The business of music… or notes on Tom Petty

Tom Petty at the Vegoose Music Festival, 2006

When does an artist “sellout”?

Is it when they first play an arena, or when they try to re-create their last top single?

Did Dylan sellout when he plugged in, when he appeared in a Victoria’s Secret ad or when he released an album through Starbucks?

Does that fact that Cher actually stopped touring (she’s back out on tour, dang it Cher!) after her “farewell” concert make her less of a sellout than the Eagles with their multiple farewell attempts and exclusive deal with Walmart?

If Robert Johnson sold his soul for his guitar skills, are today’s musicians dealing with the devil or are they simply making good business decisions?

It’s no secret that I love Tom Petty. I realize that the man has a vocal range of about three notes and that he has the habit of looking like a stoned scarecrow but by golly he’s the sexiest stoned scarecrow with a limited vocal range walking this planet. Besides all that he’s a great musician, a fabulous performer and is absolutely hilarious. Really. So he didn’t give the performance of his life at the Super Bowl half-time but everyone has an off night sometimes.

I see him as a man of the people. He complains about the music industry the entire length of “Last DJ” and he has a reputation for keeping his ticket prices low (capped at $85, compared with some shows which face value can reach hundreds) and giving fans the most he can. He even admitted that if he had Napster when he was a kid, he’d be among the worst of the downloaders. In his song, “Money Becomes King” Tom talks about Johnny, a rocker who starts out for his fans but is caught in the cogs of the corporate wheel.

And maybe Tom is Johnny. His upcoming tour is an arena tour, though he said he was going to shun arenas with their nosebleed seats and tin-can sound for nicer, smaller venues. I do understand, he’s still wildly popular and he can fill a large venue to the brim. If he were to play tiny venues there’d be thousands of fans across the country unable to attend. Either way, some fans are going to be bummed. This tour also has the “golden circles” with the VIPs from the song.

The fact is that music is a business. There is a lot of money changing hands and a lot of opportunities for people to start lining their pockets. Tom’s not the only person who has a say in how his shows are run. There are managers and promoters and labels and all types of other people involved saying where a band can play, when they can play there and to which people seats will go. At a certain point an artist can’t control every single detail. Tom focuses on what he can control. The quality of his show is the same in a large venue as a small venue.

Logically, in a place called music utopia, the biggest fans that would wait hours in line at the box office (well, in the days of old before TicketMaster) would be in the front section and therefore have the same view they would have had in a small theater. Yes, more money is made by playing arenas, but this also has to be weighed against the added cost of playing a big venue. More event staff, more lights and sound issues, more everything. By the time everyone takes their cut, the artist doesn’t always end up getting a larger paycheck. And really, just because he’s Tom Petty doesn’t mean the man doesn’t have to eat or put a roof over his head like the rest of us.

Same theory applies to Dylan and his electricity. Is he not allowed to change his sound and experiment based solely on the fact that he is Dylan? Selling out may not be selling out. Since we don’t know the motives of the Eagles touring (again) or Joni Mitchell going through Starbucks to record her album we can’t judge and say they’ve gone back on their morals or ethics.

I don’t think we have to worry about artists selling out until Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson start touting the wonders of oil and nuclear power.

Photo from the 2006 Vegoose Music Festival by Nichole Wagner

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