Tom Petty Griping About the Music Industry? Nah, It's Just a Metaphor
By Steve Hochman
The Los Angeles Times - June 30, 2002
A lot of people will hear Tom Petty's upcoming album, "The Last DJ," as an indictment of the music business. The title song, for example, decries the centralization and depersonalization of radio programming. "Money Becomes King" is the narrative of a disheartened fan who watches a rock hero's values and art get lost in a sea of commercialism, to a point where the fan feels that "all the music gave me was a craving for lite beer."
Petty, however, advises fans not to take things too literally.
"It's not about the music business," he says of the album, due in October. "That's familiar turf for me, so it works as a good metaphor. The music business is too easy a target to make it the enemy. Probably the biggest focal point of the things I'm talking about is the audience. What I find interesting these days is what the audience is willing to accept. I often wonder if they even care. I don't want to believe that....But there's a huge celebration of mediocrity in our culture, and I don't remember it to this extent before."
Petty, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in February, started writing the album two years ago, focusing ideas and discussions he'd had over a long time.
"I saw it as a little audio movie," he says. "There are a few characters and, I guess, a loose concept. But I didn't want it to be too defined, too nailed down to where it's all a narrative. I wrote a love song or two. I felt that these people had to have some hope in their lives. By the end of the thing it's an optimistic view. The last line is: 'You can't stop a man from dreaming.' "
The topic proved to be inspiring not just lyrically, but also musically to Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers. Working with producer George Drakoulias, they crafted arguably the most dynamic music they've made in a decade, exploring new textures in toughened, dramatic, upbeat songs, and in such ballads as "Dreamville" and "Like a Diamond," each featuring rich orchestral touches by Jon Brion.
Soon, however, the album will face many of the same issues it addresses.
"The irony is that it's a commentary on how difficult it is to sell an album this good," says Warner Bros. Records executive Jeff Ayeroff, who will oversee the album's promotion campaign. "We're not professing to have all the answers but will try different ways to reach the audience."
Ayeroff and Warner Executive Vice President Diarmuid Quinn say the album calls for innovative presentations outside conventional radio and video avenues, which haven't much supported new music by veteran rock artists in recent years anyway.
First off, Petty and the Heartbreakers are performing several songs from the album on a new summer tour, which comes to Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion Aug. 24. And in the three months leading to its release, various Internet-based promotions, a possible "making of" documentary from footage shot by director Martin Atkins and other activities are planned to show the album as a complete work.
"It's pivotal that people hear the album as a whole," Quinn says. "The songs on their own hold up well. But it's meant to be heard in its entirety."