The Last DJ is Tom Petty’s latest stab at exposing the less savory aspects of the recording industry and trying to force it to mend its ways. With every other musician in the business stepping up to take a crack at the topic, Tom’s complaints are, by now, pretty familiar: CDs cost too much; record labels only care about the bottom line and will use any excuse not to pay artists; concerts are less about music these days than about beer, T-shirts, and hyper-inflated prices; and, worst of all, music today is mediocre and sterile. Basically, asserts Petty, the industry has driven the life out of music by fostering a flavor-of-the-week mentality that makes it virtually impossible for any act to make an impact beyond first-album hype, since by the time that hype has passed, the record label has already given up and moved on to the next hopefully big thing. Such complaints have been echoed by everyone from Aimee Mann to Steve Albini, Courtney Love to Don Henley. And Petty, too, feels something should be done about it.
It’s a role he’s performed before. Twenty-one years ago, when a fresh-faced Petty found himself one of MCA’s biggest stars, the label tried to bump his fourth album up to a premium $9.98 price. Petty fought back by threatening to name the album $8.98; MCA relented. Good for him. But his latest approach to the matter is problematic: While questioning the wisdom of having virtually every radio station in the country under the control of one master playlist, he manages to insult a lot people he should be trying to win as allies. By referring to people who “celebrate mediocrity,” he immediately throws up a wall between those who have taste and those who don’t, and you can bet your amp which side Petty believes he’s on. Petty’s never made it any secret that he doesn’t much care for some of the new music that’s come down the pike since he was at his commercial peak, and there’s a certain lovable-curmudgeon quality about him that somehow makes his anti-urban-music stance somewhat tolerable.
In the new album’s title cut, a DJ who doesn’t “want to change what don’t need to change” is followed by some saber-rattling about the celebration of mediocrity. Sentimentality aside, it’s actually not too bad a song—classic Petty, with ringing guitars and a message clear enough to make the point but subtle enough that we don’t feel we’re being bludgeoned. Sadly, there’s more. And Tom’s not quite so lovable when he’s preaching his anti-non-Petty doctrine in a series of songs that often don’t rise above the level of mediocrity themselves.
“Money Becomes King” waves the biggest flag; here, looking at the concertgoing experience from the perspective of a longtime fan, Petty spells out loud and clear which side of the taste divide he fancies himself on: “As the crowd arrives/As far as I could see/The faces were all different/There was no one there like me.” It’s a plodding number with clumsy, rambling lyrics, and Petty seems incapable of hitting the notes at the end of each line without sliding gracelessly around them. After the metallic crunch of “Joe,” which clobbers you over the head with a simplistic message about how the CEOs of major labels are only interested in exploiting young artists, Petty seems to run out of steam—the rest of the album is dedicated to the type of material that he’s famous for, basic rock tales of love, loss, and losers. Not bad; just barely any passion. Petty seems content with waving his fist in the air, muttering some generalities about corporate weasels and those damned kids, then going back to business as usual. Why bother truly fighting a system that’s made it possible for him to work with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, not to mention fill up his house with guitars and stuff?
On the other side of the equation are the Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor (note recent repositioning of the exclamation point, trivia fans), who recently decided that they would rather release records on their own label, Constellation, than continue to farm out the North American CD-manufacturing and distribution rights to another independent, Kranky. Some have pointed their fingers at Godspeed for this seemingly more-militant-than-thou action, claiming that they’re taking their anti-commercial shtick just a bit too far—it’s an easy impression to get if you take a look at the back of the band’s latest release, Yanqui U.X.O., which features a corporate flowchart detailing the (perhaps tenuous) interrelations between all of the major record labels and the military-industrial complex.
It’s the kind of maneuver you’d expect from Godspeed, who have a reputation for grandstanding. Further, this album was recorded by Steve Albini—not exactly known for subtlety himself—and has a title that refers to the American war machine (U.X.O. stands for “UneXploded Ordnance,” like bombs or land mines). But Yanqui U.X.O. is actually restrained compared to previous outings; while Godspeed retain their old symphonic swells, there’s far more quiet exploration, and obviously provocative stuff (like the previously de rigueur ranting guy) is gone. If it’s not as immediately captivating, it does show a more confident band willing to let the music do the hard work.
Apparently, Godspeed’s contract with Kranky had run its course, and the band decided they were tired of their CD profits “lining the pockets of a couple of guys in Chicago.” More importantly, though—and this is where Tom Petty should be paying attention—the move back to Constellation was an easy way to lower music pricing to a more affordable level. Petty talks about bringing the price of CDs back down to $8.98, but Godspeed is well on the way to doing just that: When the CD hit the streets in some Canadian cities, it was available for $11.98 Canadian, or roughly the same price you would have to pay to get the new Tom Petty album used (never mind new, where the album will cost you nearly $30 if you go for the ultra-deluxe version with the DVD). Thanks to the miracle of a weak Canadian dollar, that works out to about $7.65 in good ole U.S. currency. For a brand-new CD. It’s worth noting that Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a nine-piece ensemble—one piece more than the number of names listed in bold type on The Last DJ, one of whom is just a famous guest who appears on only one song. And yet the band feels this is enough money not only to keep going, but to invest back into their label.
The indies have had a long history of doing things on the cheap, however. You don’t have to look much further than Dischord, who have released virtually everything with a legend on the back that tells you what it will cost you to get that item sent right to your door. Though the label celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2000, it finally got around to celebrating that milestone this year with the release of a three-CD retrospective featuring not only highlights but a disc of rarities; despite the inclusion of a 134-page full-color booklet and a sturdy cardboard slipcover, you can have the item delivered for a measly $25. The most recent album by Fugazi, who almost certainly generate the lion’s share of the revenue for the label, will magically appear in your mailbox if you send Dischord $10. Whack about $1 off of that for the postage, and you’re at Petty’s magic price—a price which still somehow seems to keep the label operating. And with many of the Dischord acts, it’s not as if they’re making their money back with steep ticket prices, because the concerts tend to be all-ages shows (so much for the beer-swilling masses that irritate Petty so much) with a fairly low cover price.
Still, given the drawing of battle lines with many of Petty’s promotionally driven statements about the sorry state of the music biz, most notably his blanket condemnation of the “stupidity” of hip-hop lyrics (and, by implication, all of the genre’s fans), a lot of people are managing to miss the fact that his deeper point is true at its heart: Artists can still connect with the fans while avoiding the commercial star machine—witness Aimee Mann, who formed her own label in order to better control her own destiny, and who has reported that she’s making a better living now than she ever did while under contract to the majors. You can even tour the country and play to people who’ve been your fans since the beginning. Of course, all of these things mean giving up your major label expense account and some frills that go along with the rock star life—something only the most established of today’s stars get anyhow.
In a puzzling recent Rolling Stone interview, Petty confirmed that $150 for a concert ticket was way too much, but that oh, say, $65 was OK (not coincidentally, the top price Petty charges for tickets). Theoretically, if he were serious about connecting with music lovers again, he’d sever ties with the major labels, self-release his albums, and play smaller venues where charging more than $20 for a ticket would be seen as a gratuitous cash grab. Sure, he’d have to play more shows that way, and he’d earn less money per show. But it’s all about the music, right Tom?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play Madison Square Garden December 13.