Revolving around the events that saw 30 Seconds to Mars sued by their own record label back in 2008 for $30m., Artifact is one of the greatest music documentaries ever made, and an important documentary for our times.
The music industry has been struggling for the best part of a decade with technology developing at a faster rate than it can keep up with, and this documentary gives an honest, frank, and inside look at the antiquated system that bands are faced with when they’re attached to a major label.
It’s easy to think of our favourite, globally-successful artists as wealthy individuals, but Artifact shows us that often the opposite is true. When they attempted to exercise their legal right to excuse themselves from their contract, Virgin/EMI went on the offensive and sued 30 Seconds to Mars for $30m., claiming further that the label was owed $1.7m. from the band.
What Artifact documents is the band’s struggle to fight the good fight, giving first-hand experience of how out-dated the industry can be, and how the people at the top of these major labels are often in a position against their own best-selling artists.
Directed by Bartholomew Cubbins – a.k.a. Jared Leto, frontman of the band and actor in such films as Requiem for a Dream and Fight Club – the film opens with 30 Seconds just about to take the stage to a sold-out audience screaming for their arrival. Rewind the clock three years, and it’s a very different story.
Taking us chronologically right from day one of the lawsuit, we see their immediate reactions to finding out that their own label is suing them for an astronomical sum of money, when in reality they’ve never seen a single cent of the money from their record sales.
Rather than simply cave and give in to the label’s demands, the band, with Leto leading the charge, decide to fight for what they believe is right.
Fans of the band will know what happens next – This Is War. They buckle down, and with this unbelievable lawsuit hanging over their heads, they finance their third album, without any idea going into it what will become of it at the end, having no certainties for a label to distribute it.
They hire renowned music producer Flood (U2, Depeche Mode, The Killers) to come in and pretty much live with them through the ordeal to make this album. The four of them – Jared Leto, Shannon Leto, Tomo Miličević, and producer Flood – spend the next few months writing and recording what would become an internationally-successful record, all whilst in the midst of a heated battle of back and forth between the labels’ lawyers and their own.
The album is lyrically and musically so strong, and it is clear from the lyrics alone that the band is coming from a combative place in their lives, and seeing Artifact, and the process that went into creating both the album and the documentary, it is evident where this energy is coming from.
Spliced throughout the documentary are interviews with former EMI employees, music producers, music journalists, Jared and Shannon’s mother and a family friend, and perhaps most importantly, fellow artists – Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Chester French, and a handful more. Artists who know the kind of situation 30 Seconds to Mars found themselves facing, who know that the major record labels aren’t always, or even often, working in the best interests of the artists on their rosters.
Getting this insider insight from other bands and other people in the music industry gives a further depth to show how widespread the problem of this antiquated system is. When a major label, previously home to bands as big as The Beatles and Pink Floyd, sues one of their biggest and best-selling artists, for a sum of money that seemingly no one on their end can justify, you know there’s something wrong.
The outcome of the film is in some ways an inevitability – This Is War saw its release back in 2009 through EMI, selling north of 2 million records to date – but it is shown to be such a stressful period at the time, and the happy ending it might seem with the album’s release isn’t untainted; it isn’t entirely the end of the story, because whilst EMI finally did come to the table, the truth is that the system is still in need of fixing, including the band’s new contract.
What Artifact does is give us a view from inside this broken industry, and I can’t recall any other documentary doing anything like this. And in tandem with that, we get a brilliant in-depth view behind the scenes of the creation of one of the best albums of this century, and get to see it forming from inception through to completion.
Listening to and seeing the anthemic chorus of Kings and Queens, the immense breakdown of Closer to the Edge, the fantastic little intro to Night of the Hunter, and so many of the brilliant tracks on this album, in their early stages through to recording is truly remarkable.
Leto said at its premiere on Friday night that the film that was screened wasn’t the final cut, and that he’d be going back to the editing room having seen it play at Toronto. The cut that we saw was very impressive, with an absolutely phenomenal look at both the industry side of the music business and the artists’ creativity, and so we can only expect something even better in the finished product. (And with no sighting of one Mr. Kanye West as of yet, hopefully we have something to look forward to on that front in the next cut or the deleted scenes when the DVD/Blu-ray arrives.)
This Is War is very much an album that is a call to arms, and I hope that Artifact will have the same effect, that the higher-ups at the major labels will see it, will hear the noise it makes and the passion it stirs amongst the fans and audiences around the world. An idealistic hope, maybe, but we’re dealing with an album, a documentary, and a band that inspires that kind of hope in spades. A triumph of a documentary and an album, and I can’t wait to see what becomes of the film next.