How Tom Petty Taught Me To Fight Authority

Photo: Mick Hutson/Redferns.

Tom Petty was one of many musicians my parents introduced me to. As a kid who liked to get into their vinyl collection, I spent a lot of time studying his album covers, which were all these straight-forward photos of him on a red or pink background. I obsessed over his “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” duet with Stevie Nicks and the way the gruffness in their voices matched. I carried his songs with me into adulthood, sometimes doing karaoke to them and putting them on my mixes. I thought I knew Tom Petty.

I didn’t.

In 2007, a documentary called Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream came out. It’s still on Netflix, and you should watch it. It blew apart who I thought Tom Petty was. He was no mere songwriter and guitar player from Florida. This man fought for artists' rights and changed things in ways that are still benefitting musicians today. It was a story I didn’t know because Tom Petty is not one to talk about himself or seek out the spotlight, beyond the one pointed at whatever stage he’s performing on.

I learned that Petty, who was then ignorant of what music publishing rights are and how much money they make for artists, signed his over early in his career for a $10,000 a year advance. It wasn’t an unusual deal, especially at the time, but it was an unfair one for artists. He regained 50% of his publishing rights later in his career and went on to make it his life’s mission to educate other artists about the legal side of the industry.

He filed for bankruptcy after his second record was released, against the wishes of his first label Shelter Records and its distributor MCA, because they wouldn’t let him out of the contract he claimed they violated when Shelter shuffled his contract between ABC and MCA. He went $500,000 into personal debut recording one of his most famous albums, Damn the Torpedos, which he then refused to allow the label to release. It was all to prove his point — that he wouldn’t be passed around like a piece of property between various record conglomerates. It worked: MCA let him out of his contract and then re-signed him for $3 million.

In the ‘80s, he sued his label for trying to raise the price of his albums to $9.98 from $8.89, which is a pretty great "fuck you" to the industry in favor of the fans. He didn't price gouge on live show tickets; he didn't do ads; he didn't accept corporate sponsors. He was punk as fuck.

In the documentary, artists who worked with Petty talk about him standing up for them too. He told them not to record songs the label brought them when they were crap — because the A&R guy was probably getting a kickback. He explained why they needed to write and control the rights to their own songs. He was always willing to walk away to protect his integrity.

It was inspiring to me. Petty didn’t kowtow to corporations. He didn’t compromise his vision or his rights as an artist. He made me take a long look at my own career. When I saw it, I’d just left a job at a huge company. While I told myself I was trying to be like The Clash and break the system from the inside, I suspected I was more like that A&R man who worked the system to their advantage (and got worked by the system without knowing it). It can be hard to stand up for yourself against the interests of a multi-national corporation. It can be even harder to see yourself as more than a cog in the wheel and hold steadfast to your own moral compass. The compromises I've made — sometimes they still haunt me. But every day, with every challenge, I now think about what is right and when I am worth standing up for. I got that from Tom Petty.

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