New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?

By the time I get Ian Urbina on the phone Wednesday afternoon, he’s ready to tell his story. He picks up on the first ring and makes quick work of the pleasantries. “So, if it’s okay with you,” he says, “my inkling would be to start with kind of its origin story? You’re welcome to record.” Sure, I say, and away he goes.

It’s not hard to hear the edge of unease in his voice, the anxiety of a veteran newspaperman who has had a hand in crafting many narratives and has spent the last five days watching his own spin decisively out of control. To be fair, his particular crisis is one that a Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times reporter could scarcely have imagined unfolding even a few years ago. It’s a distinctly 2021 scandal, and one he’s figuring out how to navigate on the fly.

The week before had started out actually quite well for Urbina. On Sunday, November 28, the New Yorker published his 10,000-word opus about Libya’s renegade coast guard militias, a piece that landed him a spot on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes and NPR’s All Things Considered. But then, on Thursday, came something unexpected. A musician and YouTuber named Benn Jordan posted a 20-minute video entitled “How A NYTimes Reporter Collects Royalties From Hundreds of Musicians” that accused him of engineering an elaborate swindle in an entirely different line of business. Urbina was signing up artists to make music for a side project by promising them huge exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue. The case laid out by Jordan was strange, outrageous, and not entirely accurate —and triggered a swift Twitter pile-on.

It was at this juncture that Urbina made a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack. Instead of engaging with the charges, he tried to crush them, blocking Jordan on Twitter along with anyone else who criticized him. He posted a statement on Medium calling Jordan’s video a “mass trolling.” And he shut down journalists trying to report out the story. When Inputmagazine reached out to him, Urbina declined to answer questions, nor did he respond when Rolling Stone asked for comment.

The results were not good. “Folks were making death threats,” Urbina tells me.

“You’re getting death threats?” I ask.

“Not a lot of them. But yes, we’ve gotten, you know, it’s just — you would be amazed.” Then he catches himself, and I feel the weird hall-of-mirrors effect of interviewing someone who is very experienced at interviewing others and therefore very aware of how his words sound and how they might be used. “But, you know, I don’t know if I should say that on record, because it could be like, ‘Oh, look, he’s complaining and he’s trying to play this.’ And I’m not doing that.”

He presses on, explaining in a clear, steady cadence what happened and why. It’s all a misunderstanding, he says; and where Jordan sees a scam, Urbina describes a plan to expand the reach of his journalism to a new audience. The case he makes is mostly compelling, but there are gaps.

In 2015 Urbina, then a staff reporter at the Times, published a series of articles under the rubrik “The Outlaw Ocean.” The common theme was that the open sea is a lawless place where all sorts of environmental and human rights abuses occur. The topic was one of many that Urbina had written about since joining the paper in 2003: He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for exposing Governer Eliot Spitzer’s sexual indiscreptions, and covered climate change, cyber crime, and sweatshop labor. But to Urbina the lawlessness of the ocean seemed to hold special promise. It was a huge topic that few others were covering. “I feel like I have found virgin snow, when it comes to a journalistic topic,” he says. In 2019 he left the Times to become a full-time freelancer, and that September he published The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier.

Without the financial stability of a full-time job, and the prestige of a marquee newspaper brand, Urbina was going to have to carve out a place for himself in a media environment that had transformed dramatically since he’d entered the profession. The number of publications had plummeted, and so had the going word rates. But, on the other side of the ledger, a journalist had many more ways to reach the public and cultivate a loyal audience. In addition to traditional options like movie or TV deals there were now podcasts, Medium, Substack, YouTube, and countless other ways to monetize one’s reporting. Or one could try to create something unique.

As he was out at sea reporting, Urbina says, “I had this idea sort of start bubbling up, which was in some ways inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m a big hip-hop fan and was thinking that it would be really neat to do with my ocean book what Lin-Manuel did with Hamilton. What if we create this music project as a bridge to folks who aren’t reading my stuff anyway, to younger folks and to more global folks?” To do so, he would offer musicians a library of sounds he had recorded during his reporting, “like machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea,” that the musicians could incorporate into their work.

