Jared Leto gets a laugh when he first appears onscreen in Artifact, the new documentary about his band 30 Seconds to Mars’ label troubles, holding his middle finger in the air from under his bedsheets. A bid for the cameraman to get the hell out of his room, the gesture sums up the sentiment of the film, which won the People’s Choice award for a documentary on Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Leto himself (under the alias Bartholomew Cubbins), Artifact chronicles 30 Seconds to Mars’ legal battle with EMI, who filed a $30 million breach of contract lawsuit against them in 2008 for failing to deliver the third of five albums. The band’s most recent LP at the time, 2005’s Beautiful Lie, had sold 3.5 million copies, but Leto and his bandmates – brother and drummer Shannon Leto and guitarist Tomo Milicevic – still owed money to their label. The dispute lasted over 200 days and inspired what would become their third LP, 2009’s This Is War.
“It started as a film about the making of an album, and it became a film about the most brutal and challenging conflict of our lives,” Leto told Rolling Stone in Toronto, adding that the film has received several offers from distributors. “I hope that artists and audiences watch this film and get a greater understanding of how things work [in the record industry], because understanding is the beginning of change. Inevitably, we’re all moving towards what I hope is a more transparent system.”
As 30 Seconds to Mars holed up in L.A. with producer Flood to record This is War, the lawsuit loomed heavy, resulting in a stressful creative environment. Both Leto and Flood refer to the fight as a “moral crusade” in the film.
“It actually helped us make a better album,” Leto said. “We were very determined. We had to make an album that succeeded no matter what – with or without a label. So the record is directly influenced and informed by this battle. It’s called This Is War for a reason. We were fighting for all of us. We were fighting for fairness. We’re a small band that’s had a bit of success, and we were fighting a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate. That’s kind of crazy, right?”
In the end, 30 Seconds to Mars signed a “more favorable” deal with EMI and negotiated the right to release the documentary, which the band owns. This Is War has sold two million copies, but according to the fim, the band is still $1.7 million in debt to the label.
Since the making of Artifact, EMI has been sold to Universal – but Leto doesn’t see that as a coup de grace. “It’s about the powerbrokers,” he says. “It’s about the people in the companies that keep these systems in place. It’s not about the people who do the work. There’s a lot of great people at the label. I’m not anti-label. I’m anti-greed and pro-fairness.”