A brazen, complex web of fuckery
December 4, 2021 6:57 AM   Subscribe

 
I didn't really feel like watching a video (sorry) and googled around trying to understand this story, eventually finding a tldr by the video author posted on reddit:
Ian Urbina, author and famous journalist (NYTimes, Atlantic, etc) contacted thousands of musicians through interns, many of whom were led to believe they were the only musicians contacted, to recruit them for, what I believe to be through evidence I show in the video, a music royalty scam where he promised mainstream media, Netflix, Spotify, and live tour promotion which never occured, but now collects the majority of their Spotify earnings for the project under a record label he created, but insinuated was a 3rd party company he was working with. This is still going on with allegedly over 600 artists and thousands of songs involved, and now he's using Noam Chomsky's name to recruit even more musicians for a new project and collecting donations for a "non-profit" that doesn't appear to be publicly registered.
Maybe helpful to others as well. The whole thing kind of reminds me of a variant of the don't accept percentage of net profits thing in movies.
posted by advil at 7:17 AM on December 4, 2021 [48 favorites]


I don't usually watch videos like this but my husband is a musician so I went ahead and clicked on this one. It's only about 20 minutes and it's very engaging and I am shocked that Urbina is getting away with *waves hand* all of this.
posted by cooker girl at 7:39 AM on December 4, 2021 [13 favorites]


The number of musicians who got suckered into this (despite all the red flags that it paid exposure bucks) I think speaks to the desperation of a lot of musicians who were willing to ignore those flags because this project with a nytimes reporter could be their “big break”. So predatory.

My “favorite” thing is how all the tracks have dual authorship even if Urbina didn’t do a darn thing. Maybe this is his way of breaking into a music career.
posted by getao at 7:48 AM on December 4, 2021 [16 favorites]


Waiting for the podcast series.
posted by markbrendanawitzmissesus at 7:49 AM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


Benn Jordan is unbelievably fair in this, good luck to anyone trying to claim slander. He even promotes the book and NYT series!

An extremely long lo fi playlist inspired by a book on the oceans and incorporating field recordings sounds pretty cool and it sucks that it's (apparently) a scam.
posted by subdee at 8:00 AM on December 4, 2021 [8 favorites]


What a scam. Urbina might be legally "safe" from claims by artists due to the contracts. However, I do wonder how the companies whose names he uses (expecially the NYT) will react to being used in a scam like this?
posted by Kosmob0t at 8:02 AM on December 4, 2021 [7 favorites]


The way Synesthesia Media is described on Urbina’s Wikipedia page is, uh, something else:
In 2019, Urbina created Synesthesia Media, which specializes in mixing mediums. In its first project, the firm functioned as a music label and recruited hundreds of musicians from more than 80 countries.[43] As part of The Outlaw Ocean Music Project,[44] these artists ranged in genre from classical and ambient to electronic and hip hop.[45] Each musician made their own album, inspired by the book and using field recordings that Urbina collected while reporting the book. The project's stated goal is to serve as an experiment in translation, converting journalism into music, while also disseminating the reporting more broadly, especially to younger demographics globally. The project has been widely reviewed by NPR, Billboard magazine, GQ, San Francisco Classical Voice, The Pulitzer Center and elsewhere.[46][47] Among the musicians participating in the project, is the Italian composer and pianist Alessandra Celletti with the album entitled Heroes.[48]
I added the various reference links because some of them are, uh … as uh as the whole thing.
posted by Kattullus at 8:22 AM on December 4, 2021 [7 favorites]


So, sorry if this is a bad question but is the idea that the scam is motivated by profit in his free time rather than some NY Times journalism goals? Like it's not a stunt he did in preparation for some scrolling JavaScript feature revealing the flaws of streaming music royalties etc.?
posted by johngoren at 8:25 AM on December 4, 2021


I was surprised to hear that this gentleman makes $2200/mo on Spotify, with the implication being that the scam could easily bring in a larger sum. (he says that around 14:00). Granted, this is for 16 albums, but most accounts of streaming royalties cite much smaller numbers.
posted by anhedonic at 8:33 AM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]