To implement his musical ideas, Urbina created a for-profit company called Synesthesia, and a non-profit, The OO Project, into which he said any profits from Synesthesia would flow. The OO Project’s mission was to support journalism about maritime issues — effectively, to support Urbina’s own work.

As his book’s release date approached, Urbina began reaching out to musicians, asking if they’d be interested in taking part in a project he’d devised to support his reporting. “My name is Ian Urbina and I work for The New York Times,” he wrote, after leaving the paper, to the booking agent of musician Benn Jordan. “I’m contacting you not for an interview per se, but because I want to run an idea by you that I think might be of great interest.” In a follow-up to Jordan, he elaborated: “The idea I had is to create a soundtrack for the book. By that I don’t mean putting music behind the audio book. Instead, I mean teaming up with an artist to create music that tells stories and conveys the feelings and issues in the book.” He added that “this entire audio idea is a passion project. So, there is no upfront money. That said, there will be a lot of interest (and thus online traffic/royalties) on it once we create it.” Spotify was working on a podcast and Netflix and Knopf “who are both creating things tied to the book are eager to promote the soundtrack.”

Jordan, a Georgia-based electronica musician, was at first excited about the idea. While he hadn’t previously known Urbina’s name, he was familiar with his series on the ocean, and was excited by the glamor of his journalistic stature. The cause seemed worthy, and he was flattered that Urbina considered himself a fan. Under the impression that this would be a one-on-one collaboration, Jordan talked at length with Urbina on the phone, who then sent him a contract. When he read the terms of the proposed deal, however, Jordan was dismayed. As he understood it, the contract called for Urbina and Jordan to share writing credits on any music, with a publishing company called Synesthesia taking half the income. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t even make sense. Sharing writer credit when you’re not providing any material?’” Jordan recalls. He concluded that Urbina was a newcomer to the music business: “He had no idea what he was doing.”

Then he did a little digging. Looking up the company registration for Synesthesia, he found that Synesthesia wasn’t just some third-party company that Urbina had contracted with; the company was owned by Urbina himself. To Jordan, it looked like Urbina was using a shell company to hide where the profits were really going. Making matters worse, Jordan then discovered that he would not be Urbina’s only collaborator. In conversations with other musicians he learned that Urbina had approached them in exactly the same way, in most cases with cut-and-paste introductory emails. In the months that followed, Urbina would wind up signing more than 450 musicians to the Synesthesia contract. There are now more than 2,000 songs on the Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and streaming on every major music service on the internet. The gist of Urbina’s offer was that, while musicians would get no money up front, the project would provide exposure for their work. But the promised promotional tie-ins never materialized. “No Netflix, no Spotify podcast,” says Jordan.

As a 20-year veteran of the music business, Jordan had seen his share of shenanigans, and even made a video about common industry scams. But what Urbina was doing made Jordan particularly angry, especially when he thought about how younger and less experienced musicians might react to Urbina’s proposition. “I’m imagining 15 years ago, calling up my mom, and saying, ‘Mom, I got contacted by a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist from the New York Times who wants to partner with me to use my music on his mission to save the ocean. And Netflix is going to be involved, Spotify is going to be involved, there’s all these major companies involved, this is awesome, let’s celebrate.’ And then having to follow up with the disappointment.”

Turned off, Jordan abandoned his work on Outlaw Ocean music and never submitted anything to Synesthesia. But he started working on a video that laid out his concerns, going back to it on and off for the next two years, as the whole saga unfolded. Finally, after a weeklong push, he finished the video and posted it on YouTube on the afternoon of December 2. He admits to feeling a little queasy as he hit the upload button. “There’s always a little bit of nausea whenever you upload a video that’s negative about a person,” he says.

In the video, Jordan professes admiration for the outstanding quality of Urbina’s journalism and the worthiness of his cause. But he describes that what Urbina’s music project as fundamentally a scam: luring musicians into onerous contracts under false pretenses, promising promotion and exposure that never materialized, and funneling music revenue into his own pockets — “an extremely unexpected, brazen, complex web of fuckery,” as Jordan put it. Near the end of the video, Jordan addresses Urbina directly: “In my personal opinion, you owe an apology to most of the artists who participated in this, and you should also negate their contracts.”

