This innovative project fuses journalism and music to highlight lawlessness at sea

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Ian Urbina, Investigative Reporter and Director, The Outlaw Ocean Project

  • Environmental crimes and human rights abuses are rife at sea and their offshore status means they’re largely hidden from the world.
  • The Outlaw Ocean Project is a journalistic non-profit that raises awareness about these crimes using both traditional and original models of storytelling.
  • Sharing the soundtrack through streaming platforms widens the potential audience and opens up revenue channels to fund further investigations.

When my son was maybe 10 years old, as I drove him and several of his friends around in the car, we had a competition that came to be called “The Imagination Game”. I’d play the first 20 seconds of a song with no words – it was epic and dramatic. Then, I’d abruptly turn off the music and one by one each of the kids had to describe in rich, evocative, five-senses detail what was the movie scene in their head that would go with the music we just heard. Whichever kid offered up the most lively and convincing scene to fit with the music, won that round of the competition.

I’m a writer by trade, not a musician. In some ways, the imagination game was a writing exercise. But it was also an experiment in reverse engineering and a form of creative calisthenics, demonstrating that music is a deeply impactful way to communicate feelings and emotions. This game is what got me first thinking about the power of music to tell stories.

Journalist Ian Urbina with an armed Somalian guard.
Journalist Ian Urbina with an armed Somalian guard. Image: The Outlaw Ocean Project

I’ve spent the past several years reporting on lawlessness at sea across five oceans, 14 countries and all seven continents. In 2019, I published my book, The Outlaw Ocean, based on my series in The New York Times. I have subsequently launched various initiatives and projects related to it, which are primarily focused on spreading awareness about the environmental, labour, and human rights abuses occurring at sea. One of these ventures stemmed from those car rides with my son and his friends: The Outlaw Ocean Music Project.

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project is a first-of-its-kind collaboration of such creators. In combining their mediums, these narrators have conveyed emotion and a sense of place in an enthralling new way. The result is a captivating body of music based on The Outlaw Ocean reporting. All of that time spent at sea allowed me to build an audio library of field recordings. It featured a variety of textured and rhythmic sounds like machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea. Using the sound archive and inspired by the reporting, over 400 artists from more than 60 countries are producing EPs in their own interpretive musical styles, be it electronic, ambient, classical or hip-hop. Many artists also used the reported footage to make their own videos tied to their song, including Louis Futon, Roger Molls, and De Osos.

It’s hardly surprising that a music project was born from this book, since I used music in various and sometimes oddball ways while reporting offshore. Certain songs were my version of Adderall, helping me focus in distracting conditions. Others offered an incredible salve for the deeply dark things I witnessed. But perhaps my most valuable use of music while reporting was when songs served for me as mnemonic devices.

When I write I usually listen to music without words. I also cast soundtracks to things I see. On one ship, I watched 40 trafficked Cambodian boys and men work brutally long days, and I remember late that evening, trying to polish my notes and sifting through a playlist that I had of instrumental songs. Was that one scene where the boys ate between shifts more The Leftovers or Ad Astra, I wondered? (I went with The Leftovers for its haunting and weighty sensibility). Capturing the scenes in music was for me a memory aid, in that the music was an easier and more efficient moniker for the mood of a moment.

When I looped back later, and tried to build on my notes at the end of a day of reporting, I’d listen to the songs that I tagged to a page of scribblings in my notebook. I’d listen to that song again as I sat down to write the story. The song would come to embody, at least for me, more than my words could. It was a bit like a designed Pavlovian effect. Each additional time that I’d tie my notes and that scene to that song, it would conjure up images, feelings, an entire setting.

Journalists don’t use music enough to access people. And yet, musicians are masters at telling stories with their songs. Why should movies be the only things that have soundtracks? Why can’t a book have a soundtrack? By pairing two types of creators – a journalist and a musician – around content that is urgent, dramatic, and global, the outcome is music that is tied to something much deeper: a collection of at-sea issues that connect us all.

These artists have taken a real leap of faith in lending their creative capabilities to help spread this message, try something new and support this journalism. Furthermore, they have produced some gorgeous music. Some artists decided to choose a theme to inspire their EPs, telling a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Others focused on conveying an emotion or feeling without necessarily spelling it out in lyrics. All struck the perfect balance between a vast, open, and “free” ocean, and a melancholy, dangerous, and limiting space.

Across all of the artists participating there’s a global audience of more than 90 million, thanks in part to their geographic diversity. In recruiting artists from around the world, the project conscripted an army of cultural diplomats who are talking, in their own language of music, about the weighty concerns facing this offshore realm and the millions of people who work or depend on it. This disparate audience is one that could never be achieved in a traditional journalistic way, and the revenue that the project generates goes towards the non-profit that funds this reporting.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

This project’s design also features a new business model. Most of the streaming, licensing and sync revenue from the project goes to funding future journalism from my non-profit, The Outlaw Ocean Project. Long-form investigative journalism is dying, largely because its economics are abysmal. To take one example, I have an investigation coming out soon that costs about $98,000 to produce. The magazine is paying less than $9,000 for the story. That gap explains why even lucrative, large, and legacy outlets like The New York Times struggle to produce investigative pieces like this. And if long-form journalism is expensive, doing it at sea is impossibly so.

There’s also innovation in the music project – it is reaching a new audience, in a new way: delivering stories to young people and accessing them through their ears and their hearts, more than their eyes and their mind. The project is a clever way to commandeer music platforms like Spotify, Apple and Amazon and turn them into news outlets. This allows the project to spread the message about ocean issues with younger demographics, like my now 17-year-old son, who might not otherwise read The New York Times, but nonetheless still consumes a lot of news through alternate channels.

The scope is unusual. We are releasing 50 new albums every month. Each album consists of a five-track EP. The sheer size and global reach of the music is partially what makes this a bit like an international and creative flash mob.

Find out more about the project The Outlaw Ocean Music Project. Music and conservation organizations around the world have supported this journalism by embedding the music player onto their websites, where people can listen directly.

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