From the video interview with the Pulitzer Center referenced on Wikipedia, it seems like Urbina thought it would be a good way to fund his reporting project. He starts describing the music project at about 2:45.
posted by Kattullus at 8:37 AM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


advil, thanks for the summary. I almost never watch news videos. You can't skim a video.
posted by FencingGal at 8:52 AM on December 4, 2021 [19 favorites]


This is genuinely depressing, as far as I'm concerned. Ian Urbina is a really good journalist, and he's committed to covering topics that are important, hard and expensive to research, and that aren't necessarily an easy sell to major news outlets. The New York Times is not, under ordinary circumstances, going to assign a reporter to do in-depth coverage of labor exploitation among maritime workers, who are one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in the world. And it just really sucks that he seems to have tried to fund this work through his own exploitative labor scheme.

(Full disclosure: I knew him a little bit years ago, although not well, and had the general impression that he was a good guy.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2021 [19 favorites]


Granted, this is for 16 albums, but most accounts of streaming royalties cite much smaller numbers.

I was puzzled by this for a while too but it's worth keeping in mind that probably, the level of extortionism in the contracts here is (as described) worse but not that much worse than a typical label contract -- the labels/publishers are by far taking most streaming revenue. Possibly less extreme splits, though it's hard to find very real numbers. It doesn't seem possible for anyone aside from labels/producers (and spotify itself) to make much money on services like spotify, and the labels/producers do it because of extortionate contracts with artists (also relying on % of net profits), and bulk. This situation reuses both of those ideas. It's a lot more than 16 albums: the video says 400 artists, not 16. If you divide out 2200* by 400, and then take 15% of that (a typical extortionate normal contract, from what I understand), and then add in mechanical royalties direct from spotify, you're closer to the neighborhood of what many artists report earning. Also, they are all on bandcamp and other distribution methods so it's not just spotify.

* It seemed a bit unclear to me that anyone actually knows what Urbana is really making though? I missed where the $2200 number came from and can't find it in the video transcript. In the reddit thread I linked someone estimates $7k(!), but this is probably based on an unrealistic number of streams as was pointed out there.
posted by advil at 9:09 AM on December 4, 2021 [4 favorites]


As I understand it Benn makes 2200 from his own albums. I don't know much about him but he seems like a guy who releases his own music and has his own publishing company.

His point is that Urbina has much more streams, takes all the money from them except for a lousy 1,3 % that goes to the actual artist that made the music.
posted by Kosmob0t at 9:17 AM on December 4, 2021


The ends (journalism) justify the means (exploitation).
posted by njohnson23 at 9:21 AM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


I missed where the $2200 number came from and can't find it in the video transcript.

It's here:

14:07 listeners on spotify and from spotify i
14:10 make about 2200 a month give or take ian
14:13 urbina on the other hand has written and

I wonder if he uploaded his own transcript, since I'd be very impressed if automatic captioning would've successfully converted "twenty-two hundred" to "2200".
posted by clawsoon at 9:32 AM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


is the idea that the scam is motivated by profit in his free time rather than some NY Times journalism goals

It sounds like he's using the money to fund his 'Outlaw Ocean Project', which is an independent reporting outfit. It's not like money grows on trees for things like that, so maybe from his point of view it's going to a good cause. But according to Benn, it's not a registered nonprofit so you'd have to take that on trust.

And none of this was presented to the artists as a charitable donation of their time and effort, if it had been "let's record a charity album to fund our reporting" that would be one thing, but instead it was... this.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:32 AM on December 4, 2021 [11 favorites]


I'd be very impressed if automatic captioning would've successfully converted "twenty-two hundred" to "2200".

