Tool Continues To Reach New Touring Frontiers (Cover Story)
(Travis Shinn)

How many artists can sell out arenas in major markets across the continent? A few dozen, probably. How many metal or heavy rock bands? Maybe a dozen. How many can sell out arenas in secondary, tertiary and international markets? Perhaps a handful, if there’s a special occasion, reunion or other demand catalyst.

How many progressive, heavy and still-active rock bands can sell out secondary, tertiary and international arenas after 30-plus years with the same core lineup, no reunion, farewell tour or other gimmick?

You know where we’re going with this.

“I’m just happy that we have loyal fans and people can come see what we do and appreciate it,” says Tool co-founder and guitarist Adam Jones. “We just want to put on a good show, the four of us, and want people to walk away and really feel like they got their money’s worth, and just let them forget about the wicked world for two hours and just have a good time.”

The band’s original guitarist, speaking just days after the birth of his third child, has a humble take on Tool’s status as a touring band that continues to push boundaries sonically and visually. The band’s latest tour leg, kicking off in September, takes in arenas in markets as varied as Idaho Falls, Idaho; Eugene, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; Kelowna, British Columbia, Knoxville, Tennessee; Loveland, Colorado; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Charleston, West Virginia. Major markets (sometimes doubles) and festivals including the mammoth Power Trip are sprinkled in, meaning the secondary and tertiary markets are just part of the normal Tool tour.

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Tool, including founding member and guitarist Adam Jones and bassist since 1995 Justin Chancellor, has continued to grow its touring business. Photo by Travis Shinn

“This is what we do,” said Jones. “I’m very fortunate that it’s this way, but the end of the line is just to do something that we’re very rewarded with, and then to share it. I’m just glad people are into it, you know? There’s many people who get what we do, and there’s many who don’t get what we do.”

It hasn’t exactly been a slow build for the band, which formed in the early ’90s fronted by the gifted and eccentric Maynard James Keenan, known for a vulnerable yet powerful voice to meet the band’s sludgy, often hypnotic and sometimes tribal energy. The music resonates with fans of all walks of metal, from the nerdy progressive math-rock whizzes to the mainstream rockers. Tool earned its stripes in the early years on the clubs and theaters circuit, also on part of the traveling Lollapalooza, but has been at the arena level since the early 2000s, having won multiple Grammys and claiming three No. 1 album releases.

With the band from the beginning has been WME’s John Branigan, who counts Tool as one of his very first bands he booked, while he was at the mailroom at Triad Artists.

“Tool is very conscious of how things get done and everything is done with long-term vision,” says Branigan. “Ticket price, scaling, it’s not cookie cutter. Every market is different. Every venue and city is different. They work to sell every date out, not skip a step and show growth each time in the market. I mean, they’ve been doing this over 30 years now.”

While the band doesn’t tour in perpetuity, it has remained mostly active, especially over the last 10 years, with a calculated mix of venues, markets and type of shows to keep it interesting and continue to grow with a powerful live production.

“What Tool tries to do is to create scarcity for future growth,” Branigan says. “Secondaries, tertiaries are incredibly important as well as different looks, multiple arenas, multiple theaters, whether you’re playing in town or in the suburbs, always trying to add and include new markets where they haven’t been. They haven’t been to some of these markets in 20 years. So it’s important.”

That method is all part of an intentional strategy to reach fans and share the love while maintaining some mystique – on their own terms. The band’s music did not arrive on streaming services until 2019, ahead of its long-awaited Fear Inoculum release, which became its third No. 1 album.

“They’re a band that really built a touring business,” adds Michele Bernstein, a tour marketing consultant with her own Michi B firm and formerly a tour marketing executive at WME. “They’ve developed over the years, with a ‘We’ll just go do it and we’ll do it our way.’ It’s been wildly successful and it’s continued to be successful as they’ve evolved. We still do it the way we’ve done it, and it works.”

Tool at SOMA San Diego
Tool pictured at SOMA in San Diego in 1992. Photo by Lindsay Brice / Getty Images

She notes the strength of the show production, known for top-notch creative elements, which adds to demand and word of mouth.

“Then of course, they’re true artists,” she said. “The visuals are so spectacular. The only way to really experience Tool is to go to the show.” Bernstein notes the lack of excessive presales and elaborate scaling, with the Tool Army fanclub members getting first grabs.
Notably, Tool works with many promoters who have been with them from the beginning, meaning not just independents but personal relationships that go back decades.

“You’re probably talking to the No. 1 fan of the band, not just their music but their entire business and especially John Branigan, who has made an effort to stay with credible independent guys,” says longtime Texas-based promoter Danny Eaton, now with Outback Presents and whose 462 Concerts was a dominant force in Dallas throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He later spent time with both Live Nation and AEG Presents. Tool has stayed with him regardless of the company he’s worked for. He said his first Tool shows include The Bomb Factory in Dallas in 1993.

