Jared Leto on Music Streaming: 'Artists Are Getting the Short End of the Stick'

UPDATED: The Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman tells THR of his updated music biz perspective since wrapping his doc "Artifact," which airs Saturday on VH1.
Ruven Afanador
Jared Leto

After nabbing a slew of acting awards for his turn as transgender drug addict Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto is refocusing on music.

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But before Thirty Seconds to Mars’ recently announced summer tour, the legal battles of the band’s past will be fully rehashed, when Leto’s music biz documentary Artifact airs Saturday on VH1 and Palladia.

The documentary, which was shaved down from over 40,000 hours of footage and took nearly four years to complete, first zooms in on the band in 2008, after breaking alternative chart records with the song “The Kill.” As they began to create what would become their 2010 album This Is War, they discovered their unexplained $2 million debt, despite their newfound success. 30STM then aimed to exit its nine-year contract with Virgin Records/EMI — citing the De Havilland law, a California labor code put in place after Olivia de Havilland fought victoriously against Warner Bros. and the studio system in the 1940s — only to be slapped with a $30 million lawsuit for damages on the yet-to-be-recorded albums.

“This was not a fight against a record company, but against corruption,” Leto clarifies to The Hollywood Reporter. “A record company can be a beneficial thing — to have a team of people around the world to help you realize your dream — but a corporation that engages artists with these convoluted contracts that leaves them in a state of terminal debt? Just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean it’s okay to do. The battle between art and commerce is something we dealt with consistently from the time we were signed, and even today.”

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Since Artifact premiered at 2012’s Toronto Film Festival, where it won the people’s choice award for best documentary (and later, the audience honor at the Gotham Independent Film Awards), Leto and his bandmates have opted to release the film themselves, via a limited theatrical showing; releases on iTunes, DVD and Blu-ray; and broadcasts on VyRT, Leto’s live-event broadcast platform, and on VH1 and Palladia on Saturday night. “When we looked at the offers, they started to feel a bit like record deals, where we gave away the rights to a film that we financed, edited, produced, and I directed myself [under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins] – it just didn’t make sense,” he says. “Making this film taught us to be more entrepreneurial, and I think the battle with EMI taught me that in general … Some of these battles have been a blessing in disguise. We’re a band that chose to fight for fairness, for our creative lives, for what we believe was right.”

While Artifact outlines 30STM’s tug-of-war with EMI — the band’s manager Irving Azoff, Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington expand on their own music biz battles, and 30STM bandmates Shannon Leto and Tomo Milicevic also share their musical journeys — the film doesn’t touch on a thorny topic that irk musicians today: streaming. Recently, American Idol label 19 Recordings filed a suit against Sony Music for at least $10 million in damages, part of which is rooted in the alleged underpayment of streaming royalties for hits from Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and more Idol alumni. Over the last year, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Atoms for Peace’s Nigel Godrich, David Byrne and Steven Tyler are among the many who have voiced their concerns over streaming services’ inadequate royalty payments, and Bette Midler tweeted earlier this month that Pandora paid her $114.11 for more than 4 million song spins over a three-month period.

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“The market’s going to react to what people want, and it obviously seems like there are a lot of people out there who want to stream music, because it’s fun,” admits Leto of Pandora, Spotify and similar platforms. “But there’s also another side to it: There’s a perception that music is free. Even if you’re paying for a premium service, you still have music at your disposal. It’s the sort of thing where sometimes you watch a movie on Netflix, and if it’s not good in the first five minutes, you’re likely to just turn it off and go look for something else, not knowing that if you put in the time, maybe 30 minutes later, maybe your mind will be blown.”

“We all know that, as content creators, artists and musicians, a great deal of our work is going to be streamed, but the issue is that artists are getting the short end of the stick,” he continues. “The streaming companies are paying record labels, but record labels are not paying artists. I’d welcome anybody to debate that. Record companies are taking giant advantages. They’re taking pieces of stock options or technology companies in exchange for guaranteeing rights to artists’ streams; there are all kinds of deals being made, and artists aren’t a part of those deals. I think artists don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to being part of the conversation about the future of technology and creativity. There’s a blueprint being made, and artists should be part of the design.”

This current status of the music industry is a catch-22 for artists that, Artifact highlights, was magnified with iTunes’ singles offerings: Audiences no longer have to purchase an entire album to endlessly enjoy just one song, as previous generations of music consumers did. But at the same time, the newly unsigned band is thankful for the Apple disruption — the very platform that has also helped to share Artifact.

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“Technology has been a gift for so many of us – for artists, it’s given us the ability to write, record and distribute music quicker, cheaper and easier than ever before,” Leto tells THR. “It’s still difficult as ever to find an audience and write songs, but it has empowered us and made us less reliant on traditional third parties.

"I think we’re in a state of transition — the power [record labels] once had has been eroded, with the help of technology, social media, and new and alternative distribution methods, but there still isn’t a clear new model,” he says of musicians’ futures. “You see people experiment and have success, but largely, they’ve been one-offs and gags, and they haven’t been duplicated with much success. I do believe it’s an industry ripe for disruption and has a massive amount of potential, but for people taking a traditional route, when you get to a place that we are at, I think that things are likely to get worse before they get better. You have to be innovative or you die.”

Artifact airs Saturday on VH1 and Palladia at 11 p.m. PT/ET. Watch the trailer below:

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee