Fact-checking the Ian Urbina music royalties story
A complicated story with a simple moral: always hear both sides before judging.
So far as biases go, I really thought Christmas had come early. I was browsing Twitter on Saturday and came across a catnip story about a former NYT reporter using his credentials to bilk hundreds of musicians out of hard-earned royalties. Given the mission of this newsletter, I very much wanted it all to be true.
But then I did something dumb and started pulling at the threads of the story, which led to a weekend of phone calls and DMs and sifting through all the documents thrown my way by both sides instead of enjoying my time in Italy. I’m an idiot.
Anyway, I’ve broken down what I learned into two back-to-back stories here:
A 500-word TLDR summary version
A 3,500-word version with more details, footnotes, full context etc.
(There’s also a lot to glean from how other journalists covered this story, else how they interacted with it on Twitter. But that will need to be a sequel post.)
As I receive any corrections/updates here, I’ll add them in with clear edit marks ASAP.
The Short Version
As for what reporter Ian Urbina stands accused of, here’s a summary of the YouTube video that set this all off. It comes from the video’s creator, musician Benn Jordan:
Taking the main claims in order:
Did Ian make anyone believe they were the only artists contacted? If anyone beyond the first few of the 1,000+ artists contacted believed this, they weren’t reading Ian’s emails very carefully. While his vision scaled over time, he was open as he went.
Was it really a music royalty scam? Emphatically not. (People aren’t crazy for wondering if it was thanks to poor comms. But, well, accusations aren’t curiosity.)
Did Ian make false promises about promotion? He led his pitches with honeyed visions of best-case scenarios that, while plausible based on his deals at the time, were also pretty unlikely for each individual artist. While other things he shared should have tempered expectations, I can understand the over-selling charges.
Is Ian collecting all/most of their royalties? No. Though this one gets complicated, and mostly centers on a complex legal dispute. Ian seems to have zero financial interest anywhere, with a non-profit being the sole beneficiary of non-artist royalties. Though it’s true that the royalty splits are tilted towards donations, and that most artists have been in the dark about how much they’ve earned, along with what’s been withheld and why. As such, conspiracy filled then comms gap, where Ian is responsible for that comms gap, though where a legal dispute made comms tricky.
Did Ian lie about the label ownership? Not in any intentional way that I can tell. He has a long (and trivially googleable) history of being publicly explicit about his ownership. Though he did confuse a lot of people, in part because the structure is a bit confusing (the label is effectively just an extension of the non-profit).
Is the non-profit fake? Absolutely not. Benn just didn’t look hard enough for records. I verified them, had a board member confirm status, and was also provided with a copy of their most recent IRS filing. All very real, all pretty easy to confirm.
The story here from my perspective is really just:
A well-meaning journalist tried his hand as a music industry innovator and made a lot of rookie errors, compounded by some bad comms decisions.
A well-meaning musician tried his hand at journalism and made a lot of rookie errors, compounded by typical mob dynamics on social media.
While I don’t personally find those mistakes equal (I think the video was far more harmful to Ian than Ian’s missteps were to any of the musicians), the full version here is to give readers the context they need to allocate blame for themselves.
What seems beyond doubt though is that Urbina shouldn’t be forced to wear a scarlet asterisk next to his name. That his project went awry in multiple places, that he failed to see from the perspective of his artists, and that he communicated relatively poorly are all fodder for meaningful criticism, absolutely. But the “reporter scams artists” narrative on Twitter right now is fundamentally inconsistent with the evidence.
The Big Picture
To avoid getting lost in the trees here, I want to anchor what follows on a meta-point: this whole controversy could (and should) have been resolved with a phone call.
Benn exchanged a bunch of emails with Ian back in 2019, which ended up with Benn being let out of his contract. But then Benn made no contact in the intervening time, including leading up to the publication of his video last Thursday. It seems he heard about the legal dispute between Ian and the project’s distribution partner and that he took the latter’s side more or less at face value. He then opted to strike with a video instead of reaching out to Ian or his team for clarification or mediation.
Subjectively, I don’t think this was malicious. I chalk it up more to confirmation bias, where a less motivated person would have been more curious. But the end result was that the video was both prejudicial and deeply incorrect. While Benn went to lengths to repeatedly tell the viewer how unusually fair he was being, he failed to ensure real fairness by chasing or really seriously entertaining the opposing point of view.
His video’s headline:
And its opening monologue (with light length edits):
Did I ever tell you that scam where the New York Times journalist got hundreds and hundreds of musicians to promote his book on oceanic politics for free? … To this day, he’s … collecting royalties for over 400 artists across … pretty much every music streaming service—and he’s not even a musician.
