‘Artifact’ Documentary Shows Major Labels are the Real Music Pirates


Last night we had the pleasure of watching Artifact, which is certainly one of the best documentaries about music and the record industry ever made.

We recommend every music fan and musician see this movie, which tells the truth about how major labels have largely ruined the meaning and purpose of music for profit. In a day and age when it is passé to speak of major label evils (instead erroneously blaming tech companies for industry woes), this documentary reminds us that corrupt multinational corporations and their lawyers continue to exploit artists and steal their profits.

The film centers around musician/actor Jared Leto and his band 30 Seconds to Mars. The original intent was to document the making of the band’s third album This is War. However, the narrative took a sharp turn when the band was sued by its record label EMI for $30M dollars.

Jared Leto, leader and vocalist of 30 Seconds to Mars. (CC-BY-SA James Ackerley)

Jared Leto, leader and vocalist of 30 Seconds to Mars. (CC-BY-SA James Ackerley)

The band had been renegotiating their contract — a common procedure that every successful major label band undergoes. Bands that sign to majors have the worst contracts in the industry. The only way to improve contract terms is to have enough success so that your management and legal team can pressure the label to cave on a few demands. 30 Seconds were in good-faith renegotiations due to the worldwide success of their Platinum-selling second album. Then EMI was purchased by a multinational corporation and all hell broke loose.

Many musicians are well aware that one of the biggest problems with big record labels is employee turnover. The same person that signs a band might not be working for the label when it comes time to release their album, and many bands find themselves ignored. As Damian Kulash of OK GO says in the film, the majors are like a cyclops — when your band is their focus, the world is your oyster. When you lose that focus, your band might as well not exist. And I’m not talking about majors in the plural — you’ll see some cartel-like, mob-esque behavior by industry elite in the documentary. The majors operate as a unit to control ~70% of the world’s music supply.

It gets much worse than rapid employee turnover. Because of the ridiculously exploitative contracts artists sign with majors, their bands and albums can get “shelved” if not successful. This has held thousands of bands and albums in limbo and deprived the world of tons of great music. Artists’ intellectual property is held hostage, preventing the artist or the public from benefitting from it. That’s pretty much the opposite goal of copyright law.

Artifact is an interesting meditation on the art/business divide. It’s a divide artists seldom want to cross. Leto shows his deep reservations about even dealing with the business side, as well as his unashamed artistic idealism.

A big reason we made Songhack was because we feel that if artists are going to pursue careers, they need to cross the art/business divide at least enough to understand how the business of music works. Though major labels are surely guilty of reducing music to a consumer packaged good, musicians are in many ways complicit through their ignorance. The cycle of exploitation is being slowed by technology, and with active participation of musicians, a new industry will be built on direct fan patronage.

We won’t spoil any details, suffice to say this film covers the widespread corruption of the music industry through the compelling story of 30 Seconds to Mars’ legal fight. Artifact features interviews with an incredible cast of forward-thinking musicians, ex-label employees, music experts and industry pundits.

There is one big thing missing from this documentary, as well as every other doc we’ve previewed about modern-day music industry chaos (chiefly the excellent Downloaded and the one-sided, dubious Unsound). We certainly don’t blame the hardworking filmmakers for the omission, but all these documentaries end with a big shrug of the shoulders. They give the impression no one knows what to do, which is nonsense. None of these documentaries offer solutions to the ethical and financial crises in the music industry, even though there are many to explore: crowdfunding, self-licensing, virality, fan subscriptions, local CSA-style musician co-ops. Perhaps we here at Songhack should produce that documentary. Would you watch it?