“It’s art, you know?” Eaton added. “They are such an artful band to me and so unique. Every time you see them, it’s something fresh and impressive. You walk out and go, ‘Where’d that come from?’ That’s what keeps people coming back. They take rock music to a whole other level of the art form.”

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Tool’s touring might has led to sold-out fall arena dates in secondary and
tertiary markets such as Idaho Falls, Spokane, Knoxville, British Columbia and others.
Photo by Travis Shinn

Eaton says Tool sold out the Knoxville date of the upcoming tour, which Outback is promoting, “in one day, really. We did one there 20 years ago, probably about 6,000 tickets then, and they haven’t been back in 20 years. They’re hitting some of those places again and obviously the legend grows.”

Other longtime promoters include Monqui Presents’ Mike Quinn, Jam Productions’ Andy Cirzan, AEG Presents’ Brent Fedrizzi and Elliott Lefko, Danny Wimmer, and Live Nation’s Geoff Gordon and Terry Burke.

Jones says it’s a simple matter of sticking with people who treat you right and do a good job.

“When we started out, when we were opening for bands and we got treated badly, we could see how the kind of inner dynamics of the ‘Game of Thrones’ behind-the-scenes happens,” Jones says. “We kind of learned how not to do it. Everyone wants to do their best job, and if you want to be a hero, you hang out with heroes. That’s how it works. We have incredible people working for us. Our backline crew, the lasers, the lights, the video, the sound, the people that show up and take it down. We work with all the same people pretty much and got a nice little family.”

The loyalty works both ways.

Tool Q 3960
Photo by Travis Shinn

“The greatest thing about Tool is they’re very loyal to their fans, they’re loyal to themselves, and they’re loyal to promoters, and we’ve got a fabulous relationship,” said Brent Fedrizzi of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains based in Colorado. “They try and think about all of that when they’re coming into the market, and it’s always just a great experience. If you could have more Tool shows, you’d take them. They do it with class and people continue to come back and they sell out every show, and it’s always a great experience. They’ve been at it a while, but they’re going to keep going and the demand has not waned at all. If anything, it’s bigger than it’s ever been.”

Fedrizzi notes the band’s fan-friendly onsale, where the bulk of true tickets are sold rather than through multiple presales and special offers.

“The Tool Army gets their fair shake, but that’s even unique in this world to still be doing it that way,” he said. “And I think a lot of people prefer that, because they feel like they have a chance to get a ticket.”

Jones says he tries to view the ticket buying process as a fan himself.

“What would I want if I wanted to go to the show? I would want to get my money’s worth. I can’t speak for all the outside, third-party StubHubs and all that kind of stuff, who will buy bundles of tickets and then resell them. I have no control over that. So it’s about the experience, and hopefully it’s successful and we walk away happy and they walk away happy. To me, it’s like a big mirror, you know?”

For the upcoming tour, Jones says the band may mix things up a little after last year’s touring, which included full U.S. and European legs and averaged more than 10,000 tickets per night and $1.2 million grossed per show.

“We’ve added to the show,” he says. “ We haven’t played all the markets and definitely want people to see what we’re doing. We might dig a couple oldies out and angle our set list a little bit, and the rhythm of it. And we got some new visuals, which are very cool.”

He says Power Trip, the Goldenvoice-produced heavy metal spectacle taking place at the Empire Polo Club in Indio Oct. 6-8, is a bit of a “pinch me” moment, and that he views his peers more as an idolizing teenage fan might. The event features select rock and metal royalty, with only Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Metallica and Tool.
“We’re so honored to be asked and to be put in the basket with these other legendary bands. Are you kidding? Iconic,” Jones says. He jokes that Tool wouldn’t “open” for any band, but Metallica is a different story — and it’s co-headlining in this case. “It’s just another thing I just pinch myself and if I died tomorrow, I’d be like, oh my God, I can’t believe my life and stuff I’ve gotten to do. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. If you told me when I was 12 that I’d be doing this, I’d be like, God, get outta here.”

Focused on doing what’s right for themselves and the fans, Jones sounds eager to continue the momentum. On their terms and, mostly, in harmony.

“It’s four different guys in this band. It’s a very eclectic group and we all have different tastes in music, we’re all different people, we all do different things on the side,” he said. “But what we do when we meet is really great and magical to me. And part of that thing is it’s our own rules. When it seems like the right thing to do, we do it. And when it’s not, we don’t. But, from my end, I’d love to do it more,” he says with a laugh.