These are concrete claims! While it’s true that Benn then tries to soften them as the video goes on, this is roughly the same tactic that Benn is accusing Ian of: leading with the most sensational version, then walking back to some more likely reality.
Except this is worse. Ian really had dialogue with Netflix and Spotify and Google about his music project, even those deals largely stalled along the way. But Ian himself isn’t the beneficiary of the non-artist royalties here!1 They flow through the distributor2 to Synesthesia (Ian’s label) directly to Outlaw Ocean (Ian’s non-profit) without Synesthesia retaining any profits. Ian doesn’t draw a penny from Synesthesia, and has a fixed salary deal with Outlaw Ocean that doesn’t factor any royalties.3
Anyway, I did what Benn didn’t and reached out to Ian. He answered 100% of my maybe two dozen questions, including all the invasive ones. While defensive at times, he put no obstacles in my way. He had staff pull all the data I asked for, including contract language, old artist FAQs, and an IRS form. While his public response has been lacking (we’ll get to that), I found him the opposite of withholding.
Mind that I was also provided with extensive emails and other inputs from various artists. My sense is that while these documents mostly don’t make the case the artists think they do, said folks are coming from a place of reasonable grievance—if mostly with larger industry norms. Creative folks are always being swindled for their time, which makes them sensitive to cases that smell like the pattern. While I think a closer look here mostly absolves Ian, I kinda get why his response to the video (which we’ll also get to) spurred them into a misguided campaign. But they were still more wrong than right, and I hope this story reminds all of the importance of slow belief.
Anyway, let’s get into each major category of concern, in this order:
Who/what is Synesthesia
Artists being kept in the dark
Contract fairness / unfairness
Synesthsia’s cost structure
The number of artists involved
Ian’s general overselling
Ian’s using a NYT email address
Ian’s response to the video
I. The Non-Profit
Another key anchor for me in understanding all this is how Ian feels about his non-profit, The Outlaw Ocean Project (legally “OO Project”).
The gist is that Ian left the NYT in 2019 to release a book that served as a cornerstone for a new ProPublica-esque outlet dedicated to reporting on “human rights and environmental abuses at sea globally”. For a sense of that reporting, see this recent banger of a story: The Secret Libyan Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe.
A few things became clear pretty quickly from talking to Ian:
He thinks this beat is super important
He thinks his non-profit does top work covering said beat
He conceived of the music project solely as a means of supporting that project
The idea that he has a personal financial interest in any of this is a bit confused (we’ll get to why in coming sections). He doesn’t stand to gain a penny. The non-profit does (i.e., an org that creates no-ads, no-paywall journalism on civically important stuff).
Now, this doesn’t ipso facto mean that the music project was a great idea or well managed! But Ian is clearly obsessed with the non-profit (in a way you kinda expect/want from founders), and his sins here clearly seem rooted in trying to advance a project he cares about, and not with enriching himself personally. None of the financial structures make sense otherwise.
This is where I have my biggest gripe with Benn: while his video surfaced some fair criticisms worthy of broad cultural discussion, not only did he frame Ian as the royalties recipient, but he raised doubts about whether the non-profit was even real!
I found confirmation of their tax-exempt status in like 90 seconds. Benn, likely unaware of where else to look for this info, just gave up way too early and assumed the worst. While I don’t think this means that people should stay in their lanes, they should certainly act with a certain self-awareness and caution when not in their lanes, because beginner mistakes can abound—and can be costly.
[EDIT: 2:30pm ET, Dec 7th: Outlaw Ocean posted a public copy of their 2020 IRS 990 form on their website at some point since this story first went out.]
Another accusation from the video is that Ian tried to obscure his ownership of the record label Synesthesia, presenting it in third-party terms in a deceptive way.
While I can kinda see where someone could briefly get this idea (Ian does in some emails refer to it without clarifying the relationship), it’s impossible for me to get from there to intentional deception—for the simple reason than Ian talks about his ownership of Synesthesia all the goddamn time.
On both Ian Urbina’s IMDb page as well as his Wikipedia page, we explicitly stated that Ian Urbina created Synesthesia Media. On his Wikipedia page it says: “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.”
Additionally, I have an email from early summer 2019 where Ian explicitly tells an artist that he’d funded Synesthesia with $50k of his book money.
Anyway, more to the point: Synesthesia (an LLC) isn’t some bucket of money that Ian or anyone else can dip their hands into. It’s essentially just an extension of the non-profit: any money it makes automatically deposits into the non-profit’s coffers.
