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There has never been a shortage of middlemen in the music industry. Immediately upon the invention of the idea of recorded music itself there emerged in tandem a class of people who had little or nothing to do with the creative process that realized they could get a taste of the profits. Whether it’s been managers or scummy producers and so on who behave in nefarious and underhanded ways, or in the case of record labels, act completely above board legally, but nonetheless predatorily, they figured out how to set up a toll booth between the artist and the listener and collect a cut. It has sucked from the get go and it sucks today in new ways but that’s just how it is baby so fuck you.
What you don’t necessarily expect, however, is one of those people benefiting unfairly off the labor of musicians to be an exceptionally well regarded and high profile journalist like Ian Urbina. (Yes I know big name successful journalists especially on TV are very often scum but still).
A former New York Times reporter who was part of a Pulitzer-winning team at the paper and the author of the The Outlaw Ocean series exploring criminality on the high seas which later became a best-selling book, Urbina is a Serious Journalist who Does Real and Good Work that has exposed corruption and all the things anyone in this profession would be proud to have done. Just this week he published a piece in The New Yorker about secretive prisons run by militias in Libya where the EU sends migrants before they can reach shore. A pretty impressive career I’m not gonna lie.
According to a video published to YouTube this week by musician Benn Jordan, who records under the name the Flashbulb, Urbina has engaged in what you might call at best highly unethical behavior regarding the musical tie-in project to his Outlaw Ocean Series. Titled How A NYTimes Reporter Collects Royalties From Hundreds of Musicians, the video painstakingly makes the case, in a great piece of investigative reporting in its own right that you should 100% watch, that Urbina leveraged his position, and his email account at the New York Times (where he no longer works) to contact hundreds of musicians and convince them to compose and record pieces of music “inspired by” his book while incorporating field recordings he’d made at sea. Jordan, like another musician I spoke with today, Tomas Roels, a producer from the Netherlands, maintains that it was never clear to any of the people Urbina reached out to that the scope of the project would bring in hundreds of musicians writing thousands of songs. Instead, they said, they felt the offer to collaborate was personal. “I’ve been a big fan of Tomas’ for a while, Urbina wrote to him from his NYT account in 2019 in one of dozens of emails between Roels and the project I reviewed.
Unsurprisingly to any musician, Urbina said he could not offer any money upfront, but dangled the possibility of partnerships with Netflix and Spotify and of a live show and a big promotional push that would make the partnership mutually beneficial. Roels told me he was excited that a New York Times reporter would be reaching out to him, and, sure, he knew it all sounded like a lot, but it was certainly worth trying.
“I felt really flattered, and sort of like, wow. I have plenty of listeners in the U.S., and I’ve toured in the U.S. as well, so it didn’t seem impossible for someone at that level to be a fan of my music. It seemed kind of strange, but I believed it. They won me over and made it seem much more specific and much more geared toward me as a musician than what the project turned out to be.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Jordan in his video.
“I was just so charmed that I was hand-picked by this established journalist and author,” he said.
Hundreds of others apparently felt the same way.
None of the promises came to fruition Jordan and Roels said. Dozens of other musicians have confirmed as much in posts on Twitter and YouTube.
Making things even sketchier, Urbina insisted on taking a 50% writing credit on each of the hundreds of songs submitted, the royalties for which would be handled by a label called Synesthesia. That means 50% to the label and 50% of any royalties would be split between someone like Roels and Urbina himself. What was also unclear to the musicians was that Synesthesia is run by Urbina. That’s 75% to Urbina and his project in total.
Since Jordan’s video was posted Urbina has denied that anything nefarious is going on and insists neither he nor anyone on his staff has made a cent. Any revenues have simply gone back into funding the project he claims.
An email sent out to the artists involved shared with me by Roels repeats that there is no money being made by the individuals who run the project.
“After expenses, 50 percent of revenue made on the music goes to the musician. The remaining portion goes to Synesthesia, which uses its share to continue supporting the music outreach by helping to cover the up-front expenses of future releases. Ultimately, our hope has been to generate a surplus that will be directed (entirely) into The Outlaw Ocean Project non-profit organization to support the journalism financially. As of yet, Synesthesia has not made any such surplus. In other words, the cost to Synesthesia of producing the music is more than the money Synesthesia makes on it. Therefore, while some musicians have begun earning revenue, Synesthesia has not. The music project has been a phenomenal success in terms of the first goal (outreach) but, with your help, we are still building the project towards achieving the second goal (financially supporting more stories).”
I reached out to the Outlaw Ocean Project to ask how exactly any revenue made off the music has been spent but have yet to hear back.
