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Calm down, rock obsessives: the Universal Studios fire was not the end of some secret musical trove

No surprises: Radiohead, here in 1997, have pre-empted an extortion attempt that used OK Computer out-takes
No surprises: Radiohead, here in 1997, have pre-empted an extortion attempt that used OK Computer out-takes Credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Music archives are in the news. Yesterday, in the UK, Radiohead had a vast trove of demos, rehearsal takes and out-takes from their 1997 album OK Computer stolen by a hacker, who then attempted to ransom the recordings for £150,000. The band swiftly responded by releasing the whole lot on the internet. So now obsessive fans with time on their hands can listen to 18 hours of music described by guitarist Jonny Greenwood as “only tangentially interesting” and “never intended for public consumption”. There’s something to look forward to.

Meanwhile, in the US, The New York Times claims that a 2008 fire at a Universal Studios warehouse in Los Angeles was “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business”. In a feature headlined The Day The Music Burned, it alleges that hundreds of thousands of master tapes were destroyed in the blaze, with some record companies’ catalogues entirely wiped out.

In the list of musicians said to be affected are many of the most acclaimed and influential of the last century, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, The Eagles, Steely Dan, REM, Nirvana and Eminem.

It would certainly be a devastating loss to music history if the work of those artists was lost forever. I have not, however, noticed a recent shortage of songs by Elton John. Universal disputes The Times’s reporting, and there remains a question as to what exactly has been lost. The official line from the record company is that “in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work”; this would imply that everything had already been digitised, and thus could effectively be reproduced without resorting to old analogue master tapes.

Steely Dan manager Irving Azoff, however, is unconvinced: “We have been aware of ‘missing’ original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now. We’ve never been given a plausible explanation. Maybe they burned up in the big fire. In any case, it’s certainly a lost treasure.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan in 1978; the band have long suspected their tapes to be lost Credit: Michael Ochs Archive

Well, maybe. That would depend on whether you consider, say, a dozen alternative takes of a Walter Becker guitar solo to be worth their weight in gold, or instead prefer to listen to the actual solo that the late Steely Dan maestro perfected and deemed worthy of release.

As I look over a music landscape filled with expensive box-sets of scratchy old demos and unreleased alternate takes, all lovingly catalogued by retro-obsessed music magazines, I sometimes wonder: when does the archiving stop? In one scenario, a band has effectively been forced to release their sketches for a masterpiece, rough and unfinished work. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke says it’s “not very interesting [and] there’s a lot of it.” (This could be the most honest marketing slogan in pop history.)

In the other scenario, outrage is being stirred at the potential loss of unknown recordings by some of the greatest musicians in history, which mysteriously escaped attention up to now. Call me a cynic, but I’m willing to bet that after a century of repackaging and exploiting recorded music rights, there are no lost classics by Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles or Joni Mitchell still languishing, neglected and unloved, in any vault anywhere. As George Harrison used to say about the obsession with unearthing alternative Beatles takes: “Have we actually got to the bottom of the barrel yet?”

Now, hands up, I’m as susceptible to this as the next music obsessive. I’ve listened to the whole of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes Complete, six-and-a-half hours of music comprising 138 lo-fidelity tracks of Dylan and the Band jamming in 1967, and seemingly stoned much of the time. I enjoyed it, and felt I learnt something about an artist I admire, but was still forced to conclude that Robbie Robertson knew what he was doing when he curated the sessions into a 24-track double album in 1975.

Joni Mitchell, here with Leonard Cohen in 1967, is another supposed Universal victim  Credit: David Gahr/Getty Images

Curation is the key element in mediating the public’s voracious appetite for unreleased material. Ideally, as in Dylan’s critically acclaimed Bootleg Series, it should be work to which the artist themselves has given the stamp of approval – although that’s not possible in the case of deceased musicians. But I’m not convinced that there are many estates that genuinely hold their late artists’ interests paramount when it comes to material that wasn’t deemed worth releasing in their lifetimes. And that goes for literature, film and every other form of art.

The Radiohead hack is an expression of a growing sense of public entitlement. In this internet age of stream and shuffle, when every recording is available to be heard, in any combination of the consumer’s choice, at the push of a single button, the very notion of a singular artistic vision is being eroded.

There are legitimate questions about whether listening to raw out-takes will add to or detract from our appreciation of the finished work. But as we move to a paradigm when everything is available simply because it exists, that question is effectively being taken out of the artist’s own hands. We are in danger of archiving every last scratch and squiggle, until we eventually lose sight of the art itself.