Jared Leto On Creativity, Commerce, And Lessons From Surviving A $30 Million Lawsuit

The actor, musician, and entrepreneur fails hard and eventually succeeds (kind of) in a new documentary, Artifact, about his band Thirty Seconds To Mars's struggles in the music industry. Here's his collected wisdom on surviving a broken business.

Actor, entrepreneur, musician, and Most Creative Person Jared Leto, with his Thirty Seconds To Mars bandmates Shannon Leto (his brother) and Tomo Milicevic, have sold over five million albums worldwide. For all of that success, they've seen exactly zero dollars.

In 2008, like many bands who suddenly catch on, Thirty Seconds To Mars sought to renegotiate or be let out of their record contract with Virgin (owned by EMI). EMI's response was to sue the band for $30 million, just as the members set out to record their next album. (And you thought you had creative pressures.)

So Leto began documenting the challenge to record the band's third album, This Is War, between trips to his lawyer's office. The resulting documentary is called Artifact. Leto released it through his high-quality video platform Vyrt. Now it's on iTunes, too (and in some theaters). It's a story about the struggle between art and commerce—part eye candy for fans of the band, part business drama for anyone wondering just how fucked up the current music industry paradigm is.

Leto's no stranger to the art/commerce conundrum. At Fast Company's recent venue at SXSW, Leto and BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti had a spirited discussion about advertising, subscriptions, and other ways to have people support art and content (see part of that conversation above).

I also recently talked to Leto about some of the clashes in the film (moments after he found out he'd won a Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, as it turned out). Mostly we talked about about a question he, himself, poses in Artifact about the music business: What is the new model?

Spoiler alert: Leto doesn't unlock the secret to a new business model that will save the music business—his band ends up re-signing with Virgin/EMI. "We didn’t end up making a perfect arrangement, but it’s progress not perfection," he says. Along the way he learned some lessons about how artists get in trouble when it comes to signing deals. Here, in his own words, is the unique perspective of a front man for a band that's achieved worldwide success but technically still owes its label more than a million dollars.

Business As Usual

We signed a contract knowing that it wasn't a great contract. The reason that we did this and so many people do this is that what's said when you sign these deals is that, in success, you renegotiate. What we didn’t know was how bad things really were and how difficult it would be to readdress the contract. We sold millions of albums. Then we found out that we would never be paid a single penny and that we were millions of dollars in debt. Our mistake was saying okay to a tradition.

It was a mistake that was indicative of the times when we signed our record deal. Now it’s cheaper and easier than ever to make an album or to record an album and make it sound pretty good. It’s easier and cheaper than ever to distribute music. But it’s as hard as ever to find an audience or sustain a career. So some things changed but others haven’t.

In my opinion, whether it's a major, a minor, an indie label or whatever, they could make deals with artists that would still leave them with plenty of profit—clear, transparent deals a few pages long. Leave artists excited about working with record companies and vice versa. For some reason that doesn’t happen. It's the culture. It's institutional. It's the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. But can you image in if Silicon Valley treated entrepreneurs the same way?

Bad Company

All of the people that we were dealing with and fighting with [at EMI, which has since been chopped up and sold] are all gone. They’ve left or lost the company. None of them exist in previous jobs. I think that was a crucial period of time. It was absolutely devastating.

There is fighting for what you believe in, fighting for what’s fair and just. That will always be an important part of Thirty Seconds To Mars. I think it made us better people and smarter business people. It really stoked our spirits. You can stand up for yourself, and you can actually pull off the impossible. Without this battle I would have never started Vyrt. We thought the whole spirit of the film was about the future and new opportunities. We put money where our mouth was and distributed the film live on Vyrt. It was a massive success, financially.

Coda

The music business is still in an uncertain space. Digital sales are down again. They certainly haven’t replaced physical sales. It is a really challenging time. You have to be incredibly creative, incredibly proactive just to survive—and not just Thirty Seconds To Mars. [The major labels] have enough success with their biggest artists that they’re doing great. They still have a lot of value. Labels and artists alike are kind of looking at the horizon wondering what’s next. When will the ship right itself?

Some startup is going to come along and rethink how things are done.

Lust Love Faith + Dreams, somehow still on Virgin Records, landed at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in May. Thirty Seconds To Mars's latest single "City Of Angels" is on the top 10 alternative radio play chart. Watch a short film inspired by the single featuring Kanye West, Steve Nash, Alan Cumming, Lindsay Lohan, Juliette Lewis, Selena Gomez, Shaun White, Ashley Olsen, and more here.

[Photo by Matt Carr | Getty Images]

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39 Comments

  • 365

    NO SH*T! Haven't learn from other past singers in very similar situation beforehand even when it got trickier these days???

  • Brad Hallston

    This is boring. Many artists have signed shitty contracts, and I doubt Leto has "seen zero dollars"

  • Elizabeth T.

    I really resent you calling this very serious & important docu "eye candy" for fans of the band. Us "fans" (God, I hate that label!) can more than appreciate what Leto was trying to depict in Artifact. We all don't sit & stare at the screen panting like a dog in heat. Believe it or not, those of us who aren't groupies or Fangirls, respect the band & their art. It's "journalists" like you who give admirers & supporters of the band a bad name. You cheapen who we are & what we mean to MARS.

  • Shane Nokes

    That wasn't his intent. He was saying that it straddles the line of being both entertaining and informative.

  • Cindy

    What can we do as the paying customer to make sure this never happens again. The artist Little Richard never received a dime for all his hits? Please help!

  • Shane Nokes

    Musicians normally make their money on the tours and promotional events, not on the albums.

    It's one of the not so secret dark bits of the music industry. :(

  • Shane Nokes

    Just to put this out there....This Is War is actually their third album, not their second album.

    If you're going to be a professional journalist do your homework.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    Update: You're right! Confirmed this with the group, then with publicity, who's fixing it in their own press release. Thanks for catching.

  • Shane Nokes

    No problem. I'm just a fan of 30StM who will likely never get to meet them, but am a huge fan of their talent, so I keep tabs on their career. :)

  • tess

    U dont have to be so mean about it , the way u said that comment seems a little nasty and if u really r a big "fan" like u say u r than u would know that we as Echelon believe in making love not war as per jared wants . ..xo shane....
    Thanx for the article tyler, I enjoyed it ♥

  • Shane Nokes

    It wasn't nasty at all. I was pointing out that it's prudent to do fact checking. The author agreed and did the checking and updated the story. Note the reply from him and my subsequent reply.

    I am also a huge fan of both 30StM and Jared as an actor.

  • tess

    "If your going to be a professional journalists do your homework" thats not pointing out a fact , thats being nasty , and its uncalled for .. I agree with the correction and glad it was fixed ..

  • Shane Nokes

    Not if you're a grownup and can handle grown up discussions. It's called being open and honest.

    Also please don't put quotation marks around something I've said if you're not going to copy/paste it directly and screw up the grammar in the process.

    Now I believe we're done here. You can continue to reply if you want to, but you won't find another reply from me to you.

  • Tess did have a point though. Your message for the mistake of album no. would, I feel, have been better given if you simply had dropped the "If you're going to be a professional journalist do your homework". The funny thing was the way Tess put it to you, was also in a similar vain of being over-critical. Fastco were totally professional in the way they handled it in their reply to you. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    And thanks for the career tip. That was the special sauce in this recipe!