As the ensuing Twitter storm raged, Jordan reached out to other musicians who’d been involved in the Outlaw Ocean project and asked them to fill out a survey detailing their experiences. About a hundred responded, most of them seconding Jordan’s discontent and supporting his call for Urbina to cancel their contracts.

Wrote one: “While the wording of the emails and contract I received didn’t make me feel like I was technically lied to, I definitely felt misled or like I was sold a vision of something that had very little chance of happening … What seems to be a mutually beneficial collaboration became hundreds of musicians reading, sharing, and otherwise supporting his journalism for nothing in return. The support only went one way — from the artists to him.”

As reporters checked out Jordan’s allegations, it turned out that some of them didn’t hold water. For example, he had misunderstood the Synesthesia contract to imply that the company would get half of the royalty income while he and Urbina would split the remainder, leaving him with only a quarter; in fact Synesthesia’s half and Urbina’s half were the same thing, so Jordan would keep 50 percent. In later communications with artists Urbina had made it clear that the company was his own. Still, the deals were definitely not financially favorable to the musicians. When a Rolling Stonewriter showed Jordan’s contract to music attorney Rachel Stillwell, she responded: “If a client brought this contract to me to negotiate, I would tell them to simply walk away.”

When I reached Urbina, he’s abandoned his counterattack strategy and shifted to contrition. He has posted “An Apology from Ian” in which he stated, “I apologize unequivocally” for the misunderstandings that had arisen. But he rejected claims that he’d scammed anyone, insisting that “I’ve never made a cent from the music nor would I as that’s not the project’s purpose,” and promised that Synesthesia was willing to contractually release any musician who wanted to be.

On the phone, Urbina tells me that about 50 have taken him up on his offer out of the roughly 500 musicians under contract. “I got deeply rattled by this,” Urbina says. “Artists are upset. Some artists are saying they feel like they were tricked.” He wants to clear the air.

Mostly he wants to talk about the vision of the project, and how its primary aspiration was to connect the public to meaningful journalism. In this sense, Urbina says, the Outlaw Ocean Music Project has paid off. “It’s been a wild success,” he says. “We get huge numbers of people coming onto the stories on the website every time there’s a music launch and then reading the stories.” According to Urbina, the website gets between two and four times as many pageviews after a new release.

This is the gist of Urbina’s answer to Jordan and his other critics: This wasn’t a shady scheme to make money — it was an optimistic and experimental strategy to get more attention to worthy journalism. If he sometimes failed to convey to musicians what he was doing and why, that’s due in part to the fact that as he moved from conceptualizing a plan to implementing it the details changed. For one thing, he says he was learning how the music industry works. “It took me a huge learning curve to even know what the terminology means,” he tells me. For another he was adapting to the musicians’ response. “Did I have any idea in the beginning that it would scale beyond ten artists? No!” he says. “And then when we hit 50 I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is so cool, it’s actually working.’ So in real time I adjusted everything as I learned and saw the reality.”

Another problem he has faced is that, like many ambitious digital visions, Urbina’s concept is a little fuzzy. He clearly views scale as an obvious virtue in itself. “It’s a global creative flashmob, and flashmobs are better the bigger they are,” he says. But it’s not entirely clear how the existence of a vast streaming music library corresponds with promoting ocean journalism. The most tangible benefit that he can point to is a rise in page traffic to the project’s website each time new music is released. But as yet, none of the music has gone viral or broken through into the broader culture like the book did.

As for the structure of the deals, Urbina acknowledges that the contract is unusual in the portion of the money that he takes from musicians. But he insists that there is a good reason for that: musician’s participation in the Outlaw Ocean Music Project is a kind of donation. “What we consistently tell musicians is this is not a music label business deal,” he says. “This is essentially a charitable contribution.” (It’s not a literal donation, in the sense that a musician could claim a tax deduction on it, as the deal is with Synesthesia rather than The OO Project.)

