Money Becomes King

By Ирина Лепнёва — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63558070

During the week leading up to the fourth anniversary of the death of legendary rock musician Tom Petty, social media promotions for a new Wildflowers-related merchandise collection began swirling around the internet. The collection, which is a collaboration with Los Angeles-based brand Rodarte, features t-shirts and sweatshirts with bright, floral designs. It’s the most recent of several Wildflowers-adjacent releases, including an expanded reissue of the seminal album itself, Wildflowers and All the Rest.

According to the official Tom Petty Instagram account, “25% of net proceeds from the sales of the collection will be given to the @daddariofoundation’s GIRLS IN MUSIC initiative.” Despite its charitable intent, many fans are unhappy with the Rodarte collaboration, primarily because the tees and sweaters also feature the luxury brand’s steep prices. At the low-end, a basic t-shirt costs $150, while crewneck sweatshirts are priced at $253 each. On the Tom Petty website, comparable non-Rodarte merchandise currently sells for $36 and $65, respectively.

In this light, a degree of sticker shock is understandable, especially given Petty’s long history as a musician of the people who regularly battled to keep his music affordable and accessible. Petty’s populist inclinations are perhaps best represented by the 1981 debacle surrounding the release of his album Hard Promises. After the stratospheric success of he and the Heartbreakers’ previous album, Damn the Torpedoes, their label decided to implement “superstar” pricing on the band’s work, which translated to Hard Promises costing $9.98 instead of the then-standard $8.98.

Petty revolted, telling the New York Times in May of 1981: “A lot of our fans have been with us for a long time, and I think they trust us. [Our label] 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.” He further threatened to rename the album Eight Ninety Eight or withhold the music entirely. Eventually, MCA caved, the album was a smash success, and the industry as a whole delayed their plan to steadily increase album prices.

“It was really the only time in my life I felt like justice was done,” Petty told Musician magazine shortly after the album’s release. Two decades later, Petty seemed to revisit this mindset on his near-concept album, The Last DJ. The track “Money Becomes King,” in particular, features the musician’s most scathing commentary on the savagely money-hungry inclinations of his industry. Light beer commercials, high-priced concert tickets, VIPs lounging in “golden circles”: as Petty wails his critiques of the music business, it’s not hard to imagine him taking aim at expensive t-shirts, as well.

In light of this history, there does seem to be a compelling argument from fans who think the Rodarte collaboration does a disservice to Petty’s legacy. “Beautiful, yet unaffordable, and out of touch with who TP was,” commented one fan on an Instagram post promoting the collection. “Tom would never allow this,” wrote another. Others simply left broken-heart and crying-face emojis.

Still others, however, have directed their criticisms much more pointedly, and blame Petty’s daughters and estate managers, Adria and Annakim Petty, for what they see as an attempt to take advantage of their father’s diehard fans. In response to one such critique on her own Instagram page, Adria commented, “Projects like this are an opportunity for an artist such as the rodarte [sic] team to interpret Tom in a joyful and beautiful way. We are not trying to exclude fans with it, but give back to the music community and share some cool art.” She also added, “We are sorry so many fans are upset about our effort to spotlight women and give back to music programs.”

Adria’s defensive sarcasm aside, there is a point to be made here about her late father’s willingness to help a worthy cause. Shortly before he died, Petty was honored as the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year, “in recognition of his significant creative accomplishments, his career-long interest in defending artists’ rights and the charitable work he has undertaken throughout his career.” Were he still alive today, there is little reason to doubt he would have approved of raising funds for the laudable Girls in Music Initiative.

The charitable aspect of the Rodarte collaboration, however, is clearly not what’s bothering fans, as much as Adria (and Rosanna Arquette, for some reason) want to nudge the conversation in that direction. Whether or not the high-priced casualwear is a disservice to Petty’s legacy, fans seem to be responding to a deeper, less speakable feeling: the fear that their favorite musician’s legacy no longer will serve them — and may, in fact, leave them behind altogether.

After all, to whom are the t-shirts, with their luxury labels, high prices, and lurid, nostalgia-heavy designs, really intended to appeal? Wealthy women who were in their teens and twenties in the 90s seem to fit the bill, and it’s likely no accident that both Adria and Annakim are members of this demographic. While Adria claims that the collaboration was not intended to exclude anyone, luxury brands aren’t exactly known for their inclusivity (and some would argue that exclusivity is very much The Point).

It’s worth noting that the Petty estate had the option of not promoting the collaboration directly, either on social media or the official Tom Petty website. The recent Gucci X Disney collaboration was only available in Gucci stores and on their website; in other words, fans of the Mouse did not encounter a $2,200, Mickey-emblazoned shoulder bag while strolling through their local Disney store. With this choice, Disney appears to have signaled that marketing luxury goods to their class-spanning, global demographic of fans didn’t make financial or practical sense.

Had the Petty estate simply licensed Rodarte to design their own take on Wildflowers and hawk it on their own website, most of his fans likely would have no idea that the clothes even existed. Meanwhile, the people for whom these clothes were intended — those with the financial means and sartorial interest in obtaining a $1,495 dress, for example — would have still likely found their way to the collection. Rich, older women could have still purchased an expensive sweater, felt good about helping poor, younger women learn music, and gone about their day in peace.

It remains to be seen if the Tom Petty X Rodarte collaboration will be the last of its kind, or the first of many. For now, the estate seems uninterested in treating fans’ concerns as valid. So invested are they in proving that their intentions were sound, they have backed themselves into a corner where they cannot acknowledge that perhaps the broader impact was tone deaf, alienating, and in need of redress.

It further remains to be seen what impact, if any, the collaboration will have on Petty’s devoted fanbase. Accusations of cash grabs and money-making schemes have been lobbed at the estate since at least early 2019, when two compilation albums (An American Treasure and The Best of Everything) were released within just five short months of each other. Additionally, some fans seem determined to personally attack Adria, Annakim, and Petty’s widow, Dana, regardless of how they handle his legacy. With tensions high and ongoing, the wedge between the estate and the fanbase seems firmly in place for now.

It’s hard to say who, if anyone, holds an enviable position in this debate. It’s certainly not the Petty women, who have landed themselves in a perpetually defensive position, fending off both misogynist internet trolls and critically-minded consumers alike. Nor is it the fans, who wonder if each new release from the estate will be worthy of the both the man himself and their memories of him. Rodarte definitely made their money (as of this writing, over half of the Wildflowers collection is sold out), but it would be a leap to assume they managed to expand their clientele significantly or generate much in the way of public good will.

At the end of the day, one can only hope that the wealthy women who bought the t-shirts and sweaters got their feel-good moment as they clicked, “Buy Now.”

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