It’s entirely possible, as Jordan mentions in his video, and Roels tells me below, that there is nothing illegal going on here. Both have said that they don’t think the project began with any specific nefarious intent. The contract I reviewed is careful not to explicitly promise anything that was not delivered. Nonetheless, it’s just weird man. I’m sorry but it’s weird. And I hate to lose my temper here but it’s also just “not cool.” The whole thing just has a real bummer vibe, to use a technical term, especially coming from someone whose very good reputation is built on integrity and fighting for the less powerful.
I spoke with Roels at length about the experience and how he feels now that he understands the scope of the whole thing. Please do check out his music wherever you listen through the links here.
Before we get to our talk, unless you’re a paid subscriber you will have missed this delightfully silly but surprisingly poignant piece from the other day. It’s an interview with a comedy magician named Elliott Smith. We talked about some of the highlights of his career, the differences between Canada and Florida, the importance of following your dreams, whether or not audiences are too sensitive nowadays, and, yes, about how he got a number of very confusing phone calls on a really sad day back in 2003.
On a somewhat more serious but related note this piece by Brendan Little was beautiful and powerful I thought.
Ok here’s me and Tomas Roels.
When did it occur to you something wasn’t quite right? Before or after Benn’s video?
I thought there were issues maybe with honesty or transparency way back when they contacted me. After they’d promised all kinds of stuff, that hype kind of petered out. At a certain point I realized that they had contacted more artists than just me and a few others. I guess the moment I realized something might be sort of up was back in 2019. The way they contacted me was they promised a whole lot, as you can see in the Benn Jordan video as well. Some of the things he shows in that video were verbatim things sent to me as well. So I was always kind of alert. In the music industry you get promised a whole bunch of stuff all the time, and it hardly ever materializes to even be close to whatever they promise. It did seem way more genuine and way bigger than most propositions I get because of the mention of the New York Times, Netflix, Spotify, all those kinds of channels.
So you were thinking, well, this is probably nothing, but it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot, you never know. That’s something I think musicians have to tell themselves all the time right?
Yeah exactly. From the jump when they explained to me what the project was for and why they wanted music for it, I was never in it for the money. It just seemed like an opportunity to contribute something to something I really care about. I have a Masters in International Law, and this was a perfect opportunity for me to contribute something to journalism about stuff that I’m actually interested in.
Of course, the reason I put this much time into making the music was also that they promised exposure. Usually exposure isn’t something I like to jump at immediately, because I know what exposure is, it just means nothing. But in this case, the names he mentioned, and the fact that he contacted me from his New York Times email, it just seemed legit. It seemed like a big opportunity.
We all joke about “we’ll pay you in exposure.” But there’s a difference between that and prestigious exposure. If somebody says, you know, I’m from the New York Times and we’re gonna partner with Netflix and all that, it’s easier to kind of go along with it than if it’s just, I’m fucking Joe Schmo from wherever, and I want your work for free.
Exactly. It’s different from someone who’s like, could you do this for free because we want to do the good work of spreading this type of music in this very specific locale or something. This was a global scale thing. They contacted me and really made it seem, at that point it was just Ian I thought, that he was a fan of my music specifically. That helped as well. I felt really flattered, and sort of like, wow. I have plenty of listeners in the U.S., and I’ve toured in the U.S. as well, so it didn’t seem impossible for someone at that level to be a fan of my music. It seemed kind of strange, but I believed it. They won me over and made it seem much more specific and much more geared toward me as a musician than what the project turned out to be.
The thing that’s interesting about this, and the reason why I think it’s a news story, is, well, people are out there trying to scam musicians everywhere all the time. But this guy is undoubtedly a very serious, very respected journalist, who seems to do really good work. New Yorker features and things like that. Top of the game type of guy. That’s what makes it so weird and fascinating to me. I can picture some scummy producer or manager doing some bullshit, those guys you expect it from. But why would this guy, who seemingly has such a good career, want to do something that’s so risky to his reputation?
Well that’s why I contacted you. I read a lot of the stuff you’ve been writing recently, so I’ve been following you on Twitter. I saw your tweets, you were exasperated about this. Why the fuck would this guy… Why? Why would he do this? I genuinely don’t think this is just a scam. I don’t think this guy set out to scam a bunch of musicians for his own gain necessarily. Maybe it’s turned into that. What I’m worried about is that a guy with this kind of influence and clout for lack of a better word, can, without any regard for the mores and rules and problems in the music industry, make this happen, farm a bunch of musicians’ work for his project. Even though I like the project and think it’s important and don’t necessarily think there’s malice involved, I do think this warrants looking into. Whether on purpose or not it just seems like a very serious breach of journalistic integrity.
