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How Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stood up for rock fans on 'Hard Promises'

Tom Petty always had a hard time grappling with record labels. What is, for some, a classic rock ‘n’ roll trope — fighting with the establishment — for Petty and The Heartbreakers was a very real and very serious necessity. The band fought against their previous label MCA, bankrupting themselves in the process, only to return to a subsidiary version of the same executive board for their third record, Damn the Torpedoes. With the high-flying success of the LP, the next album was being geared as a “superstar” release.

That may have been appropriate for a star as acclaimed as Petty at the time, he was rightly seen as one of rock’s shining lights, but it also came with a hefty price tags MCA looked to cash in on their prized asset. Rather than sign him up to a host of singles and perhaps increase the tour schedule, the label decided that they were going to try their new idea: “superstar pricing”.

The album is regarded as one of Petty’s finest, positively pulsating with some of the band’s greatest work. To make it even sweeter, it also saw Petty refuse to bow down to external pressure from his label and ensured that the new way of pricing LPs wouldn’t hurt his fans. MCA were trying to increase the sale price to $9.98, a dollar more than most artists, and Petty baulked at the idea. It saw the singer-songwriter refuse to work unless he could guarantee that no such hike would take place — it produced a musical standoff.

“A lot of fans have been with us for a long time, and I think they trust us,” Petty told The New York Times. “MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it’s like on the street — they couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.” Petty was quick to point out that he didn’t consider MCA as evil entrepreneurs but that he had been misled, “I’m not usually as concerned with record company business as you might think; I like to devote my time and energy to being a musician,” he added. “But sometimes there’s a communications breakdown and, when that happens, you just have to stand up for yourself.”

Petty stood up for himself, and his fans, by threatening to withhold the album should his demands not be met. There was also talk that should MCA insist the album be sold at $9.98, Petty and The Heartbreakers would title it Eight Ninety Eight in protest. When the album was released, 40 years ago, the price tag would read $8.98 and Petty could rest safe in the knowledge that he had scored a victory for his fans and rock fans across the world.

“I’ll tell you something, no matter what anybody ever tells you, life is never sweeter than when you have a hit record. I mean, it is a sweet goddamn feeling. It felt great, especially after [the lawsuit]. It was really the only time in my life I felt like justice was done,” Petty told Musician. “And that’s why, this record I just wanted to up the quality. I think we can always up the quality; I don’t understand rock groups that go down, that get worse. I really don’t understand. There is no reason for that, if you just keep aware of what’s going on.”

The eighties would provide a set of stadiums and arenas for Tom Petty to fill as he took on the role of rock’s established voice and this incident allowed him to truly prove his point. While Bob Dylan et al tried to chase commercial success with a series of middle of the road releases, Petty was able to achieve it with some of his most searing work. Hard Promises was the album that certified Petty as a headline act across the entire globe.

The album is perfectly balanced too. While there are certainly some big hitters on this LP, ‘The Waiting’ is a particular piece of brilliance, the album is counterweighted by the exuberance of Petty’s growing musicianship.

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