Remember When: Tom Petty Took on His Record Company over Inflated Album Pricing

On top of his reputation as an outstanding artist, Tom Petty also stands out from the pack with the integrity he displayed throughout his career. Perhaps the greatest example came when he battled his record company to keep his albums at a lower list price so his fans wouldn’t take the financial hit.

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It all came at a time when relations were already a little bit raw between Petty and his label, which made the stand he took even more impressive. Let’s take a look back at the kerfuffle between Tom Petty and MCA Records surrounding his 1981 album Hard Promises.

Using His Clout

By the time he was set to release Hard Promises, his fourth studio record with his band the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty had ascended to elite status in the rock and roll world. As such, he had the clout to make demands of his label. But even when that wasn’t the case, Petty stood up for what he believed.

A few years earlier, Petty became incensed when his initial contract with Shelter Records had essentially been sold to MCA. At that time, he had released two albums that gained him a lot of critical love but not a ton of sales. Still, he went to war with MCA, who had sued him for breach of contract when Petty refused to record.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and Petty was given more favorable terms than his initial deal while recording for an MCA subsidiary. His third album, Damn the Torpedoes (1979), was his breakthrough record, and everybody was happy. At least for a while.

The Price Isn’t Right

In 1981, MCA Records decided it would try a new policy with its LPs known as “superstar pricing,” in which records from their most acclaimed artists would be tagged with a higher list price than what would be the case for standard fare. That hike would take the price from $8.98 to $9.98.

Coming off Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could undoubtedly be called superstars. Thus, MCA planned to use the new pricing model on their upcoming album, Hard Promises. As he explained to author Paul Zollo in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, Petty wasn’t about to let that happen:

“That was quite a struggle. That caused me quite a lot of pain. Because I didn’t have a line of artists backing me up. It seems to me today that maybe if they listened to me then, things wouldn’t have been as bad as they became. I could see then that you can’t price this music out of the reach of the common person. That’s who your audience is. I really didn’t want it hung on me.”

This standoff turned out to be not quite as protracted as the one involving his record contract, lasting only a month before MCA saw the error of its ways. But the difference was this was a far more publicized dustup, simply because Petty was by now an established name and there was great demand for new product from him. Other artists benefited from his principled stand.

Artist for the People

More than anything, Petty won a lot of love from fans for his willingness to look out for them. Obviously, a higher list price would have meant a few more dollars in his coffer. The fact he sacrificed that to help his fan base have a better chance of buying his product only solidified his status as an artist for the people.

To top it all off, Hard Promises was another standout record by Petty, featuring smash hits like “The Waiting” and wonderful deep cuts such as “Insider.” Not only did he give the fans their money’s worth, but he allowed them to spend less in doing so.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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