Ian Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean project is accused of defrauding musicians to fund its investigative journalism.
Ian Urbina has made a name for himself as a journalist covering illegal activities in the world’s oceans. In 2015, as an editor at The New York Times, Urbina published The Outlaw Ocean Project, a series of articles describing various illegal activities on the high seas. Urbina left The New York Times in 2019 to continue her work on The Outlaw Ocean Project independently. Since then, Urbina has continued her extensive research on the high seas and even published a book of the same title in 2019, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Along with the book, Urbina also created The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, which ostensibly serves to generate music based on Urbina journalism. According to the project’s website, the music generated under The Outlaw Ocean Music Project uses the field recordings collected by Urbina during its 5 years of reporting at sea. However, one of the musicians asked to participate in the Urbina musical project recently revealed how the Urbina project could rip off hundreds of musicians under cover of artistic collaboration.
On Thursday, composer and recording artist Benn Jordan posted a 20-minute video on YouTube that dives deep into his experience working with The Outlaw Ocean Project. According to Jordan, Urbina invited him to contribute music to the project in May 2019. While Urbina said he would not be able to compensate Jordan for his contributions upfront, Urbina did a myriad of pledges to Jordan for his contribution to the project: “Spotify is building a podcast around him because they’re intrigued by his innovative nature,” Urbina told Jordan via email. to the book, are eager to promote the soundtrack.”
According to his own account, Jordan says Urbina’s journalistic accolades, including Urbina’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism for The New York Times, made Jordan trust Urbina and its promises. “I was so charmed to have been chosen by this established journalist and author,” Jordan explains in his YouTube video. In their communications, Urbina also hinted that Jordan was the only artist Urbina approached with this collaboration opportunity, which Jordan said made the offer more personal and appealing. Jordan eventually signed a contract with Synesthesia, the label handling the project, without asking Urbina to put his promises in writing – which Jordan now regrets.
Jordan, along with many other musicians who signed on to the project, was then surprised to learn that Urbina had also recruited many other musicians for the project. In many cases, Urbina even sent other musicians the exact same email that Benn Jordan received in May 2019. Urbina also frequently used his New York Times email address to contact musicians months later. having left the Times. Reportedly, Urbina also continued to present himself as a New York Times reporter long after he left the paper. According to Entrance storespokesperson for New York Times said they found Jordan’s allegations troubling and are “reviewing the matter.” To date, Ian Urbina Outlaw Ocean Music Project has published the work of over 400 musicians.
Two years later, Jordan says none of Urbina’s promises have materialized. “No Netflix series or promotion. No Google page. No real support from The New York Times or the book publisher,” says Jordan. While Spotify has built a podcast around Urbina Outlaw Ocean Project, the podcast does not seem to include or even mention the musical part of Urbina’s project. But unfortunately, the situation is even worse for many of the musicians involved.
At a minimum, under US copyright law, the author of a work owns 50% of the rights to the musical composition. However, according to the contract that Jordan and hundreds of other musicians signed with Synesthesia, Ian Urbina is considered a “co-author” of every piece of music produced for The Outlaw Ocean Music Project – an unusual title to claim for someone with Urbina’s role in producing this music. As co-authors, Urbina and the musician shared half of the author’s rights to the composition of the music, each leaving 25%. The remaining 50% of the composition goes entirely to Synesthesia for their role in editing the music. Under this arrangement, Urbina personally receives an equal share of music royalties as a musician. Today, Urbina is listed as co-author of over 2,000 songs.
Brian Trifon, another musician who worked with Urbina on the project, said Entrance store that he pushed back on the 50:50 writer’s split with Urbina before signing on, but that Urbina insisted the equal split was justified because of the years of work Urbina put into making his stories and collect recordings used in music.
However, apart from the music produced, Urbina is probably already benefiting from its journalistic investment. His book adaptation of the project is a New York Times bestseller, and Spotify is currently producing a series of podcasts about the project. Urbina’s Ocean Outlaw Project has also received funding from National Geographic, which selected Urbina as one of its 2020-2021 Storytelling Fellows, and Rockefeller Philanthropy. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix also reportedly purchased the production rights to a documentary series based on Urbina’s work, although no updates have been announced since the original purchase.
Looking into the label, Synesthesia, things get even weirder. It turns out that Synesthesia was created by Urbina himself to handle The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, which means that Urbina actually has the rights to 75% of the music composition – 25% as co-author and 50% via Synesthesia. Yet many musicians who have participated in Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean Music Project reported the same confusion that Jordan exposes in his video: that they didn’t know that Urbina had also created Synesthesia. According to a Synesthesia spokesperson, Urbina has been clear with all participating musicians from the start about its relationship with Synesthesia. “It’s a label that Ian started to manage the music project,” the spokesperson told Forbes via email.
Yet the harsh contractual arrangement not only means that Urbina, directly or through Synesthesia, receives 75% of the royalties from the musician’s work, it also means that musicians cannot republish work produced for The Outlaw Ocean Projector even an adaptation of the work, without both obtaining permission from Synesthesia and paying a license fee to the label.
In response to Jordan’s critical video, Synesthesia also released a statement calling the video inaccurate. “All the money that’s been made from the music goes back to the musicians or is used by Synesthesia to expand the reach of journalism by covering the costs of new albums.” But many participating artists contacted by Forbes said that was not how the project was portrayed when they signed on. Instead of being portrayed as an opportunity for musicians to support Urbina journalism, many musicians say Urbina initially portrayed the opportunity as a creative and collaborative endeavor.
To add salt to the wound, many of the project’s musicians say they have yet to receive any financial compensation for their work to date. A Synesthesia spokesperson acknowledged the issue in an email to Forbes and said the cash flow issue stemmed from issues with the project’s service provider, Naymlis. “Unfortunately, at Synesthesia, we have not seen any statements or payments [from Naymlis] in almost 3 quarters,” they said. Synesthesia says they are working to obtain information from Naymlis and are also taking steps to sever ties with the service provider.
While Urbina’s journalism on illegal activities on the high seas is unique, important and well-reported, Urbina’s efforts are currently funded, in part, by the work of hundreds of musicians, many of whom feel misled by Urbina. Urbina, for its part, published a blog on Sub-stack in response to Jordan’s video in which he said Jordan’s video was “totally inaccurate” and called the resulting social media criticism “mass trolling”. However, Urbina’s blog post provides no substantive response to any of Jordan’s claims. Instead, Urbina cites “legal reasons” for not commenting.