More than Petty gripe
By Joel Selvin
The San Francisco Chronicle - October 6, 2002
Venerable musician is again making waves -- and sense
Tom Petty is mad as hell and he is not going to take it anymore.
He calls his new album, "The Last DJ," a "loose concept album" where Petty blasts corporate greed in the Clear Channel era of the music business on sharp, pointed songs like "Dreamville," "Money Becomes King" or the title track with the ringing chorus "there goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and who says what he wants to say."
"I'm fed up with the world," Petty said. "I'm not really attacking the music business. That would be like shooting fish in a barrel. It would be too easy a target. I use them more as a metaphor for what's going on everywhere, in all the businesses, in all our lives. There's just this missing element of truth. Perhaps there's a little bit of a moral dilemma. That might be more of what I'm trying to say in general. We've hit a point where I'm not sure we care about each other. I miss that."
Petty, 48, has never been much of a firebrand in his quarter-century of making rock 'n' roll records. But as corporate consolidation in both the concert business and the radio industry reaches an all-time high and the quality of contemporary music descends to an all-time low, Petty is moved to address the issues.
"We're in a day and age where pop singers are created on game shows on television," he said. "Damn, if I don't speak up about that then I am remiss. If I am going to be chastised for doing it, then so be it. But there's nothing I've said in this record that isn't 100 percent true. I'm not making any claims that aren't true. And if you're thinking I'm talking about you, then that says more than I could ever say."
The title track, a Heartbreakers instant classic, was the most added track on radio its first week out, but the song is certain to stir controversy in the tepid and tame landscape of today's corporate radio world. Some stations have already refused to play the track.
"I'm a huge fan of radio," he said. "I don't like what I hear in pop music these days. I'm not just talking about rock radio. I'm talking about all the radio. That song, when I heard it was banned, I thought, this is a fictional song. It's not 'Citizen Kane.' It's not based on anyone. It's a fictional song about a guy who is fired because he doesn't want to play the songs he's told to play. Where he used to have a choice to be a tastemaker himself, he's even told not to talk too much on the radio. He goes to Mexico and starts something there, where he has the freedom to do it. If they're afraid of that story, what's wrong? What are they afraid of?"
"I used to feel like I knew DJs on the radio," he continued, "that they were personalities. That even when I hated them, I knew them and I felt comfortable hearing them talk. Some of them I felt were even people of taste who actually chose the records, who went through what was there and thought this was the best. Of course, there's always been playlists, but there was a lot more freedom. It's becoming a corporate thing, where they call up people and play them 10 seconds of a song over the phone and if they know it, it goes on the air. But that's not the way for the music to grow. People can only choose from what they're offered and if all they're offered is boy bands, that's what they have to choose from."
Petty, who took a defiant stand more than 20 years ago against raising the list price of albums to $8.98, worries about the cost of records and concert tickets and what effect gouging the consumers will have on the future of the music.
"I could make a lot more money if I'd just charge more," he said. "But I've never seen a rock show worth $200. I think that we've got to be careful that it doesn't become the music of the elite. We don't want to price this out of the reach of the ordinary person. I think that goes for CDs, as well. The record companies are having this problem with people stealing music off the computers because music costs too much.
"I think $18, $20 for a CD is more than the average person's got to lay out. I know they discount them in the stores more and more. I think it's a great thing if they can bring the price down. "
On his band's summer tour, Petty made a point of telling audiences there was no corporate sponsor behind his tour ("We're brought to you by you," he told the crowds). Only once in his career did Petty succumb to the sirens of sponsorship, when he let Tecate beer put its name on his tickets more than 20 years ago.
"I found it very distasteful," said Petty, who returns Oct. 30 to Shoreline Amphitheatre. "I immediately felt like we'd done a wrong thing. I've veered away from it since. I see it creeping into everything. They had a big punk concert here over the weekend with the Sex Pistols and all these groups. It was sponsored by Levi's, which I found really ironic. I think we should steer away from that as artists. I think it's probably a bad move. I think the more songs that go in these commercials on TV is just hurting rock in general. I think it saps its credibility."
Petty also worries about selling front row seats at inflated rates. During the sessions, he toyed with calling the new album "The Golden Circle," after these special seating sections.
"That was a working title I had at one point," he said. "I found the music business to be a great metaphor for what's going on today. If you noticed, I attacked the artists as well and the audience. Nobody gets out unscathed. I think this notion of everyone wanting to have a little bit of an elite edge on everyone -- like, 'I'm going to the concert, but I'm going to sit in a better section than you and I'm going to have a waiter.' Then corporations buy the tickets and give them away as business perks. You wind up with people in that golden circle who don't really give a damn what's going on anyway. We've never done a golden circle."
"But I don't feel it's just in the music industry. It's all around us everywhere and I'm concerned. I was naive enough to think that the Sept. 11 thing might actually change the entertainment business. But it didn't. It didn't change it an iota. That worries me. I think we've taken not caring as far as we can. It's time to care passionately. I'm just really amazed that anyone could be offended by anything I've written unless they are really the enemy."