Google's speech-to-text model seems to like to convert numbers if it recognizes them. I just tried that on my Android phone and it comes out with "2200." It works with a lot of other numbers too ("twenty two hundred fifty four" produces "2254", "twenty-two thousand three hundred fifty seven" likewise.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:36 AM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


t's here:

14:07 listeners on spotify and from spotify i
14:10 make about 2200 a month give or take ian
14:13 urbina on the other hand has written and


Aha yeah -- I'm pretty sure that what Kosmob0t said is right: that's what Benn Jordan (the video author) makes, not what Urbana makes. (I just misread earlier I think.)
posted by advil at 10:00 AM on December 4, 2021


Here's an example of the stuff that the Outlaw Ocean Project is funding: a New Yorker article from last week about how the EU is conspiring with Libyan authorities to have the Libyan Coast Guard pick up boats full of migrants who are attempting to get to Europe. The migrants are then detained in secret prisons that are basically extortion rackets: the detainees are kept in unspeakable conditions with almost no contact with the outside world, and the only way out is to get their relatives to pay a ransom.

(If you'd like the very abbreviated version, here's an NPR interview with Urbina.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:04 AM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]


Tangentially, I'll note that on a number of occasions I have commissioned musicians to write songs to promote new/upcoming books of mine, including Jonathan Coulton, Ted Leo and William Beckett (of The Academy Is...) among others. I give them the text of the book and a vague idea of what I'm looking for in terms of the song, but otherwise give them no direction. The agreement is that I can have a non-exclusive licence to use the song to market the book (I usually create a static YouTube video for ease of embedding), but that I claim no ownership, and that all rights and proceeds from the song go to them (and/or whomever else they collaborate with for the song). And, of course, I pay them a commissioning fee, upfront.

Also tangentially, I've had my share of people asking me to "collaborate" with them for projects with promise of exposure and backend revenue. I usually delete the emails unanswered. Life is too short.

I can't speak to Urbina's mindset on this, but I can say as a writer, i.e., a member of a class which endemically finds itself cash-poor and its labor underappreciated by those who wish to exploit it commercially, he should have known better.
posted by jscalzi at 10:20 AM on December 4, 2021 [43 favorites]


This is a good video. One my favorite artists on Bandcamp made an EP for the project (the rapping is awkward but the music is soo good!), but it did seem a bit odd to feature the book so prominently. It makes a lot more sense in context.

Benn Jordan makes good music, too! Compositions for Piano is gorgeous. (thanks for introducing me to his YouTube channel)

Regardless of whether the Outlaw Ocean project is a good cause (it sounds like it is, frankly), this does sound like a pretty sleazy way to raise money.
posted by ropeladder at 10:37 AM on December 4, 2021 [5 favorites]


Sad that the music business is such sleaze that no one can clearly tell what ethical practices should be

You know, I wonder if there s a journalism project for that....
posted by eustatic at 10:41 AM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


What's the union density for AFM? How many locals does AFM have?
posted by eustatic at 10:43 AM on December 4, 2021


Hate to be "that person", but is there a story somewhere that I can read about this? A 20 minute video is unappealing (and this sounds very interesting).
posted by Ahmad Khani at 11:35 AM on December 4, 2021 [5 favorites]


Youtube has an auto transcript feature these days. It's hidden in the three-dot menu icon to the right of "share" and "save" and only displays in a tiny box, timestamp by timestamp, but it's something. There are probably various browser extensions that can automatically grab that transcript and give it to you in a nicer format.
posted by one for the books at 11:57 AM on December 4, 2021


I'm a fan of Benn for years and saw this the other day. If you follow his twitter you'll see the fallout.

Plenty of people have now been blocked by Urbina when they ask about it (artists who basically were scammed by him) and apparently Urbina now got Peter Gabriel pushing his shit.

Benn is so fair and kind in these videos (he's done one re: a particular synth maker whose name I shall not repeat for their reputation as... sue-happy pieces of shit)... He called them out and was very nice.

IDK if he's doing the "nice guy" thing because he knows it's gonna make the assholes look extra bad (I mean he IS a nice guy - super swell!) But - it's hard for me to believe he's so naive in the sense of giving benefit of the doubt so I wonder if that's part of a ploy... Giving them that, and then letting them fuck it up.

