Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images
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 Input magazine 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 Stone writer 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.”