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Petty & the Heartbreakers Fly High
By Ray Waddell
Billboard — August 13, 2005
Rockers Approach Their 30th Anniversary With Career-High Attendance, Ticket Sales
Nearly 30 years into a Hall of Fame career, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are putting up their highest numbers on the road.
“We’ve always had incredibly good audiences, but they are absolutely frenzied and manic now,” Petty tells Billboard in a rare interview. “Which is good for us, because our show has always really been about the audience. It’s as much fun as you can legally have, I think.”
More than halfway through their summer tour, Petty & the Heartbreakers are averaging slightly less than $600,000 per night at the box office and 16,500 per night in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.
“This tour is smoking,” says Barbara Skydel, the band’s agent for close to 30 years, the past few at the William Morris Agency.
Such a blistering pace is leading the band to a total attendance of close to 730,000 and a gross of well over $25 million. Ticket prices, generally between $25 and $60, are relatively low compared to those of other tours.
The magnitude of dollars and tickets does not seem a primary concern to Petty. “I’m not really involved in the business,” he admits. “I’m fortunate — I’ve been with the same manager since I started out 30 years ago, and he has always been very good at looking after our tours and things. But I’m hearing more and more about this [tour]; every day, someone from the business world is telling me how great it’s doing. Who would’ve dreamed that 30 years later we’d still be doing these kind of numbers? So we’re very happy about it.”
Tony Dimitriades, Petty’s longtime manager, says even he is impressed by the tour’s success, given the marketplace. “I assume, with shows as good as these have been over the years, that more and more people will come,” he says. “But the way the business is going and the way other people are selling tickets, I guess it does surprise me that we’re actually drawing as many people as we are.”
Skydel says the band’s performance is the culmination of years of delivering the goods onstage. “This is what it means to be a career artist,” she says.
Petty & the Heartbreakers have proved remarkably consistent in a touring business known for inconsistency. For 2002’s Last DJ tour, the band’s most recent trek with a like number of large-venue dates, the averages were $468,767 at the box office and 15,490 in tickets sold, for a total attendance of 681,592 for 44 shows.
Petty agrees his band has been a solid draw on the road for a while now. “Things are always pretty good, but then you look up and this is happening and everyone’s excited, and we sort of feel like, ‘Well, we do this all the time,'” he says. “We’re always there, if people want to notice.”
And while his audience has been loyal, Petty says he has noticed a new generation of fans. “We’ve seen this over the years, the torch being passed down and younger people coming in,” he says. “But we still maintain a core audience. A lot of them were even there in the ’70s.”
The current tour, with the reunited Black Crowes in the opening slot, has notched doubles in several markets. Tea Party, the Boston operation of Clear Channel Music Group, nailed down June 18 and July 29 dates, and both sold out the market’s Tweeter Center.
“Boston loves Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers,” Tea Party senior VP Dave Marsden says, calling this tour the “outstanding bill of the year.”
“The June 18 show remains the talk of the town,” he adds. “With a long history of great performances for their fans in New England, it took quite a night to set a new standard, but that is exactly what Tom and the Heartbreakers accomplished.”
Plays Well With Others
Though Dimitirades has gone with a national tour promoter in the past, this time out he worked with a mixed bag that includes national promoters Clear Channel Entertainment and House of Blues along with such indies as Jam Productions, Another Planet and IMP.
“We were going to do a certain number of dates, and we wanted to make sure every situation was exactly the way we wanted it,” Dimitriades explains. “Tom hadn’t done a national tour in three years, so we felt we would hand-pick every single show.”
Meanwhile, Petty says he is having as much fun performing as he ever has. “And the band is really on fire,” he adds. “Right now, we all feel like we’re the best rock ‘n’ roll band there is, and I think that’s a good attitude to have.”
Petty’s tour ends with a two-night stand Sept. 2-3 at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash., with no plans to extend the outing.
But it is clear that Team Petty has big plans for 2006, including a new album. The band’s first album was released in 1976.
“Look out for next year — that’s the 30th anniversary,” Petty says. “We’re gonna party.”
Veteran Petty Production Team Keeps Focus On Music
By Ray Waddell
Billboard — August 13, 2005
Production for a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers concerts varies greatly from splashy psychedelics to lean and mean Given that the act’s outings are not necessarily related to a new album, any theme is fair game.
“Depends on the mood we’re in,” Petty says. “The production we’ve got out right now is a really nice one, based on a guy called Saul Bass who did movie titles in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Bass’ graphics for such films as “Vertigo,” “Psycho” and “West Side Story” are all about weird angles and bizarre shapes. “It’s a unique way of presenting the show,” Petty says. “I got a little tired of seeing rock shows that are just cones of light. They seem very similar to me, so I tried to do something a little different this time.”
As always, the focus is on the music. “We’ve never had anything that exploded or anything,” he says. “But production can be fun. In the type places we’re playing, these big outdoor shows, it’s good to have something for the people a mile away watching the thing. And we’ve also incorporated the video in an unusual way into the act, so everybody has a good seat in a sense [and] can see everything in detail.”
While the band’s production may vary, the backstage rider keeps getting smaller. “Somebody showed me one that was supposed to be ours printed on a Web site — it’s not ours. It’s completely amusing. I don’t recognize it at all,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve cut it down so much. There’s not any drinkers in the band. All we ask is a hot meal, really, and in my room I think I have a couple of Cokes and some protein bars, and that’s about it. No deli trays; we don’t like all that. I think people would laugh if they saw our rider, it’s so simple.”
That is not to say the Heartbreakers cut corners in getting from point A to point B. “We’ve got our own jet — that’s pretty ostentatious,” Petty says. “I’d say the biggest change is we travel in a lot more comfort than we used to.”
It is all about familiar faces on the road, not just within the band but also among the crew. The Heartbreakers roadie roster has been stable throughout the years; backstage crew chief Alan “Bugs” Weidel (30 years), tour manager Richard Fernandez (26 years), assistant tour manager Mark Carpenter (15 years) and lighting director Jim Lenahan (30 years) are seasoned vets, and house sound man Robert Scovill, monitor engineer Brian Hendry and tour accountant Spence Churchill all have more than a decade with the band.
“We keep a happy bunch,” Petty says. “It’s a family thing. We’ve done a lot of work over the years, we keep the same people around and they really look after us on the stage.”
Petty places a lot of faith and responsibility in his crew. “You know that guitar’s going to be in tune and you’re going to get the one you want within seconds,” he says. “It’s really precision. The other night I had to spin around and say, ‘Look, I’m changing five songs,’ and they covered me. It’s very nice to have people you know and that you love.”
Petty is particularly high on his sound techs. “We have the best sound people, I think, and the best PAs,” Petty says. “We go to a lot of trouble to make sure the sound is good, and I think that helped us over the years. The audience knows the sound is going to be good at one of our shows, and we’re going to go the extra mile to make sure the audience enjoys it. That way, we enjoy it.”
From a tour business perspective, Petty & the Heartbreakers’ manager Tony Dimitriades calls the shots. Petty “makes the records, so I can get more involved in the touring side of things,” Dimitriades says. “Over the years, you get to know and understand each other in such a way that you know exactly what to do: which venues to avoid, which days to avoid, when to give them an extra day off.”
And Dimitriades’ touring philosophy is simple. “What makes something last a long time to me is always about the quality of what you bring and the fact that you’re reasonable in what you expect in exchange,” he says. “In other words, you don’t get greedy.”