For sure. On its face, the idea of, what if I got some of my musician buddies to write music based on one of my books, and we put out an album, no one’s really making any money, we’re just doing it because it’s a cool thing... There’s nothing wrong with that. The thing that’s different is when you realize the scope of it. I don’t even know what the number is at now. If something like 5-600 artists got involved he must have reached out to at least 1,000, counting people who declined and so on. Like Benn was saying in his video, and you’re saying, maybe there’s no malice here, but once it gets to that level it becomes like a factory. Let’s just churn this all out.
That’s kind of what I’m getting at. A CEO of a big company can still think he’s the good guy doing good work, and do stuff with the best intentions. He may still exploit people down the line in a way maybe he never intended, or that he’s blind to, or in a way that ends up being very positive for him down the line.
It’s kind of hilarious to come up with a scam that revolves around Spotify streaming royalties right?
It’s hysterical. This guy is skimming royalties from the least lucrative thing you can think of.
It’s like robbing a soda machine. How much money can actually be in there?
The way it gets different though is when you do it at volume. We’ve heard about things where people blanket Spotify with hundreds or thousands of generic tracks or whatever, and eventually it might add up. That’s what makes me think that this could possibly be more nefarious. You have to know the only way any kind of real money comes into play is when you have thousands of songs going. It’s also kind of hilarious this dude is the most prolific musician in the world now.
Another thing, and this isn’t illegal, it’s not illegal to bullshit people, but you talked about him saying what a fan he was. A bunch of other musicians have shared screenshots of him saying the same thing. There’s no way this dude is a fan of like a thousand underground and upcoming type electronic musicians.
Yeah no way. This guy spends half his life on fucking rickety ships almost dying and stuff. There’s no way he had time.
Even the best DJ in your city hasn’t heard of every artist involved here. Again, nothing illegal about gassing someone up, but still.
So did you have any indication when it was starting there would be so many artists, or were you led to believe it would be like a dozen, twenty, whatever?
He contacted my music email, you have this email now, but the wording suggests there is an idea, and there is my music, and how about we combine those into something that could benefit this product. In the copy-paste thing, at this point I didn’t think I was going to be the only one, but looking at the email now he definitely didn’t mention there would be hundreds of artists.
One of the original emails there’s this part where he dangles all these future promotions, a live show… Did any of that ever come to fruition?
No nothing. I’ve never been contacted with anything more serious than dangling the idea of we’ll have you over [to the States] and the original promotion stuff.
Another part that’s weird: They wanted access to your Facebook to post ads for you?
Oh yeah. Did I grant them the access?
I’m not sure. It looks like you didn't respond. That’s another thing. There are so many emails. Hey checking back in. Hey checking back in. Every couple days for a while there. Did that seem weird?
I have pretty debilitating ADHD, so, when people sort of push me for stuff I tend to think that I’m the one who’s being slow doing the work. What it mostly did was legitimize the whole operation more. It seemed like they were contacting me for stuff they really wanted from me. Looking back that seems kind of strange.
It looks like the two songs you did aren’t available at the moment. Did you take them down?
They took them down. What they explained in the most recent email is they’re switching distributors. I think Benn Jordan mentioned that in the Instagram group DM as well. Everything will be uploaded through another service. So they’re taken down but they’re just grayed-out now. It did obviously feel like they took them down to maybe avoid trouble or try to mitigate the situation, but in what way I wouldn’t know.
About how many people are in the group DM? What’s the general vibe?
Maybe 50 people now. The general vibe is mostly people finding out that there are way more artists than people thought. That grew into distrust, and a vibe of let’s see what’s going on here. People were mostly asking questions, and people didn’t really seem to have an idea of what was going on and if it was bad. Waiting for royalty statements can take a long time, if you ever get one. I have plenty of experience with this kind of stuff, but I think a lot of people who worked on this, just judging by their number of Instagram followers… If someone is in that group has like 97 followers, it’s like…
They probably are green… I saw your royalty statement. You earned like $8 and still owe them like $53. In Urbina’s response to all this he said they aren’t making money, and any money has gone back into the project. Did they ever give any clarity on what the money is actually being spent on?
No, not in detail. I don’t know if you read the contract. It’s got basically everything Benn said in his video about distribution costs and stuff like that. But I’m completely unclear at this point about what exactly is going to the project.
It’s not that expensive to upload songs. It costs a little bit of money, but certainly not tens of thousands of dollars.
