual-property rights.
Certain musicians, usually big stars, negotiate ownership of masters. It is unclear how many of the artists whose work was lost in the Universal vault had ownership of their physical masters, or were seeking it. But by definition, artists have a stake in the intellectual property contained on those masters, and many artists surely expected UMG to safeguard the material for potential later use.
That scenario could have exposed UMG to a storm of questions, threats and reputational damage from across the industry. But in the decade since the fire, UMG has faced little apparent blowback from artists or their representatives. It is probable that musicians whose masters were destroyed have no idea that a vault holding UMG masters had burned down.
The closest UMG came to a public imbroglio may have been in , when, Aronson says, he was sent on an unusual business trip to Pennsylvania. He had been told by a UMG executive that one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Irving Azoff, was asking questions about the loss of Steely Dan masters in the fire. Azoff, the former chairman of MCA Inc. A quarrel with Azoff was an unwelcome prospect. Azoff sent Elliot Scheiner, a celebrated record producer and mixer who had worked with Steely Dan, to confirm the tapes were intact.
Aronson accompanied Scheiner to the Pennsylvania facility, the tapes were pulled, the matter was dropped. Asked about this incident, both Azoff and Scheiner declined to comment. In fact, UMG documents suggest that Steely Dan masters — different tapes than those sought by Azoff — were in Building when the fire hit. According to Aronson, these likely included certain album masters, as well as multitrack masters holding outtakes and unreleased material. UMG avoided bad publicity, but in the months after the fire, the feelings of shock and chagrin remained acute for Aronson and his vault operations colleagues.
There were many such meetings. In December , UMG filed a lawsuit against NBCUniversal, its former landlord at the vault, seeking compensatory damages for losses suffered in the fire. Much of what we know about the event comes from depositions and documents that emerged from this litigation. Legal wrangling ensued for more than three years, until February , when UMG dropped the suit and the parties settled for an undisclosed sum.
The position staked out by UMG in the lawsuit was the opposite of that in its public statements. He was deposed multiple times and asked by UMG lawyers to submit declarations to the court on four occasions. It stretches back decades and encompasses nearly every significant record label. During World War II, labels donated metal parts masters to salvage drives. Three decades later, employees of CBS Records carved up multitrack masters with power saws so the reels could be sold to scrap metal dealers.
Catalog material by top stars sometimes suffered the same fate as obscure recordings. Countless more recordings have been lost to shoddy storage practices. Tapes have been mislabeled, misplaced and misfiled; tapes have been marooned on high shelves in disorderly warehouses, left at loading docks, abandoned at shuttered recording studios.
Holland reported that masters for MGM and the jazz label Verve were damaged or destroyed in the fire and in the months following, when surviving recordings were kept in an open shed. The preservation laxities were dictated by what seemed at the time to be common sense. On the contrary: They were expensive to warehouse and therefore a drain on resources.
To record-company accountants, a tape vault was inherently a cost center, not a profit center. These attitudes prevailed even at visionary labels like Atlantic Records, which released hundreds of recordings by black artists beginning in the late s. Vogel suggested moving the material to the empty Long Branch building. Vogel was on vacation on Feb. The 5,plus lost tapes comprised nearly all of the session reels, alternate takes and unreleased masters recorded for Atlantic and its sublabels between and , a period when its roster featured R.
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But to Atlantic in , the tapes were a nuisance. It seemed like a good deal. Eventually, the true value of those recordings became apparent. When Randy Aronson began working as a music archivist in the mids, he had no idea what a master was. He grew up in central Los Angeles and, like many L. He did some theater during the years he attended college and continued acting into his early 20s, performing in dinner theater while making ends meet with odd jobs. In , when he was 25, Aronson took a full-time position on the Universal Studios lot, in the mailroom.
To work on the lot was to bask in Hollywood history and Hollywood kitsch.
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The site was opened in in a rural stretch of northern Los Angeles. Gradually, that pastoral site became the lot, a bustling maze of offices, sets and soundstages. In , MCA executives, seeking a new source of revenue, developed a studio tour, which soon expanded into a full-fledged amusement park, with rides and attractions.
After two years in the mailroom, Aronson sought new work on the lot. In the spring of , he got a temporary position in the tape vault of MCA Records, the music conglomerate that would later be renamed Universal Music Group. The archive was huge and poorly organized, with thousands of tapes misshelved or improperly labeled.
He had no previous experience with preservation work; he was fuzzy on the basics of sound recording. When he arrived at the vault each day, he had the feeling he was entering a cathedral stocked with relics. Less than a year after taking the temp job, Aronson was asked to run the archive. It was a period of sea change in the music industry. In the early s, the first compact discs had appeared in American record stores. LPs had dominated for more than 30 years, but the arrival of CDs encouraged listeners to replace record collections at huge markups, paying up to three times the price for an old album in a crisp new format.
The avidity with which consumers snatched up even poor-quality CD reissues was a revelation: proof that catalogs could be cash cows. The result was a reissue boom. Master tapes were essential to this new line of business. But at the MCA vault, Aronson and his colleagues faced challenges, the consequences of archiving failures dating back decades. The vault facility itself was problematic. The temperature in the vault was 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the correct conditions for storing film, but too cold for music tapes.
When masters were pulled and transported to recording studios, they emerged from the frigid vault into the Southern California heat. Aronson received reports that tapes were arriving at studios in bad shape, cracked and crumbling. A new concrete foundation was poured to accommodate a heavy load of tapes, and HVAC systems were installed.
Yet problems persisted. The inventory was still kept on 5 x 7 cards, and the checkout system involved scrawled notes in three-ring binders. It was hard to sell a return-on-investment on an inventory. It was not a company priority. Soon, new concerns arose.
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The guard was convicted of arson. The fire reached the doorstep of Building , but firefighters beat back the flames. Aronson began to reconsider the prudence of maintaining a tape library on the studio backlot. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress smoking a cigar. There were camels and elephants walking past. In , another major fire was ignited by an overturned set light.
There were pyrotechnic materials on the backlot, used in films and featured in tourist attractions. Right next door to the vault. Most PolyGram masters — including material released on such sublabels as Mercury, Island and Motown — were housed in a rented warehouse in Edison, N. One day in May , Aronson got a call from a colleague. A crisis was unfolding at the New Jersey warehouse. Aronson flew to New Jersey, where he learned that the upstairs tenant, a food-service company, had loaded too many pallets of salad dressing into its storage hold, caving in the ceiling above the UMG vault and rupturing a pipe as it crashed down.
At the warehouse, Aronson beheld a gory scene: collapsed Sheetrock, dangling electricity lines, hundreds of shattered salad-dressing bottles and a foot of water flooding a vault that held , master tapes, including the entire Motown catalog.