Jared Leto’s ‘Artifact’ — Man v. The Machine

“Give me the name of a band that’s had continued worldwide success without a label.”
-Jared Leto


The music industry has many faces, and most people don’t understand precisely what those faces are. For years we’ve heard the horror stories about how record labels treat their artists, but its victims consistently failed to articulate the details of its destruction. Artifact has officially opened those doors with a never-before-seen look inside the dinosaur’s lair.

The film’s story is told through the eyes of Thirty Seconds to Mars’ frontman, Jared Leto, during the band’s war with EMI. According to Leto, his second record sold over three million copies but despite this success, the band didn’t see a dime. In fact, they shockingly landed 1.7 million dollars in debt to the label. Though the details are complex, that debt would apply to their next album until EMI made its money back, thus decreasing the likelihood that the band would ever benefit from their sales. When Thirty Seconds to Mars got wind of this wild injustice, they predictably attempted to leave the label. This resulted in a thirty million dollar lawsuit against the band, with EMI citing their airtight 9 year contract. Leto cited the statute in response, claiming that no contract can exceed 7 years. The rest of the story is in the details.

Weaved amongst the inner-workings of the band’s war with EMI is a more personal story about their creative journey and Jared Leto’s temperament, upbringing, and leadership. If any part of his directorial mission was to paint himself in a favorable light, he achieved his goal. One of the most moving moments in the film was listening to Leto describe his family life. His mother had both children by the age of eighteen, and Leto seemed unfazed by their financial hardships. His brother recounted his own personal struggle, saying that his role as a drummer served to center his wayward path. There are also touching moments in the film that shine a clear light on their brotherly bond. For example, when Shannon Leto struggles with a drum part, Jared kindly and gently encourages that he take a break and insists that he’s entirely capable with more practice.

One thing of note in ‘Artifact’ is there are more questions than answers. Leto humbly asks his band, his lawyer, and his manager (the legendary Irving Azoff), for advice. Almost everyone is at a loss. Is it possible to have “continued, worldwide success” without a label, Leto asks. To answer this question, there are numerous guest spots with other well-known band members and former executives, recounting infamous struggles that sank many musicians’ careers (see Prince and George Michael). Is it all worth it? Can anyone make money in a dying industry, and do we still need the costly dinosaur to do the dirty work? And what about the industry itself? When the public doesn’t buy albums, how does anyone financially succeed? Sure you can make money on tour, through merchandise sales, and via licensing deals, but the label wants a piece of that too, thus once again melting the pot of gold to mere nickels (see 360 deals).

As this story unfolds, Leto’s battle costs begin to bankrupt him, and one begins to wonder if he has become buried under the behemoth’s reign in vain. The more he fights for his artistic freedom, the tighter his shackles, and the less likely his prospects. In the first year of law school, they tell you that everyone loses in a lawsuit, and this story is no exception. I cannot speak to my perspective on what the band ultimately decided to do, but their journey is far more important than the result. Watch this film. If nothing else, you’ll certainly second-question your aversion to buying records.