Like many of you, I was absolutely devastated to hear the news of Tom Petty’s passing this last week. For forty years Tom and the Heartbreakers have sung wise at just about every step and turn of my life. I’m sure a lot of folks feel this way. There are many reasons to respect Tom. The sheer longevity of keeping a band together forty years, his fierceness about good rock and roll and just the fact that he was plain cool. Proof: When Johnny Cash covers your song and sings “[y]ou can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I won’t back down”; only one of the best lines ever in rock and roll.
And Tom Petty knew how to not back down! As a consumer bankruptcy attorney, he was my hero. See if you know this story: After leaving Gainesville, Florida for Los Angeles, Tom Petty had settled in with a smaller record label, Shelter Records. He and the Heartbreakers were just about to blow wide open with the release of his third record, Damn the Torpedoes, when music giant MCA acquired Shelter Records. When Tom found out the band would be transferred over to MCA, well the man known as ornery in the music business put his foot down. Initially, Tom Petty had been horribly taken advantage of with respect to his publishing rights and the band’s recording contract when he first got his record deal. When MCA took over, Tom refused to release the Damn the Torpedoes album to MCA for distribution without a renegotiation of both the publishing and recording contracts. When MCA and its throng of lawyers prepared to put the Floridian hay seed in his place, Tom Petty bested them with the Bankruptcy Code.
Check out this bold move. The Bankruptcy Code allows for the assumption or rejection of executory contracts. An executory contract is “a contract that has not yet been fully performed…in which both sides still have important performance remaining.” A record contract is pretty much the poster child for an executory contract. Tom Petty, in his brilliance, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief with the plan to reject his publishing contract and recording contract with MCA and thereby be free to begin anew with another recording label. When MCA saw the potential of what could happen if all their recording artists learned this trick, it gave in and Tom Petty renegotiated both his publishing and recording contracts to his, and the band’s, advantage. Now that is a story of David slaying Goliath with the Bankruptcy Code!
Tom Petty now has a room at the top of the world tonight and he ain’t coming down. I will miss him tremendously and I will strive to mirror his longevity and fierceness, if not his coolness.