Did a Pulitzer Prize winning former NY Times reporter scam hundreds of musicians?

This is a deeply weird story about what is pretty clearly a scam by a very successful journalist named Ian Urbina. The start of the story goes back to 2015 when the Pulitzer Prize winning Urbina, published a series of article for the NY Times titled “The Outlaw Ocean.” A few years later he left the Times and published a book titled “

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.

So Urbina started reaching out to musicians and asking them if they’d consider partnering with him on this idea. One of the people he contacted was a Georgia-based musician named Benn Jordan. The pitch he made sounded very personal:

“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.”

So, notice upfront that he’s trading on his work for the NY Times even though, at this point, he was no longer working there. Then he’s suggesting that there won’t be upfront money but there could be a big payoff down the line. And to Benn Jordan, who is a moderately successful musician who has put out 16 albums of music, it sounded like a fun idea at first. He had a phone call with Urbina and said it felt as if the reporter was a fan of his work and wanted to partner with him on something special. And then he got the contract.

The contract sent to him specified that any music that was part of the project would be co-owned by the author of the music and Ian Urbina, a 50-50 split. The publishing and use of the music would be handled by Synesthesia Media, a record company that at the time didn’t even have a website. So if Netflix did decide to use the music, the royalties would be split 50-50 between the record company and the author. And since Ian Urbina was a 50-50 author of every tune, that meant the actual author could get, at most, 25% of any royalties.

But Jordan was still somewhat enthusiastic because he still believed he’d been hand-picked because Urbina was a fan of his work. But gradually he learned that there were other artists involved. At first it was a few, then a dozen. Eventually, Jordan learned that Urbina had contacted at least 462 musicians, offering each of them exactly the same spiel and the same contract. Many of these other musicians also wrongly assumed Urbina had reached out because he had some personal fondness for their work. Many felt they were being “discovered” when in fact they were being recruited to write music for free.

Meanwhile, two years have passed and none of the things Urbina dangled before musicians have happened. There is no Netflix show. There is no public concert. The artists received nothing for their work. But Ian Urbina has his name on over 2,000 songs written by other people. And any money generated by those songs goes to Synesthesia Media.

Who is Synesthesia Media? Jordan looked up the company’s business license and found it was connected to a home in Washington, DC. Who lives there? Sherry Rusher, Ian Urbina’s wife. Somehow, the fact that the record label handling all of this music was run by Urbina’s wife was never mentioned to Jordan or, apparently, to any of the 450+ other artists he made deals with.

And the result of all of this is that Benn Jordan, who has released 16 albums of music has 165,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. He says that earns him about $2,200 per month. Meanwhile, Ian Urbina, who has never written a single song so far as anyone knows, has 743,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. He could be pulling down as much as $10,000 a month off music he didn’t write.

And according to Jordan, Urbina isn’t done. He’s now contacting more artists and asking them to contribute to a new musical project celebrating Noam Chomsky. In this case there’s not even a published book to tie to this new project. It’s apparently just a way to get his name on a bunch of songs he didn’t write.

When Jordan’s video started making the rounds two weeks ago, Urbina’s initial reaction was hostile:

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.

But a few days later he admitted to some failures on his part:

In a response on Sunday, Urbina called the YouTube video that kickstarted the allegations “inaccurate,” and described his project as “something of real beauty and innovation.” He struck a more conciliatory tone on Tuesday. “[If] you convince artists to invest their time, brand, effort, audience, trust and creativity into your project, it’s important to communicate with them fully, ensure they get royalty statements and paid on time, answer their questions quickly,” Urbina wrote in a post on the Outlaw Ocean Music Project website. “I failed to do these things. The label I created to run the project and the subcontractor I hired to do these things also failed.”

More importantly, Urbina said he would return the ownership rights to any artists who wanted them back, essentially allowing people out of the contract they signed. That’s good but there’s still the question of the Spotify royalties that it seems mostly haven’t gone to authors of the music during the past two years. In the video below, Jordan suggests there may already be lawyers involved in sorting this out.

Anyway, watch the video below. This sounds like more than just poor communication to me. This sounds like a clever way to take other people’s work.

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