Benn's a great asset to the synth community - along with all the other great synth tubers. Love this group of people and that they're generally looking out for each other.

I hope Ian comes clean. Until he started to block people on Twitter I could still see Benn having a point with the benefit of doubt but with everyone getting blocked it sure smells fishy - like - like Hakarl stench.
posted by symbioid at 12:05 PM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]


And the whole Pet Shop Boys "Money" thing he's got going on "I won't pay you , you can do all the work."

The worst part is all the people who have come up to Benn and told him they joined the project because he literally used Benn's name in emails (and now I wonder if he's gonna start trying to use Peter Gabriel this way)... Such a scammy thing.
posted by symbioid at 12:07 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


Here is a statement from Synesthesia Media that Urbain just re-tweeted:
The video is inaccurate. The goals of the music project are to amplify the journalism, to highlight the topics covered in Outlaw Ocean stories, and, if possible, to develop additional funding to support more reporting. These goals have been clear from the outset. Neither Synesthesia nor lan Urbina have made any profit from the music. All money that has been earned from the music either goes back to musicians or is used by Synesthesia to broaden the reach of the journalism by covering the costs of new albums. The video incorrectly claims that The Outlaw Ocean Project is not a 501 (c)(3). In fact, the non-profit is registered under the name The 00 Project Inc.

We deeply value our artist relationships. We have always wanted our partners to share our vision. To ensure this remains the case, we have communicated to our artists that if any of them no longer wish to dedicate a portion of the streaming revenues to the project, we will release them from this agreement and direct 100 percent of all such revenues to the artist. We are committed to the idea of journalists and musicians working together to bring more attention to the important topics we cover. Please also consult this page on our website: https://www.theoutlawoceanmusic.com/faqs/
posted by Ahmad Khani at 12:54 PM on December 4, 2021 [4 favorites]


A statement from Synesthesia Media.

It, uh … doesn’t answer much, except saying it’s registered as a non-profit.
posted by Kattullus at 12:55 PM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


He can make statements all he wants. He's blatantly putting his name to songs he didn't write like some evil rock manager from the 70's. Never thought I'd see this kind of stuff happening in modern times.

The contract Benn showed is also one giant red flag to people who know just a tiny bit about the music business.
posted by Kosmob0t at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2021 [11 favorites]


Seems like this call-out was effective, since Urbina is now following exactly the advice offered by Benn Jordan (allow any artists who are not happy with the arrangement to exit their contracts).
posted by subdee at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2021 [9 favorites]


Hate to be "that person", but is there a story somewhere that I can read about this? A 20 minute video is unappealing (and this sounds very interesting).

Funny you should say that. Benn Jordan is now very upset that Tressie McMillan Cottom asked someone on Twitter to tell her what was in the video. He got all pissy at her despite (he claimed) being a fan of her work. And, of course, he turned her mentions into a trashfire because that's what happens to black women on Twitter.

Apparently the fact that someone got the information in a way that didn't involve watching the video is hugely offensive, and matters more than the fact that the story got told.

Twitter, man. It sucks.
posted by suelac at 2:19 PM on December 4, 2021 [15 favorites]


and apparently Urbina now got Peter Gabriel pushing his shit.
By "pushing his shit," are you referring to the fact that Peter Gabriel tweeted out Urbina's article about the EU's secret policy of colluding with Libyan authorities to divert would-be migrants to a network of secret torture/extortion prisons? Because honestly, that's a really important article, uncovering systemic human rights abuses that are being perpetrated by very powerful government entities, and people should be talking about it. Is there some way that we can simultaneously address Urbina's shady record-label shenanigans and also refrain from brigading people who want to acknowledge Urbina's reporting on really crucial and under-reported topics?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:35 PM on December 4, 2021 [15 favorites]


Jordan in fact is a big fan of Urbina’s regular work and makes a big deal of that fact at the end of his video.