III. Artist Transparency
The heart of this whole story is a contract dispute between Synesthesia and NAYMLIS (who ran distribution for the music project until recently).
Quoting from a statement supplied to me by Synesthesia:
As for how the funds were calculated or disbursed, that gets us into the territory of this contract dispute that we have referenced obliquely and about which we need to be very careful and sparse. But here are some basic facts: All streaming revenue from the project was routed to our service provider, Naymlis, whose job it was to provide musicians with their royalties and statements. Naymlis received the revenue from the music platforms and then was responsible for disbursing the payments to artists and Synesthesia.
Unfortunately, we at Synesthesia have not seen a single statement nor payment in nearly 3 quarters. Many artists have also not received their payments or royalty statements. We have been trying to get information on these matters from Naymlis, to no avail. We have also been, with help from lawyers, attempting to sever our ties with Naymlis. The frustrating reality is that we aren’t able to provide information that we don’t have.
Parse and weigh that how you will. I elected against asking NAYMLIS about the dispute, mostly because I wouldn’t have been competent to judge the two sides without an enormous investment of time that just isn’t worth it here.
What is clear though:
Artists have been in the dark as to their earnings. This was unfair to them, and doesn’t seem to have been all that well communicated by Synesthesia, which may explain why so many have joined the online chorus against Ian. If you aren’t sure how much money your music has made, when you’ll get it, or what’s being withheld (or why), you’re going to be a mix of upset and skeptical!
If Ian is being honest about NAYMLIS, I can understand why he likely felt that an unfair and out-of-nowhere video was like being suckerpunched while his hands were tied behind his back. It’s hard to respond at internet speed to accusations when you have to run everything through a committee of lawyers.
Anyway, I’m sorry to leave readers without clarity here. But this is the way with many legal tangles: it’s irresponsible for me to speculate about what I don’t know. To the degree that NAYMLIS is in the right, Ian’s sin is the worse. To the degree that Ian is in the right, he’s earned some vindication here. Hopefully more becomes public soon.
The NAYMLIS dispute aside, let’s imagine that artists were receiving royalties properly and did have full insight into them: are the terms of these contracts fair?
Well, the trick is establishing fair or unfair relative to what. For an established artist, giving away 75% of their sync rights and 50% of their master rights on top of paying for their own production is a terrible deal, even if they are getting modest paid marketing and some benefits from the project’s exposure. No one with real options would sign a label contract with those terms, and anyone who would is being exploited.
But this wasn’t a normal label contract. It was effectively a charitable donation with some amount of artist upside (if one of the tracks took off, or was optioned by Netflix, etc), where everything that didn’t go to the artist went to (in order): (a) NAYMLIS fees, (b) Synesthesia for cost recovery, (c) the non-profit to support further reporting.
That these deals were donation-heavy seemed abundantly clear from the contract and FAQs. And indeed many of the more established artists did press Ian on this point, to which he mostly seems to have replied (paraphrasing here): “yes, well either you want to support the project or you don’t”. That so many seemed to have signed the contract anyway and then later felt buyer’s remorse is not entirely on Ian (and has likely been amplified by the whole black box effect covered in the previous section).
It’s also worth noting that: (1) Synesthesia had already agreed to let all artists out of their contracts without penalty when they started their break-up with NAYMLIS4, (2) they’ve reiterated this deal in the recent aftermath.
V. Synesthesia’s Costs
Benn said in his video that it wasn’t clear to artists what costs Synesthesia was bearing for them, nor how payback worked. (He also suggested an absurd 98% effective keep rate based on a misinterpretation of a single statement5.)
My understanding is:
Synesthesia created album art and a promo video for each project, and did the admin work of interfacing with NAYMLIS. They assigned $100 for all this.
Synesthesia also did paid ad campaign for each release (up to $350).6
So these are real costs that Synesthesia needs to cover, where their payback would come from royalties via NAYMLIS. The artist’s share would be withheld until Synesthesia got their investment back, then it would proceed 50-50.
But, if Ian is telling the truth about NAYMLIS, then Synesthesia has been running negative cashflow for a while, not having seen payments coming in from NAYMLIS since July. And Synesthesia has still been incurring more costs for new artist releases over that time, which is putting them further in the red from a cashflow perspective. They won’t make a profit until their retained share of royalties recoups all their investments to-date. Using invented numbers here, $400 in costs x 250 artists whose royalties haven’t arrived yet would be $100k in accumulated “losses”.