A major multimedia project like Urbina’s most recent story can cost him more than $200,000 to produce, as he travels with a three-person team that also shoots video footage, but his compensation from the New Yorker was only $20,000 or so. He, like many other independent journalists, has been trying to find some way to bridge the gap and deliver high-quality reporting outside the context of a legacy media brand.

However, that’s not what’s happening here. Urbina says that the Outlaw Ocean Music Project is not a money maker but a money sink. He tells me that as of this week, the project has taken in $49,000 in revenue but has cost $120,000 in promotion, cover art, and the like. And even if it did turn a profit, that still wouldn’t go into funding his journalism, but rather into expanding the music program and growing its audience — and thus his journalism’s audience — further. “There was zero aspiration to make money,” he says. “The goal was always, let’s scale this up.”

In the interest of maximum transparency, Urbina sends me the nonprofit’s 2020 tax filing. It shows that in that year, Outlaw Ocean took in $1.1 million, dispensed $390,000, and ended the year $810,000 in the black. A variety of large and small donors support his group, the two biggest being Bloomberg Philanthropy and Schmidt Marine Technology Partners. His point is that the sums involved in the music project aren’t particularly meaningful in terms of the organization’s overall budget — and are much smaller than what he has been able to raise from philanthropic contributions.

I tell Urbina that I have trouble following his logic here. Right in its website the Outlaw Ocean Music Project says that “the artist donates 50 percent of any revenue on their music to Synesthesia for the sake of supporting more reporting and outreach.” (Emphasis mine.) When I press him on it, he says that yes, financial support is part of the goal, but a minor one compared to spreading the word — distribution, as he calls it. “If A is distribution and B is economics, then A is like 80 percent of its goal and B is 20 percent of its goal,” he says.

Given the quantity of funds he has in the bank, it’s not entirely obvious why Urbina invested so much time and effort, and undertook such a big reputational risk, to create a sprawling musical empire with little payoff. Yet he expresses no regrets about the undertaking. “Words are a limited medium,” he says. “They go through people’s eyes and up to their head. Music goes through their ears and down to their heart.”

As we start to wrap up the call, Urbina is cagey about what he plans to do with the project going forward. He says he’s going to ask the musicians still signed with the project for their advice. Despite the Twitter hate, he says he has no regrets in setting up the Outlaw Ocean Music Project. “I’ll just tell you, and I don’t say this defensively,” he says, “it’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done.”

This article originally ran on December 13, 2021 in New York magazine.

12 thoughts on “New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?”

  1. Mr Wise, anybody visiting your website on Google Chrome gets a warning that the website does not use https and is vulnerable to attackers etc.

  2. A general observation about this Ian Urbina article.

    Almost any ‘investigative reporter’ who is very successful in the mainstream will have patrons who help the information spigot keep flowing and provide other benefits.

    Jack Anderson and Sy Hersh are probably the ones with the biggest historical footprint, and they were known for their ‘independence’ but they could not have gotten a toehold in the mainstream without a patron.

    Ian Urbina’s history of success makes it possible he has a patron.

    On the other hand, Urbina’s reporting
    https://www.nytimes.com/by/ian-urbina
    was very un mainstream, or maybe leading edge of mainstream, and progressive. So it’s possible he is really just a soldier without an army who covers what he believes is important. Hard to know for sure.

    From the post.
    “Urbina was signing up artists to make music for a side project by promising them huge exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue. The case laid out by Jordan was strange, outrageous, and not entirely accurate —and triggered a swift Twitter pile-on.”
    “It was at this juncture that Urbina made a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack.”

    1) The first thing is “exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue”. Half the revenue? From no exposure?

    I was not aware of “https://www.theoutlawoceanmusic.com/about/” until this blog post, but it’s an important topic. Undersea minerals are much more significant than most people know. The same type of consortium which has run petroleum and other things will be controlling the seas soon. At this point it looks like a consortium consisting of largely British and Chinese interests, with Australia being the ‘British’ face.

    The main difference between seabed minerals and petroleum is the money. There is vastly more money in seabed minerals than there ever was in petroleum.

