Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Urbina on navigating the music industry
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ian Urbina is charting a course for the non-profit Outlaw Ocean Music Project that includes navigating the choppy waters of the music business.
A guest post and podcast by Rutger Ansley Rosenborg from Chartmetric’s How Music Charts.
Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that produces investigative stories about human rights, environment, and labor concerns on the open seas.
Urbina’s reporting has earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News and a George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. He’s also been nominated for an Emmy Award, and several of his stories have been adapted into major feature films. Before joining The New York Times, Urbina was a Fulbright Fellow in Cuba, and he also wrote about the Middle East and Africa for various outlets including the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair.
On this episode, we talk to Urbina about The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, an offshoot of The Outlaw Ocean Project that’s “[a]imed at people who might not otherwise have encountered this reporting.” According to the project’s website, “[T]he music renders stories more viscerally, and delivers them to the public through different channels. The music project’s goal is to raise awareness and stoke a sense of urgency about the human rights, labor, and environmental abuses that occur at sea.”
As a self-described music industry novice, Urbina probably never expected to have to navigate such choppy waters once he set sail into the music business. In December 2021, Benn Jordan, who is also known as electronic composer The Flashbulb, uploaded a video that raised some misgivings he had about the Outlaw Ocean Music Project (to which he was invited to contribute but never actually a part of). That, in turn, led to a small social media firestorm and various articles published about the dispute.
Jordan’s mindset is totally understandable, because people and companies have long exploited the naivety and powerlessness of artists. Some common examples that artists experience:
- Pay-to-play schemes where the artist is effectively paying their own money in order to work, i.e., paying to get onto playlists or being financially responsible for any tickets that aren’t sold for a live show.
- Exposure schemes: “We can’t pay you, but you’ll get exposure.” If it’s a truly good opportunity, then maybe it makes sense, i.e., performing at the Super Bowl; however, the vast majority of cases are just exploitative.
Artists and musicians who have been at it for a while, like Jordan, recognize these schemes as “scams.” They’re not illegal, but they’re knowingly exploitative.
Unfortunately for Urbina, Jordan’s frustration found an outlet in The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, diverting from what Urbina originally wanted the project to bring attention to. Regardless where you come down on this debate, we tried to ensure that our conversation with Urbina was as transparent, nuanced, and fair as possible. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in how thorny the brambles of the walled garden of the music industry are. Hopefully, it’s also an exercise in how to have civilized discourse and debate, leaving room for growth for all perspectives.