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Artists sue Universal for $100m over fire that destroyed thousands of recordings

Several prominent musicians are suing the world’s largest record label, Universal Music, after learning their music may have been lost in a fire.

The case, which seeks damages in excess of $100m (£78m), was filed by the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, the bands Hole and Soundgarden, and singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

They are seeking class action status, which means other affected artists will be able to join the legal action.

Universal Music has yet to respond.

It is the first case to emerge since a New York Times investigation alleged that hundreds of thousands of master recordings, protection copies, unreleased music and other materials had burned in a massive warehouse fire in 2008.

Among the hundreds of artists said to have lost music were Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sir Elton John, Janet Jackson, Nirvana, Eminem and Guns N’ Roses.

The legal papers, filed by three law firms in Los Angeles, accuse Universal Music of negligence by housing the recordings in “a known fire trap”, as well as concealing the extent of the destruction from artists.

“Yet even as it kept plaintiffs in the dark,” the complaint alleges, “UMG [Universal Music Group] successfully pursued litigation and insurance claims” to the tune of $150m (£117m).

“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,” the court papers say.

“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.”

Last week, Universal Music’s CEO Sir Lucian Grainge instructed his staff to co-operate fully with artists seeking information on the status of their recordings.

“We owe our artists transparency. We owe them answers,” he wrote, adding that “the loss of even a single piece of archived material is heartbreaking”.

However, Universal has challenged the findings of the New York Times’ story, citing “numerous inaccuracies” in its reporting and “fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident”.

The headlines claiming more than 500,000 recordings had been destroyed were “just noise”, said Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the chairman of UMG’s parent company, Vivendi.

Universal Music Group is the world’s largest recorded music company, with a market share of 31% last year.

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