Though these aren’t true losses, in that: (a) those royalties exist somewhere, and should materialize in some form as this legal dispute sorts itself out, and may be enough to cover investments to date, in which case any label profits will be de facto donations to the non-profit, (b) money invested into these artists is essentially a form of co-advertising for the non-profit, and we have to assign value there in terms of listeners hearing the music > visiting the non-profit’s site > making a donation.
That said, it’d sure be nice if artists had transparency on their royalties! And even if NAYMLIS is the villain, Synesthesia could have explained this all better and earlier.
We have this email excerpt (Ian to Benn), from Benn’s video, provided as proof positive of Ian being dishonest about the scale of artist involvement:
But if you actually read this in full, there’s an interpretive choice to make: do we index on “an artist” in the first paragraph (likely uncorrected from a much earlier draft) or on the explicit references to “some artists”, “others are doing an EP”, and “a variety of artists”? This seems like an easy one! It obviously wasn’t one or two or three.
Ian’s vision for the project clearly grew over time. We see that in the emails. Someone approached in March 2019 got a bit different of a pitch from someone approached in May 2019, which was different yet from someone pitched in 2020. My sense is that Ian was giving each person a sense of the project as it existed at the time, where early signers may have been more surprised (and hurt!) by the scope growth.7
That said, the total number of people that this would be applicable to was seemingly low, being limited to those approached in the project’s earliest days. Quoting from an FAQ provided to artists on May 7th, 2019 (emphasis mine):
The project […] brings artists from lots of different countries and genres together, giving each creator the space to create with their own aesthetic but all the music will help amplify each other by being a part of the same project.
(Incidentally, this same FAQ also says flatly: “Synesthesia Media is a music label Ian created to run this project.”)
Anyway, you can also look at archived versions of the project site going back to February 2020. The scale of the project has been clear for a while, and the vast majority of those who contributed would have known that.
The first rough problem here seems to be that Ian said competing things in each exchange: he’d tell artists about all the potential upside, while also disclosing the reality that this was essentially an experimental group project for a good cause.
I suppose our judgment here should follow whether we believe salespeople should only sell on the most likely reality without also selling plausible dreams? Lots lead with the dream and then walk back to reality during the pitch. However one feels about that tactic, it’s a very different thing from selling only the dream and then failing to invoke reality at all. And that doesn’t seem to be what happened here.
Though there’s also the related criticism that Ian was effectively telling 1,000+ artists “oh boy do I like your work” with copied/pasted messaging. Isn’t this bad?
As Ian explained it to me:
One of his staffers would recommend artists
He’d listen to them and filter out the ones he didn’t vibe with
He’d then email the ones he liked
I think this was still bad, particularity because some of his templates said he’d been their fans for a while when obviously that wasn’t true. That said, it’s also a pretty relative sin. I assume most agents at least somewhat oversell their personal interest in their clients’ music. While I don’t think it’s a winning long-term strategy, and while I wouldn’t do it or feel great about it myself, it doesn’t seem especially unethical.
One line of accusation is that Ian emailed many of these artists from his @nytimes.com account. Whether this violates NYT policy, I don’t know. They’re apparently looking into it and will rule how they rule.
That said, it seems common practice for at-large / emeritus / contributing reporters to use official newspaper addresses when there’s something to gain from it (in this case avoiding spam filters and proving non-impersonation). Using said address to sign up artists to create music to help fund a non-profit newspaper covering an important beat feels…fine? Like I could see where maybe it violates the letter of some policy. But conceptually it seems no big deal, and the NYT did financially benefit from it.8
As to whether Ian identified himself in any emails as a NYT reporter in the present tense after formally leaving to do Outlaw Ocean full-time, I didn’t see any cases.9 That said, they may exist. And if someone has one, Ian should account for his error in judgment. Though even there, I doubt that updating his copy/paste spiel from “New York Times reporter” to something like “former New York Times reporter” next to all his other credentials was likely to change anything for anyone. The email address itself was more valuable to his efforts than whether that line in his bio was past or present tense, and it was mainly valuable to speed things up and avoid spam filters.
[EDIT: 2:30pm ET, Dec 7th: Someone on Twitter tagged me with an example of Ian referring to himself as an NYT reporter in the present tense after his departure. I stand by my general thoughts about above, but thought it right to add that in.]
If your first contact with this story was on Twitter, you’ll have noticed approximately a million people talking about being blocked by Ian and how this is some proof of guilt.
