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 dept 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.
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