The music industry is in a tricky place, and it has been for several years now. And no, that’s not all because of file-sharing (even though it sure does have a hell of a lot to do with it); there are a lot of intricate and complex political, economic and technological issues going on behind-the-scenes of all of your favorite bands. In fact, many of them probably make less money than you do; not just less, but significantly less. Most bands these days are in debt so deeply to the record labels that there is no hope of them ever getting out again.
Enter 30 Seconds to Mars, the band fronted by actor / director / musician / artist Jared Leto. Along with his brother Shannon and fellow band-mate Tomo Miličević, the three musicians collectively encompass an alternative rock group which has sold in excess of six million records worldwide after only releasing three albums. In today’s music climate, that’s not just a rare thing – it’s unheard of. It categorically places them amongst the pantheon of some of the most successful artists in rock music working today. And in spite of all of this success, the band is somehow still nearly $2 million in debt to their record label. They have never seen a dime of the estimated $60 million that their album sales alone have brought in.
This is Jared Leto’s (working under his popular, directorial pseudonym, Bart Cubbins) ARTIFACT, the artist’s feature-length debut as a director. The documentary may just be the most definitive film yet produced on the state of the contemporary rock ‘n’ roll scene: with interviewees that span from a who’s-who of former record label COOs, presidents and other businessman to contemporary superstars like Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, the film uses the people who are actually involved in the business to give an unprecedented look into the increasing amount of corporate greed surrounding today’s music scene.
Where the film is most successful isn’t in its objectively systematic dissection of record label politics, but rather in its framework: ARTIFACT is not just an account of 30 Seconds to Mars’ struggle with record label EMI, it’s also an intimate look at how the creative process has become impeded by back-door politics and economic jargon that has little to nothing to do with musicians or what they are trying to do. Following in the wake of an apparent breach-of-contract with their record label – wherein the band attempted to terminate said contract – the trio of musicians found themselves unexpectedly being sued by their own record label – to the tune of $30 million. The film follows their simultaneous battle against the lawsuit and the recording of their third album, THIS IS WAR.
What Leto has to say about the record industry is things that many musicians have already been screaming for years: that it’s corrupt, that there is incessant level of greed dominating everything and that it’s led by self-serving business types who have little knowledge of the actual industry and care more about themselves than about the company or their employees. Leto’s animations and narrations explaining the true economics of rock music may be surprising to some, but it’s becoming increasingly common knowledge in a world of independent superstars and crowd-source-funded albums that the contracts between record labels and their artists is borderline criminal, a hodgepodge of legal hokum from which artists become trapped, with no hope of actually generating sustainable income. It’s an important footnote on an industry whose primary function isn’t just generating capital and entertainment, but art.
But, again, Leto’s call-to-arms over the injustices of his industry would be quickly lost had they not had the framework of the THIS IS WAR sessions to drive home the juxtaposition of art and business. Taking as broad a canvas as possible, Leto interviews everybody he can get his hands on, all while simultaneously exploring the history of his band, the personal relationships between its members and how the horrors of the industry have begun to affect (both positively and negatively) the most important artistic output of his career. Peppered with lush, haunting instrumentals (all of which from the THIS IS WAR sessions; some a-sides and some not), ARTIFACT does a terrific job of driving home not only Leto’s personal struggles as an artist, but just how frustrating a business that exists in a medium of self-expression can really be.
As 30 Seconds to Mars dives headfirst into crafting an independently-funded album with the hope that their lawsuit will be settled in time for them to release it, Leto carefully constructs a narrative that never becomes overly preachy, nor overly sentimental; just as things become a little bit too heady, the director ensures that we take a quick left turn into the realm of the personal and intimate in order to balance it out.
Anybody who has been aware of “Cubbins'” directorial style through any of the alternative rock group’s music videos (which should really be called short films – they range from five to 13 minutes in length, and have been shot in world record-setting locations as diverse as the Republic of China and north of the Arctic Circle) should know by now that the actor has picked up a few flourishes from the incredibly high caliber of directors that he has worked with and become friends with over the years: there are often dark, noir-esque nods to David Fincher in his works, not to mention the surrealist (and the more contemporary, brutally realist) styling of Darren Aronofsky. On ARTIFACT, Leto is less reliant on his acquainted influences and merely shoots the film in subdued, simplistic fashion. Which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing for a documentary.
ARTIFACT is an interesting film for several reasons, most notably because it brings Leto’s wonderful eye for compositions and direction into the realm of features for the first time. What the film truly is, however, is a celebration of everything music-related, and a fascinating peek inside of an industry that has become infamously idealized – one where outdated models, expectations and relationships have given a new generation a violently skewed perspective on how it operates. If music lovers – fans, creatives and the corporates – all got to take a look at this film, we might be on our way to figuring out how to make this industry sustainable again.