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Tom Petty once battled his record label over $1 and changed the music industry for good

Tom Petty of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Paul R. Giunta | Getty Images
Tom Petty of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

On Monday, rock-and-roll icon Tom Petty died at age 66 after going into cardiac arrest at his Malibu home.

The Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers frontman will forever be remembered as a rock great. But even to those who don't recognize a single one of his songs, his influence on the music industry is undeniable.

Throughout his career, Petty made headlines for defying his record company and pioneering new strategies within an industry dominated by high-powered executives.

In 1979, Petty was already thriving, with two successful albums and hit singles including "Breakdown" and "American Girl." However, financially, he had little to show for his work, thanks to an unfavorable contract.

When Petty's label, Shelter Records, was sold to the much larger MCA, Petty voiced his grievances about the deal. He complained about the way his contract was to be transferred, claiming he didn't want to be "bought and sold like a piece of meat."

When MCA wouldn't surrender the contract, Petty took action. He financed his next record himself, racking up over $500,000 in studio costs. Then he refused to release it. He declared bankruptcy in order to force the label to void his contract, which it did. Shortly afterward, Petty signed back on with MCA under more favorable terms.

His message was clear: Treat artists well, or else.

Petty went head-to-head with MCA again in 1981 when the label pushed to sell his next album, "Hard Promises," for $9.98 a pop — a full dollar more than the norm at that time. On principle, Petty refused to release the record, stating that he wanted to keep costs down for his fans.

"If we don't take a stand, one of these days, records are going to be $20," he said at the time.

MCA eventually agreed to $8.98. That landed as another win for Petty and for musicians everywhere, and it proved that there were viable ways of pushing back against profit-minded labels.

"Sometimes there's a communications breakdown and, when that happens, you just have to stand up for yourself," Petty told The New York Times in 1981.

Even today, Petty's groundbreaking bankruptcy claim stands as a benchmark for artist rights and as an example to the music industry. The musician's defiance inspired several other artists to demand better treatment and to take creative action against unfair contracts.

In 1995, the all-female R&B group TLC filed for bankruptcy even though their sophomore album, "Crazysexycool," had sold, by that point, over 5 million copies. Their announcement was partly a ploy, but the group had also legitimately fallen on hard times, in part because the singers received only a 7 percent cut of their songs' royalties.

After negotiations, TLC re-signed with an 18 percent royalty deal.

Although bankruptcy laws are complicated and using them is by no means a cure-all for unhappy musicians, the re-emergence of Petty's once-unique solution solidified his position as an innovator. He set a precedent for other musicians to examine and follow.

Not only will Petty's music live on, but his legacy as a champion of the music industry will as well.

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