His accounting for this was something like:
He’s a boomer (well, Gen X, but in Twitter terms)
He’d been getting nasty messages, some mentioning his wife (because of Benn’s video, though I don’t think Benn intended that particular outcome)
He’d never experienced something like this, and didn’t really know what to do
He was pretty angry, as he felt the whole thing was terribly unfair
He kneejerked (and maybe got some bad advice)
Compounding this, he felt handcuffed by the legal fight with NAYMLIS, and could only respond at the speed of lawyer-approved language on a weekend.
Even so, bad response! But the “even so” is meaty there. Until you’ve been through this (I was once in 2019), it’s easy to judge. He reacted poorly, yes. But most do.
Anyway, I want to close with one of Benn’s tweets:
Running a record label is hard, and Ian fucked up along the way. His feelings on the video and what followed notwithstanding, I think Ian should apologize: artists trusted him, and ended up in the dark as to royalties, and were generally hurt at his approach. That’s on him. By that same logic though, Benn also fucked up. Good journalism is hard! Benn rushed in without understanding how to do full due diligence, and was a little too excited in his framing to his viewers. I hope he apologizes too.
[EDIT: 2:30pm ET, Dec 7th: Ian posted an apology to Synesthesia’s Twitter page.]
Subscribe to my newsletter I guess, if you like overly exhaustive recaps of Twitter drama where the author doesn’t even get the payoff of dunking on the New York Times. Or maybe just go outside instead, like I didn’t all weekend.
Incidentally, he claims this is also true for book royalties. I’d wondered, given how all the music references his book (which shares a name with the non-profit), if this project had materially impacted sales. He says book sales had already spiked well before the first music release (January 2020), and that he’s nowhere near royalty territory anyway. (Theoretically if he were to ever recoup his advance, he’d get new royalty flow, which he could keep.) While I didn’t verify this with the publisher (just for time reasons), it seems normal/plausible.
Well more exactly they haven’t been, or at least that’s Synesthesia’s position in the dispute. While I take no side, the rough idea is that Synesthesia says the distributor, NAYMLIS, has been a black box of information for both Synesthesia and the artists, and that royalty flows stopped earlier this year, leading to a forced breakup. NAYMLIS’s position, as presented by Benn in the video, seems to be that they haven’t been paid properly by Synesthesia.
Technically the salary deal is with a different entity, as a large grant came before Outlaw Ocean got their tax-exempt status. So he has a multi-year salary deal with money that spiritually belongs to Outlaw Ocean, but that isn’t housed there. He claims to otherwise draw no salary or any other financial benefits from either Outlaw Ocean or Synesthesia While it’s true in some vague way that the music recordings lead to revenues to the non-profit that sort of pays his salary, it’s all just way too indirect to be a financial scheme on his part. It would be about the dumbest and least profitable and most “yes officer this guy right here robbing the children’s hospital in broad daylight” kind of crime.
Someone brought up to me that these release contracts included a (what I consider standard) non-disparagement clause. I’ve confirmed that this is true, though I think some calling it a “gag order” is confused. I don’t think it was anything other than boilerplate legal language. Even so, Synesthesia removed the clause for their revamped release contract.
His mistake was that the artist in question had just finished their payback, and had thus only just entered the distributed royalties phase of their contract. So it was a 98%+ split to that point, because of cost recovery. In future statements there wouldn’t have been any remaining payback, and their share for masters royalties would have been 50%.
This is apparently dropping to $200 in standard spend in the post-NAYMLIS standard deal (from a $200-$350 range), plus $100 in Synesthesia operating costs. So $300 total. Each artist will have $150 in their royalties withheld to pay back 50% of these expenses (after which they get all their royalties from then on), with Synesthesia repaying themselves the other half from their share, then forwarding any further income per project into the nonprofit. (For NAYMLIS-era artists who stay on for the new distributor, all are being treated as owing $0 in payback for Synesthesia’s initial spend, regardless of whether their royalties have actually paid it back. All will just get their full share immediately for new royalties.)
As to the question of whether Ian should have kept all signed artists current on his expanded vision as he went, I land on yes, in that attention/opportunity dilution was an obvious concern from the artists’ POV (where Ian was preoccupied with what seemed best for the project as a whole). That said, those who objected were allowed out without penalty. The problem seems to be those (like Benn) who invested mental energy into drafting thematically-specific music that they then abandoned. But the absolute number of artists who might fit this category was a small % of the whole from what I can tell.
Lots of his emails linked out to a series of articles he wrote for the NYT. This traffic generated ad revenue for them, and likely a few subscriptions.
More exactly, I’ve been writing this draft for like two days and I don’t want to go back and check because I just don’t care anymore. It’s just too irrelevant.