Exactly. And that’s what makes it so strange. Are those expenses just interns sending emails to thousands of more musicians? If that’s the case I understand it, but it’s definitely something way different than huge promotional efforts by Netflix and Spotify and stuff.
You would want to know where your money is going right? It would be nice to know. Instead of a vague idea of “going back into the project” whatever that means.
Ideally you’d know. I guess I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it because I didn’t think it was going to make me more than a few dollars. At no point did I care about my own cut from this. Especially because at a certain point I decided not to do an album for them, only two tracks. At that point I had realized there were way more people involved and that this wasn’t going to benefit me very much.
Even the money aside...Let’s say this isn’t a money grab, fine. There’s instructions in your emails you shared for all the artists about how to do social media posts and what language to use to promote his book. Again, this is not illegal, but does seem unethical to martial a small army of musicians with the purpose of… There’s monetary value in having people like you talking about this guy’s book constantly. Even if it’s not the streaming revenue, if you got a thousand cool musicians, upcoming DJs and shit, talking about a book, it would certainly present the idea to a big audience that this is a cool book they have to get. There’s monetary value in that.
Absolutely. You can pay a bot farm in Romania to post stuff for you, but you can also use poor musicians, with organic reach, to talk about your stuff. That seems kind of unethical. Even though, still, I don’t think that plan is malicious. But there is definitely an overlap between malice and not thinking about something too much and being careless.
Right. Again, I don’t think that’s illegal. I don’t think it’s evil. But there’s just something off about it. If you’re a musician coming up, you pay money to a PR company, they use it to buy ads, or get influencers to post about you, whatever, that’s how it works. But when you’re this daring, intrepid bold truth-teller out in the world exposing crimes, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth for a guy like that to be involved in what seems like petty shit like this.
Yeah exactly. It just feels like, for someone with his background, I would expect him to have a lot of integrity as a journalist and a person. It seems very off to be this careless and to have this lack of vision in terms of what’s unethical to ask of people for your own project.
Or not even being able to understand how this might end up being perceived askew. It seems he’s offended that anyone is besmirching his name, but, dude, you roped in like 600 smaller musicians to promote your work. Did it never occur to you they might wise up? It’s like a guy dating a bunch of women at once and they all find out.
He’s doing the sitcom two dates in one night.
Right! When did it dawn on you he would be taking writing credit? That to me is another thing that’s fucked up. There’s a way to have done this without attaching himself as a co-writer. That seems like an extra twist of the knife.
That sort of stood out to me as well. I accepted that. I do have to say, before I answer, whenever I get a contract presented to me I feel strange about it, because I have a law background, but also I have no expectations of anything good coming from music contracts. Let alone people actually fulfilling their obligations in terms of royalties. So when I got this contract I was like, ok, this is particularly dense. It’s a very American legalese contract. It wasn’t confusing or anything, but I do have to admit, to my shame, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. [So when it said he was going to be a co-writer] I was like, ok, cool, I’m not going to gain too much from this anyway, so if this is the way he wants to get more exposure for the project, then that sort of helps my goal for this as well, which is to get the whole thing more attention, and to get more funding for this sort of journalism.
But looking back it is strange. Usually when you sign a contract with a label, smaller labels for me usually, they’re the ones who upload stuff to Spotify and stuff. They have a distributor, they get royalties through that distributor, then they decide what to do with the royalties. Then they fulfill the contractual obligation. Usually 50% to me then 50% to themselves after expenses.
But they’re not getting a songwriter credit too.
Exactly. So that’s very strange.
It’s just bizarre. Again, on an individual basis, or maybe a dozen musicians, you might say, ok, fine, but to have this guy have his name, I haven’t seen the latest count, but it was something like 1,600 songs streaming written by Ian Urbina. That’s more songs than Prince wrote!
Exactly. I think Benn Jordan tweeted about this. He couldn’t get a list of things imported into Excel because there were too many lines of info.
Before we end I just want to say, I think I mentioned this, that I don’t care about the money. I just care about the transparency to the artists and the general public and journalistic integrity. Also, Synesthesia Media, I don’t think was presented as something totally separate, but it wasn’t clear that it was all him either. My fundamental problem is the promise of exposure and the lack of clarity about how many people were being contacted. I don’t think the idea of the model is to get as much money for the project or to enrich himself. Maybe it is, but I don’t think that was the plan from the outset. I think the idea is genuinely to have a younger audience listen to the music, and from that funnel those people into reading his book, or watching his reporting. I truly think that was the idea. But now it’s become something so opaque and … you get what I’m saying. I can’t find the words at this point.