Tom Petty sang “I Won’t Back Down” with a raffish drawl. But when he delivered the same message to a record company, it was with the conviction of an artist protecting the integrity of his work -- one who became increasingly cognizant of both his creative and financial leverage and adept at controlling his career.
Petty was first signed to Shelter Records -- a boutique label co-owned by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell -- as a member of Mudcrutch. After releasing one single, Shelter opted to drop Mudcrutch but keep Petty. His initial singles with The Heartbreakers, “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” failed to chart, yet he quickly built up a strong following in England, and the band’s popularity as a live act helped his two albums for Shelter go gold.
That first flush of success proved far less lucrative than Petty expected. Particularly irksome was the realization that he had signed away all of his songwriting and publishing rights for $10,000. “I had no idea I’d never make money if I did that,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. When Shelter’s distributor, ABC Records, was sold to MCA in 1979, Petty sought to break the contract. He said he was motivated by the idea that “I could work my ass off for the rest of my life, and for every dime I saw, the people that set me up would’ve seen 10 times as much.”