By Chris Lowe
Tool is my favorite band.
They have nine-minute songs that use the Fibonacci sequence and reflect upon Carl Jung’s idea of “the shadow.” They average about 1 album per 10 years at this point. They have always made the music they want — and trusted that there are fans out there who will get it.
I remember Wikipedia telling me TOOL only had to play about six shows before they were “discovered.” It’s crazy — given how wild and far from conventional wisdom their music runs. But it’s deserved: they are hardworking, creative as hell, artistic to the core.
The music they’ve created has generated millions upon millions of dollars and pleased millions upon millions of fans. They don’t even appear in their own music videos. Badass.
TOOL is a success story of the bad old days of music — there’s a lot to look back on with anger at that world, but great bands always had a path.
In January 2018, driving in 0 degree temperatures across the Midwest in a 2005 Kia Sedona, I force my bandmate to listen to Tool’s “Pushit.” Our Rock duo, VOLK, has existed circa 2013 and we’ve played 200+ shows in about 12 states and about 5 countries.
I’m still not sure what A&R stands for and I’ve never talked to a suit from a major record label. And our Wikipedia page definitely doesn’t say we burst onto the scene after 6 shows. Or sixty.
Between our 3–5 hour drives between cities, or during our unpacking/packing rituals for gigs, I ponder whether a band like TOOL could survive, much less thrive if they had to come up in 2018. The $25 we get from the door in Chicago wouldn’t fill the tank of the kind of vehicle TOOL would for all four members and their equipment. And there’s definitely not enough room on the bartender’s apt floor for them to crash.
After a couple of rounds throughout the Midwest, VOLK can now “ask” for guarantees of $50-$100, but at new markets in bigger cities, we still expect email responses such as “ya’ll can sell your merch in the venue or send around a hat.”
But merch has to pay for more merch, so any money from our T’s or cd’s won’t feed us on this tour. Until the T’s break even, everybody has to pay for their 3 am Wendy’s value meal. TOOL, like any working musician, would know that trying to carry a band on merch is a treadmill that never really catches up.
The extra $50 we get from the venues in Michigan and Indy helps us get back to Nashville. We only played to a couple dozen people those nights, but we put out like it was Wrigley Field. We had to; we needed that extra $100 to make up for the first two shows — one cancelled because of a blizzard and the other because of a shooting outside the club. Along I-65, instead of trying to co-write a new song or conceptualizing a new video, we’re busy bickering about who forgot to put up the Facebook event or trying to find an email about the load in time.
We pass a billboard that says, “Hell is real.” I respond, “yes, and I’m in it.”
Talking like this makes me feel like more an accountant or manager than an artist. In the world of 2018 Indy band your not just in a band, you’re the booker, promoter, social media expert, roady, de facto label head, and if microwave burritos count, head chef. And sometimes you get to play music.
I’d like to think that, yes, TOOL would thrive in today’s industry. But when you cram all that in, what kinds of creativity and energy get crowded out? I do think in the end great music wins out — and so would TOOL today or any day.
But their Wikipedia page would probably say it took a few more than six shows.