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Some of the artists from journalist Ian Urbina's music project say they were misled


The Outlaw Ocean Music Project is this ambitious meld between music and reporting. Journalist Ian Urbina recruited hundreds of musicians across genres to make music inspired by his reporting on crimes and international human rights violations in international waters. But last month, one of the musicians asked to participate made his contract public. And at a time when many musicians are strapped for cash, it started a debate about fairness, transparency and music rights.

NPR's Andrew Limbong takes it from here.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Ian Urbina's got bylines in a lot of the heavy hitters. He's a former New York Times reporter. He's written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic. He was just on NPR in late November, talking about his reporting on secret militia-run prisons in Libya holding migrants.

IAN URBINA: The conditions are nothing short of awful.

LIMBONG: Which is why, when Benn Jordan, who makes music under the name The Flashbulb, got an email from Urbina asking to participate in the Outlaw Ocean Music project, Jordan paid attention.

BENN JORDAN: When I first read the email, I told some people that I - you know, oh, Ian Urbina, this New York Times journalist, contacted me. He's a Pulitzer Prize journalist, and he wants to work with me on this project and...

LIMBONG: To step back a bit. The project was conceived by Urbina in conjunction with his book "The Outlaw Ocean." Urbina says it was inspired by what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with "Hamilton" and hip-hop.

URBINA: Specifically taking a body of work, of reporting, of thought, of research, and then transforming it into another medium as a means of getting it in front of and consumed by a different demographic of folk.


LIMBONG: So artists, like Keep Shelly in Athens who you're hearing now, would make music inspired by Urbina's reporting. Ideally, you'd hear it and get interested to read more. There was another goal, too.

URBINA: Secondarily, and quite minorly, was this I think now quixotic ambition that if the musicians were also willing to give up a portion of their streaming revenue - a significant portion, 50% - then those pennies would then go to subsidize the cost of really expensive reporting.

LIMBONG: The economics of this project, making enough to invest in more reporting, never really panned out like that. And Urbina says, yeah, this is a big, big ask of musicians already economically hamstrung by the pandemic but a worthy charitable cause. Except not everyone saw it that way. Musician Benn Jordan, who's also a YouTuber, posted a video recently detailing what Urbina told him about the project.


JORDAN: I am doing this entire audio idea as 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.

LIMBONG: Along with some of the details of the contracts, which Urbina and getting writing credits for the music and the music rights belonging to Urbina's record label Synesthesia Media. Enough of it smelled funny to Jordan that he turned down the deal. But then other artists who did participate saw the video and went, wait a minute.

ANDREW HILL: Because it felt like I had been seen. Like, I felt like someone was finally talking about it.

LIMBONG: That's Andrew Hill from the group Ternion Sound, who did do an EP for the project. Hill says the band started talking to other musicians, and there was a sense of, hey, it's weird that Urbina has ASCAP credits on these songs, right? And it's weird that he used a New York Times email for this project, right? And it's weird how the royalties are shaking out here, right? Here's Hill's bandmate Jack Denny.

JACK DENNY: It never really felt very explicitly, like, something really wrong is happening here. It's always felt like it's riding that line, where maybe something could be a little bit manipulative in this, but also maybe it's just not necessarily working out.

LIMBONG: The hubbub got so big that Urbina apologized, reworked the royalty structure and allowed any of the artists involved to take their music back. Here's Urbina.

URBINA: All those things could have happened faster. I think those were the right things to do.

LIMBONG: He cops to not managing expectations clearly enough. But he says a vast majority of musicians do still believe in the original mission of the project and have chosen to stay on. Urbina's even got a second similarly structured music project in motion based on the works of philosopher Noam Chomsky. Benn Jordan says all of this - the back-and-forth between Urbina and the artists, and the artists feeling misled and the response to his video - it has less to do with Urbina and this project and more to do with a bigger issue that's actually common ground between journalists and musicians.

JORDAN: At the end of the day, it comes down to both of us creating something that's intangible and then trying to monetize it and trying to put value on it when nobody knows how to handle that still. The internet's been around for a long time, and we still have no idea how much intangible things, you know, are supposed to cost.

LIMBONG: And trying to figure that out is just the cost of doing business.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.