The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



30 Seconds to Mars is one of the most musically interesting bands out there today. On the surface, their songs sound like your typical emo rock tunes, but if you crank them up and listen carefully, you'll hear all kinds of layers and textures combining to create something far more innovative. No matter how many times you hear one of their songs, it seems as though there's something new to discover. The band's second album, A Beautiful Lie, sold three million copies, but also triggered a lawsuit that nearly sank them. This is the focus of the documentary Artifact, directed by Bartholomew Cubbins, a pseudonym for frontman Jared Leto.

Despite the worldwide success of A Beautiful Lie, 30 Seconds to Mars didn't make a penny off the album. Their label, EMI, made many pennies. The band, which also consists of drummer Shannon Leto and guitarist Tomo Milicevic, wanted to go elsewhere. They left EMI, citing a California law that states one cannot be held to a contract for more than seven years. (They'd been under contract to EMI for nine.) The label responded by suing them for $30 million. Artifact shows the band and their legal team dealing with the suit, and also the pressures of recording their third album, This Is War, in the middle of this mess. 30 Seconds to Mars face real risks in the process, because getting music out there on a global basis requires a record label push; by making their album independently, they know there's a chance few fans will ever really get to hear it. Leto and his bandmates struggle with what to do. They want to settle the lawsuit – they clearly don't have $30 million – but also want to be able to make some money off their music.

Even if you don't care about 30 Seconds to Mars, Artifact is a fascinating documentary because it pulls back the curtain on the music business. Through interviews with other artists, including Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and Incubus' Brandon Boyd, we learn that record deals are inherently structured to benefit the label, not the artist. In fact, the average record deal leaves a band in debt. The artist is tasked with contributing to things that cost money (such as producing a music video) while the label takes a percentage of things that earn money, including merchandising. Such terms can become egregious. Artists are forced to pay “breakage” and packaging costs, even though such things have become largely obsolete in this era of digital music. Also, when an actor/musician like Leto takes an acting gig, the label can demand a fee for “allowing” their act to cross over. Artifact reveals that record deals – the one thing a band needs to gain massive exposure – actually put artists in a hole it can be almost impossible to get out of. The film argues, powerfully, that this needs to change.

The 30 Seconds to Mars lawsuit took a toll on the band's emotions, while also fueling This Is War. Dragging on for well over half a year, they found themselves being threatened by money men – record company honchos who didn't understand creativity and were more interested in leveraging a “property” than in fostering art. Artifact details every infuriating twist and turn. Since Leto directed the film, and since Guy Hands, whose company acquired EMI, refused to talk, the film is definitely slanted in one direction. Still, Leto's case makes sense and is well substantiated. Artifact works as an accounting of a good band making an album during a bad time, but it works even better as an indictment of a business practice that screws the people who actually make the product.

I'll allow you to discover for yourself how the 30 Seconds to Mars lawsuit played out, but I will say this: their new album, Love, Lust, Faith + Dreams is excellent.

Artifact is available now on all leading VOD platforms.

( 1/2 out of four)

Artifact is unrated but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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