    There will be vastly more corruption, vastly more political murders, etc etc etc.

    There is no easy way to know if Urbina jumped in this ‘field’ out of personal conviction, or as part of a long range project under a patron. Ever since the Chinese started building fake islands around an area with some of the richest undersea mineral deposits, a lot of others have been scrambling to arrange future projects.

    2) “a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack”

    Since this blog has a psychology section, it’s worth pointing out that his ‘overly defensive’ reaction appears more consistent with a person who does not have an invisible patron i.e., an independent.

  3. At the risk of being called a spammer/

    In case you minimize the significance of https/

    Here is what people using the most popular browser see when they click on your website from Google search results.
    https://tribalcash.org/images/jeffwise.png

    You lose most people there.

    For those who stay, and then submit a comment, they see this, i.e., your domain’s response to the submitted comment.
    https://tribalcash.org/images/jeffwise2.png

    ‘https’ is a fraud, like all public key encryption, but it does usually keep out those *who are not government employees* from certain types of exploits.

    Was not specifically trying to link to the site where the images are. Feel free to delete this comment or put the images on your server and update the image links.

  4. So sorry for spamming your blog, but I researched a bit and will make a final observation, and a prediction you can use to verify my observation.

    Urbina looks like a ‘Glenn Greenwald’ type character. An independent idealist who is very ambitious and a bit ‘manic’ or ‘willing to take risks’. His music project reflects that rather than any scamminess or maliciousness or even greed.

    His first critic, the guy who made the youtube video, appears less independent.

    Years ago governments were pretty direct in influencing the media. The U.S. government owned a lot of journalists outright, paid them direct salaries etc.

    Today things are a bit murkier.

    Looking at your articles there is a very consistent theme. You frequently cover topics that have a political significance which is not obvious but is important, and you cover those topics from the viewpoint of a specific narrow interest.

    To me it looks obvious, there is a statistically very significant likelihood, that the subjects you right about, some of them, are recommended to you by somebody directly employed by some political interest i.e., a government, and your viewpoint is ‘guided’.

    Now the prediction.

    Somebody will approach you, a friend, a colleague, a boss, and ask you to research the digital currency BSV and write a piece about it. They will carefully guide your opinion so the piece is positive and includes phrases like ‘intellectual property’.

    When the piece is written it will get promoted a bit more than most articles.

    I would bet pretty heavily on that prediction, but you are free to dismiss it as the rambling of a mentally ill conspiracy theorist, since I am certainly that.

    Good luck.

  5. @Walter, Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I can assure you that I am not going to write any articles recommending cryptocurrencies, let alone BSV, which I’ve never heard of. If you read my articles on Tether you’ll see I consider the whole space a writhing mass of fraud. The scandal is that the fraud is right out there in the open and no one is doing anything about it.

    Another thing I’d add is that the journalistic system isn’t subverted in the shady way you imagine. The ‘patrons’ — the people sliding money into journalists’ pockets — are simply the owners of the media themselves. They own the publications, they decide what will run. And they are all rich people, by definition. So yes, it’s all subverted, but pretty blatantly.

    The problem with conspiracy theorists is that they look for hidden symbols and secret cabals when the real conspiracies are operating right out there in the open.

  6. @Jeff

    Do you believe that there was a time in U.S. history that there was government intrusion into journalism? You can read the following and click on the links in the article https://spartacus-educational.com/JFKmockingbird.htm

    At that time nobody would have suspected that many of the biggest journalists in the country were secretly writing articles which promoted the worldviews of a small group.

    Here is the most recent article that seemed to point to an outside influence in your writing.

    When the Ever Given grounded in the Suez canal there was an organized effort to promote it as something that would affect supply chains and could influence prices.

    The problem is that inflation is to be expected simply because of the jump in money supply. ‘Supply chains’ are trivial. If something is out of stock or cannot be produced for lack of parts it will not have a major effect on inflation. Money supply inflates commodities, and that causes inflation.

