Benn Jordan was flattered when he scanned his inbox.
Jordan is a musician who records and performs under various pseudonyms, most famously as The Flashbulb. His music is best described as electronica with occasional hints of modern jazz, and while he has become pretty successful, he hasn’t headlined any big festivals yet. So when a fawning email from a New York Times reporter arrived, he took note.
“An odd question from a newspaper reporter,” the subject read. It was addressed to Jordan’s booking agent, who had forwarded it to him. “My name is Ian Urbina, and I work for The New York Times,” Urbina wrote. “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. I’ve been a fan of Benn’s for a while. My idea concerns using music to empower storytelling.”
Intrigued, Jordan wrote back and said he wanted to hear more.
Urbina told him that the idea was to create a soundtrack for his forthcoming book. “By that, I don’t mean putting music behind the audiobook. Instead, I mean teaming up with an artist to create music that tells stories and conveys the feelings and issues in the book,” Urbina replied. He described the endeavor as a passion project, though he added that Spotify was doing a podcast related to the book and that Netflix and Knopf, a publisher, would likely promote the music venture since they were working on book tie-ins.
“The album would assuredly get a lot of attention and recognition, if only because it has never been done before,” Urbina wrote, offering a phone call.
Jordan took him up on it, and the two had a long conversation, during which Jordan recalls Urbina sketching out how the business side of the arrangement would work. A record label called Synesthesia Media would distribute the album, and the company had budgeted $50,000 for marketing. In exchange, Synesthesia Media would collect 50 percent of sales and streaming royalties.
Jordan was thrilled to have been singled out by Urbina, and he signed on.
But after the initial buzz wore off and he contemplated the contract further, Jordan began to sour on the deal. Urbina wasn’t promising much—he was offering a library of sound samples he had collected in the course of his reporting. If Jordan signed on, he could use them, but in exchange, Urbina would claim 50 percent of any song’s copyright and royalties. To Jordan, that seemed like a lot. Too much, in fact. Jordan would come to regret the deal, calling it “a huge waste of valuable time.” He wouldn’t be the only musician to feel that way.
Urbina has since undone many of the contract terms that had Jordan and other artists up in arms, but the story highlights just how music streaming—along with the Internet’s tendency to reward dominant platforms—has breathed new life into a music marketing scheme that’s almost as old as the industry itself, David Lowery told Ars. Lowery would know—he’s been in the music business for decades, having founded the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and he’s currently a senior lecturer in the University of Georgia’s music business program.
“This stuff has happened before, but I find it’s more common now,” Lowery said. “It’s literally the centralization of stuff, whether it’s on the rights holder side, the consolidation of radio, or the Internet, which wants like one or two of everything,” he said. “Because so many structures that we have now are centralized this way and either directly or indirectly flips a lot of the risk back on the workers or the producers of goods.”
Recording artists today, especially those not signed with major labels, bear the vast majority of financial risk for making music. For some, like Jordan, the desire to get their music in front of more people can lead them to sign deals they otherwise wouldn’t consider.