The Tressie McMillan Cottom conflict is indeed some sad twitter stuff — feels like a mismatch in twitter cultures plus jerk reply ppl. Ugh.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:22 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


Holy shit. One of the artists please sue the living fuck out of them and make them produce the accounting for every fucking dollar of business expense they charge to each of the artists. Then package the whole lot up and send it to the AGs of every state he's swindled a musician in because I guarantee you his expense accounting is dirty af.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 3:53 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


Editor,

Ian Urbina is good enough of a journalist for you to afford to send him to pavement on your own dime.

###

Ian Urbina,

It's always easier to laugh when no one's under contract. Consider hosting your own masterclass. I bet there are people who would pay you so much money, you wouldn't even have to trouble them with the idea of a resource proposition. Also, check out radio.
posted by parmanparman at 6:28 PM on December 4, 2021


The entire history of the popular music industry -- worldwide and in the US -- starts with the theft of oral traditional cultural property (a concept of almost no legal utility until recently and in limited contexts) through its conversion into legally exploitable intellectual property via transcription and recording. I was very glad to see Jordan pause on the casual appropriation of "chanting Cambodian boys" as if it were simply a feature of the "natural" soundscape you're simply "recording," rather than a product of human musical agency and intention surreptitiously you're actually taking an image of, without consent. But that process has created the profit motive for a great swindle that goes back to the dawn of recording as the intermediate mode of transduction between someone else's musical culture and creative property and your legally owned exploitable asset.

Pretty much the musical version of settler colonialism.
posted by spitbull at 7:38 PM on December 4, 2021 [6 favorites]


Fascinating that there's a new post here on The Blue about that Urbina article on the Libyan immigrant detention centers. He gave a presentation about it at Pop-Up Magazine a few weeks ago, and his reporting bravery (he says he was captured and held by Libyan military forces for several days) sounds uncommon.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:02 PM on December 4, 2021


This scam isn't unique, but how did a reputable NYT journalist who does actual journalism even conceive of it let alone get all the necessary pieces (the research, the interns, the contract, the way to approach artists) pieces right? That's the weirdest thing about this whole enterprise. Like Benn said in the video, it's not like Urbina was in a basement somewhere trying to come up with new ways to screw artists.

Does this guy know someone in the music industry? Did he have help? Is there someone else getting a cut?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:33 AM on December 5, 2021 [7 favorites]


This has continued to develop; Urbina blocked most of the artists on twitter who were asking questions about this, posted a faq that addresses some of the questions (including explicit info about the non-profit in question, which seems to be entirely distinct to the record label), NYTimes added "former" to their bio for him. A twitter thread from Benn Jordan on the newly posted faq: https://twitter.com/bennjordan/status/1467340738887303168.

we can simultaneously address Urbina's shady record-label shenanigans and also refrain from brigading people who want to acknowledge Urbina's reporting on really crucial and under-reported topics?

It's hard to see any evidence of brigading happening in this thread, in fact that's a pretty wild accusation.

I guess the larger question is whether all of this discredits Urbina's other work, and to what degree. Unfortunately to me it does. Someone who is willing and able to pull off this scam, I do not think is to be fully trusted to do reliable reporting. I have no idea how to assess degree though.
posted by advil at 7:59 AM on December 5, 2021 [5 favorites]


It's hard to see any evidence of brigading happening in this thread, in fact that's a pretty wild accusation.
Someone mentioned that Peter Gabriel was "pushing [Urbina's] shit," so I went to see what the poster was talking about. It turned out that Peter Gabriel had tweeted out Urbina's New Yorker article about alleged collusion between the EU and forces in Libya, collusion that has resulted in really serious human rights abuses. And there are 15 responses to that tweet, all of which chastise Peter Gabriel for linking to the article. One of them links to the YouTube video and says that it, rather than Urbina's article, is the "real story," which seems remarkably tone deaf, given the stakes involved in the Libyan prisons article. That feels like brigading to me. I guess your mileage may vary. But seriously: it sounds like Urbina behaved appallingly, and I think that when everything comes out there are probably going to be some serious consequences for his career and reputation, but I also think that people are maybe being caught up in an internet outrage cycle. And I get the appeal of internet outrage cycles, especially when you identify with the wronged party, but I am not sure that it's a particularly useful way to deal with this particular situation.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:42 AM on December 5, 2021 [7 favorites]


A twitter thread from Benn Jordan on the newly posted faq: https://twitter.com/bennjordan/status/1467340738887303168.

