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.
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?
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.
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.