    The view that ‘supply chain issues are causing inflation’ is silly, regardless how many people say it. And it certainly looks like there is an organized effort to promote that fiction, probably to keep worries about inflation down.

    Reporters and websites which have pushed the notion that supply chain issues are a meaningful cause of the current inflation also generally support some other worldviews which would come from the same interest.

    You mention Tether. There is a lot of national competition in the cryptosphere which most people are not aware of. Bitfinex was created by a Frenchman or Italian and became the largest exchange in the world for a while. He started with a section of the site for borrowing and lending usd, but the rates were often at levels which would be illegal in the United States e.g. 100% interest per day sometimes, or more.

    He sold the business to some murky outfit, not sure of the details, and Tether was eventually created as a solution to the borrowing issue. If somebody wanted to trade on margin the funding would be usdt instead of usd.

    The issue though involves the Chinese connections of the group which created and issued Tether. They were basically issuing U.S. dollars, in pretty large amounts. Something usually called counterfeiting except it was digital and limited to their platform.

    The notion that they pumped bitcoin with Tether is possible and a separate issue.

    After stablecoins started to expand in significance it was important to U.S. interests that a Chinese controlled stable ‘dollar’ be discredited to limit potential future threats, so the NY ag filed some kind of legal challenge.

    I actually have not read your article on Tether but will read it now.

    1) Mentioning Brock Pierce as part of the origin of Tether is a sure sign your writing was ‘influenced’ and somebody is setting the stage to lead you in a specific direction. Again, my guess is BSV. I had discussions with the initial owner of Bitfinex, a long time ago, about the issue and am aware of the reasons Tether was started. The Chinese angle is probably important. Magnifying Brock is a shady way to discredit Tether further.

    Actually I can’t finish the article at the moment, it’s too convoluted. Somebody used you to further the mainstream silliness about targeting Tether because it was a shady outfit rather than because there are Chinese fingers in it.

    A completely separate issue/ as for “I consider the whole space a writhing mass of fraud”.

    Bitcoin and most coins are, strictly speaking, ridiculous scammy frauds. But the concept of monetizing people’s labor in a decentralized way is huge. Anybody can create a corporation which could become more powerful than any country, simply by making a coin that incentivizes whatever it is they are promoting.

    You could look at Numerai which incentivizes data scientists to create algorithms for a hedge fund. It’s a primitive coin but if you combine that concept with the old Huntercoin or Motocoin or Neucoin you have something which would be a super corporation beyond anything which has existed yet.

    The fly in the ointment though is public key cryptography which will be exposed as a fraud eventually.

    Sorry for plugging up the comments section, again, but I believe you have a naive view of how journalism is subverted by hidden group actors as opposed to wealthy ones. In the articles that I have glanced at there is very strong support for things which may not be fact based but which further a very narrow interest, and my suspicion is that it is probably the result of individuals from some group influencing your work. I could be wrong, just my best guess.

  7. @Walter, I appreciate your input but my worldview differs significantly enough from yours that I don’t think there’s much to be gained from responding in detail.

  8. Thanks for your politeness. One last thing and I will stop.

    Do you do freelance work? I have been trying to get public interest in a legal case in Utah, but because of my writing style / whatever, cannot get an analytical person to look at the evidence and give an opinion publicly, a sort of ‘celebrity’ endorsement.

    I paid one false confession expert to look at the confession in the case and he provided an opinion, which is useful.

    At the moment I do not have a lot of funds available but I would be willing to pay a reasonable amount. I do have quite a bit of material on the case including a lot of material that was not seen by the jury and public.

    I’m not interested in paying somebody to say that my website is horrendous or that my writing shows signs of pathological mental illness. I will pay though for a simple analysis of the actual evidence.

    The case involves the murder of a young Burmese girl in Salt Lake City named Hser Ner Moo. I have no connection to anybody involved, as far as I know.

    If you are interested could you give me a ballpark price? Either way, thanks for considering it and good luck.

  9. Hi Armin, Don’t have any updates as far as new reporting, but I can tell you that there are a number of documentaries about MH370 that will come out this year; it will be interesting to see if they clarify matters or just muddy the waters further.

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