"In addition, if you want, I'll consult you regarding playlist organization, licensing, and utilizing smart contracts and blockchain to make all of this much easier to manage fairly."

absolutely not, do not pass go, this is the equivalent of fighting a tire fire with more tires and/or more fire, the legal status of "smart contracts" is unbelievably shaky
posted by BungaDunga at 9:55 AM on December 5, 2021 [2 favorites]


Seems Urbina is pleading a "trolling campaign."
posted by BungaDunga at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


> absolutely not, do not pass go, this is the equivalent of fighting a tire fire with more tires and/or more fire, the legal status of "smart contracts" is unbelievably shaky

And even if they pass legal muster, the code underlying them is often riddled with exploitable bugs.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


Input Mag: Did a former ‘New York Times’ reporter exploit musicians for his personal gain?
Meanwhile, Urbina has blocked artists who’ve raised concerns about the issue on Twitter, including Jordan. “The guy’s blocked hundreds of people,” says Jordan. Yet Urbina still looks at Jordan’s Instagram stories, the musician says. “His way of dealing with this is just asinine,” says Jordan, who adds that he thinks Urbina had been just hoping the issue would go away.

But for Jordan, and the other artists who feel they’ve been scammed, it’s unlikely to. “I just run into the confusion: What was the deal here? Did you think nobody was going to buy your book and just panicked? I can’t make sense of it,” Jordan says. “I’m like, is it possible that person is that deceptive? This guy’s really established and had so much going for him. Why would he be deceiving a bunch of electronic and hip-hop musicians? It just seems like a weird direction.”

Jordan, however, still admires Urbina’s journalism, even if he’s baffled about how the situation turned out. “It’s another one of those things that’s just fascinating to me,” Jordan says. “Why would you put all that at risk for something as trivial as Spotify royalties, which are probably the worst way you can make money in 2021?”
posted by BungaDunga at 10:24 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


it's one thing to have someone ask if you'll create something for them with no money up front. Happens all the time. But it's an entirely different proposition to be asked to create something with no compensation up front AND to be asked to sign away all the rights and control over what you have created. That's one big-ass red flag.
posted by Dean358 at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2021 [2 favorites]


One theory on the motivation - if his wife is actually involved in the project, and she were an aspiring music person, this would make some sense.

To be fair, there is very little evidence of her involvement. (If I remember correctly, Synesthesia was registered to an address that turned out to be a house that is in his wife's name, and that's it.) But "I'll do my thing, and you can do your thing and hook it to my thing, and together we'll build something cool" is a very plausible plan for a married couple to make.
posted by anhedonic at 10:44 AM on December 5, 2021


I have a lifelong interest in seahorses, and in that time, have met people like Urbina. Something about seahorses attracts these types, and they’re always like this. Big, bold, exaggerated claims, mealy mouthed defenses, misleading those they want something from, promising exposure, taking IP think they can get away without being caught, believing their mission outweighs any criticisms of; a mission that they conveniently draw a salary from that involves them doing luxury activities. (There are legitimate non-profits, but there are some really sketchy ones in that space).

It all stinks, from the multiple companies, to references about others involvement to build credibility. It’s not a communication problem, it’s a deception by plausible deniability problem.

Also my hunch is that Urbina is a bonafide narcissist (NPD). It just reads that way. It’s not fair of me to say that as purely conjecture, but I am. I also bet this starts to unravel a shitshow of other problems, and it’s going to undermine what is actually important work.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:44 AM on December 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


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