Music » Music Stories

Marketing Tool

It's all semantics: A single CD and a four-track video compilation now constitutes a boxed set. When will it end?


The release of a Tool boxed set caused no small amount of outrage around the RFT music offices. Tool has a grand total of three albums to their credit, and here they are getting a boxed set? Sonic Youth has 14 albums, and they don't have a boxed set; the Melvins have extruded 13 albums, and they, too, are boxed-set-deficient. The Red Hot Chili Peppers don't have a boxed set, and they have an MTV Video Vanguard Award, for Carson Daly's sake! The industry hasn't blundered so egregiously since releasing that Best of Silverchair, Vol. I travesty (if you just scratched your head and grunted quizzically, well, that was our reaction, too). In true High Fidelity spirit, lists of the Top Five Bands That Deserve Boxed Sets More Than Tool were being smugly and self-righteously compiled when the door to the Radar Station bunker opened with the pneumatic hiss of escaping gas, silencing our bluster. The gnarled and wizened claw of the Great Old One beckoned from the shadows of Ground Zero, and we averted our eyes, lest they make contact with the cold black orbs that rest in the Anointed One's face: "Somebody listen to the friggin' thing first," he pronounced. "Then you can gripe about it. In descending order: Mekons, Run-D.M.C., Lee Hazlewood, Bay City Rollers, Maurice Chevalier." An empire rose and fell in the pause. "Friswold. And get me some more Pop Rocks while you're out."

So, having purchased, listened to, watched, absorbed, ruminated upon, eaten and expelled Tool's Salival for the better part of two weeks, it is with great regret that your humble musical scribe must resort to the last words of Aleister Crowley by way of assessment: "I am perplexed."

Perplexed that Salival is called a boxed set when it consists of a nine-track CD and a videocassette containing but four videos.

Perplexed that a lavishly illustrated 50-plus-page booklet accompanies said CD and video, and yet the whole shebang costs a mere $23.41 at Vintage Vinyl ("Where the elite meet to buy musical treats").

Perplexed that a band that has not released an album in almost five years would choose this boxed set/not a boxed set hybrid as their vehicle to re-enter the public view.

Perplexed that 105.7 The Point has been forcing "Maynard's Dick" down our collective throat when "No Quarter" (or any of the live cuts, for that matter) is so much better.

Undoubtedly these issues concern you also, or you would not have read this far. Let us apply the Stri-Dex of critical analysis and clear up this complexion of perplexion.

Point No. 1: Traditionally, boxed sets are massive chunks of music that function as triple-X porn for music nerds. They require multiple CDs to contain all the b-sides, outtakes, covers, rare mixes, false starts and studio shenanigans that the artist has been squirreling away for years. One of those discs had better be live, because that's the money shot for collectors. These prized CDs are accompanied by thick booklets of pictures, anecdotes, discographies, band history and testimonials from famous fans. Ideally there should be at least one essay written about the artist by David Fricke, Danny Sugarman or Clive Davis.

Salival is missing more than a few of those elements. Its lone CD features five live songs, three unreleased studio cuts (including a Zeppelin cover and a Peach cover) and the throwaway "Maynard's Dick." The videotape features the entire Tool video library: "Sober," "Prison Sex," "Stinkfist" and "Aenima." Total listening/ viewing time is about an hour and 40 minutes. Not quite the staggering sensory overload of the Stooges' Funhouse Sessions or Metallica's Live Shit: Binge and Purge, but, then, Salival doesn't have any of the song overlap of either of those two juggernauts. But how could it? It only has nine songs! Those nine songs range in quality from mediocre ("Maynard's Dick") to great ("You Lied") but there just aren't enough of them. And a four-song video is just plain skimpy. Again, the quality of the videos is not in question: Tool makes transcendent videos. But Tool also has a visually powerful live show -- why not put some live stuff we haven't seen before on the video? Boxed sets are about quality and quantity; you should get a lot of great, weird shit, and you should pay through the nose for it. This isn't a boxed set, it's a glorified LP.

This leads to point No. 2: Salival costs only slightly more than a brand-new CD. Huh? The record industry works on a simple principle: They won't release it if they don't think they're going to make their money back and then some. A brand-new copy of Aenima, Tool's last album, costs around 15 bucks. For about 8 bucks more, Salival gives you the CD, a video, a full-color hardbound CD book and a fancy, too-big-for-your-shelf slipcase to hold it all. How can Tool's record company afford all that extra stuff without jacking the price way up? Salival, unlike more traditional boxed sets, is accessible to both hardcore Tool fans and the casual listener. The hardcore fan must buy it, no matter what the cost; he's hardcore. The casual listener can afford to pick it up without having to take on a second mortgage. This broader market appeal means that Tool's record company (Zoo/Volcano Entertainment) will conceivably sell more copies and thus make its nut back. Unless record companies are already gouging on the price of CDs ... no, that's unthinkable! Those hardworking industry suits are just breaking even, if that. Anyway, Salival was listed as Vintage Vinyl's No. 1 seller for the week ending Jan. 13. Ka-ching! When was the last time you saw a boxed set as a top seller? Again, it ain't no boxed set, it's a glorified LP.

These "is it a boxed set/is it not a boxed set" questions hint at the "what" of Salival, but the more confusing aspect is the "why" of Salival. Why would a band that has not released an album since 1996 unleash this strange beast now?

Because this strangely formatted maxi-album/mini-boxed set epitomizes the trouble with marketing Tool and leads us to point No. 3.

Think about it: Where exactly does Tool fit in the musical world? The band first appeared in the post-grunge alternative-rock signing frenzy of the Lollapalooza days, but they're not really grungy or alternative. They've played Ozzfest, but they aren't really heavy metal or nu metal. They release new albums only slightly more frequently than Guns n' Roses, yet they maintain a loyal following. They espouse drug use for psychic exploration, Enochian magic, spiritual growth and the pursuit of arcane and esoteric knowledge. Are they a rock band, an art project or a secret magical society? In today's post-Columbine climate, Tool is a band that must frustrate the bejesus out of PR people. They're a good band, they make good albums, but do you really want the kind of media attention their music and ideas will eventually garner? Not with John Ashcroft as attorney general, you don't.

So you release an album that is accessible to both Tool's core audience and any potential new audience without taking any unnecessary risks. Release some old songs in a new live format, throw in some images that have already been broadcast and package the whole thing in a beautiful box. And on the front of that box, put a big sticker that reminds both old and new fans that the fourth Tool album will be out on April 17.

The results are mixed. Those core fans get some pretty packaging, some variations of familiar songs, some videos they taped off MTV four years ago, a whetted appetite for the long-awaited new album and the feeling that they didn't quite get ripped off but didn't get quite what they wanted. New fans get a easily digested sample of what to expect from Tool (good music, great art and some unusual ideas) before their opinion can be shaped by the scandal-driven and reactionary mainstream media, but they don't get the full-on weirdness of Tool's live spectacle or philosophy. And so Salival ends up feeling more like a triumph of marketing and packaging than anything else.

As for point No. 4, that's easy: The Point sucks, and the staff can't tell musical shit from shinola, even when they have to dig through the ass end of the last track on an album to find it.

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