The full report in the New York Times Magazine is worth a look - it's not only an exhaustive report of what happened, but also a musing on the importance of history, and what can happen when it isn't properly safeguarded. Even the first appearances on record by Aretha Frankin were lost.
Questlove confirmed the news on Twitter, writing that although it's unfortunate, the band isn't totally out of luck when it comes to those records: "i mean, it's sad to lose a piece of my life, but we still have the final masters-as in how it was released in 95/96 are still there".
UMG officials led the Times to report that "in no case was the destroyed material the only copy of a work", while a spokesman told Billboard that no master recordings had been lost, a statement that The New York Times Magazine report shows to be false. "We have been aware of "missing" original Steely Dan tapes for a long time now", he says. "The video library was affected and damaged, but our main vault of our motion picture negatives was not".
Internally, UMG acknowledged how catastrophic the fire had been: "Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage", reads a company document cited in Rosen's article. The fire destroyed master tapes of recordings by a diverse range of artists and hitmakers like John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Nirvana, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Beck, Nine Inch Nails and other tapes owned by Universal Music Group. Masters to groundbreaking rock n' roll songs like Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" perished as well.
In response, Universal Music Group questioned the accuracy of the Times' reporting, without specifically pointing out what in the story it considered erroneous.
While safety copies or duplicates of numerous effected recordings had been made, thousands of original master tapes were destroyed - meaning that many outtakes and other recordings and information of historical value are gone forever.
"The incident. never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists' compensation", it said. Universal had allegedly tried to keep it a secret because of how insane the prospect of 500K masters burning down sounds, but they're now forced to fight back the claims.