Vans Warped Tour founder/producer Kevin Lyman has been working to keep his mobile gang of bands and backroom staff rumbling along since 1995. It's no small feat, keeping this longrunning institution shipshape in the face of a rapidly changing music industry. Aggressively streamlining the routing, gaining new sponsors and taking a look at the successes within the electronic circuit were all in the 4Fini, Inc. bossman's bag of tricks this year, but ultimately, as with his other branded touring events, the bands remain the most crucial component.
"It really comes down to your lineup. The fan has so much access to what you're doing and they are going to look and decide in ten seconds whether they are coming. What we've decided to do is reverse it: we've decided to announce the young up and coming bands for about three months leading up to the main stage bands so hopefully Warped Tour still has that sense of discovery. Kids warm up to some of these younger bands. It was fun last year to watch people learn about Bad Rabbits. Kids kind of rallied around them and by the time the tour started, they had a nice crowd."
Once the short list assembled, he creates a playlist, then pictures himself in those venues where he's traveled with the Vans Warped Tour so many times. "I put it on an iPod, put it on shuffle, hang out for a few hours and think, 'How would this sound standing in a parking lot?''
But beyond the bands, Warped Tour has a long list of elements to organize, and Lyman's Director of Tour Sponsorships, Sarah Baer, said much has changed over the ten years she's been with the company. "We still have our family, like Vans, Monster, Truth and a lot of brands that have been with us for a long time. But in the last five years, we've really made a concerted effort to reach out to new brands, as well. Kia is here for their fifth year. Lionsgate has been with us for the past three years -- first with ' The Expendables,' then ' Conan' and now this year with 'The Expendables 2.' They see Warped as a good place to spend their summer marketing money.
"People are still spending money on music, but it's the same as everywhere -- people are being smarter about what they're spending, as they should be," she continued. "When we talk with people, the first thing out of their mouth is that their budget just got cut. They are still trying to reach the same audience, but they don't have the same budget. In my mind, if there's a brand that wants to work with us, we'll figure out a way. Even if they have the most minuscule budget, we'll figure something out that works within their budget, even if it's in a very limited way."
One thing 4Fini is reluctant to offer in those conversations is "return on investment" talk. "I don't have 'ROI's for this tour," said Baer. "You can't put a brand on Warped Tour and then when you leave say, Arizona, look at Arizona the next day and see if there's a spike in sales there. It's more of a cumulative effect. It's a build, it's a 'cred' factor. When people ask me what the 'ROI' is on Warped Tour, I explain the longterm effects to them."
Warped Tour veteran Joe Escalante (bassist for Vandals and founder of Kung Fu Records) pointed to Kevin's continued hands-on involvement as the key to the tour's endurance, even as the business has changed around it. "That conglomerate stuff is ruled by committee and they are slow to catch on," he said of the music business at large. "Here, you've got one guy. He's got young daughters, pretty hip wife, pretty hip staff. And they just take care of business and move along with the times."
"Kevin makes all of the decisions," agreed Dave Shapiro, who books twelve of the bands on this year's tour. "If you give him a good, logical reason why a band deserves a tour, he usually will listen. We talk a lot. He's always got everyone going to his office for meetings in September, so I literally go once a week that month. He's got a great support team. Julie [Grant], his assistant, keeps his life in order. His sponsorship team is amazing."
Nick "Biggie" Grimaldi's four years on Warped Tour as a road manager for different acts such as Blessthefall and Every Time I Die helped forge relationships with the people in the office. "I have a good relationship with the staff, people like Kate Truscott. I'll make sure to have a one-on-one dinner with Kevin if I can. We absolutely plan release schedules around Warped for bands like Every Time I Die. It's the first time we're running through major markets after the release of the album. Same thing for Blessthefall; we haven't been in majors since 2011. It's crucial for a bandlike Every Time I Die who has been around for 14 years to go out and play to a young fanbase. And it's crucial to reestablish for a younger band like Blessthefall, because that fanbase has a short memory."
Lyman jokingly conceded that "I've probably become a benign dictatorship" and admitted that the hardest thing for him is having to say no to so many acts every year. "I have great people with me but ultimately, the decision is mine. I make wrong decisions. But I'll make 'em. I think we're paralyzed, our whole world, if you look at it from the top down. You look at Congress. They don't make decisions! They talk about it too long. Make the decision and move. And that's what we do. Right or wrong, I'll make decisions everyday and live up to those decisions."
For managers who've watched acts develop from the smallest stages to Billboard's Top 10, the tour will always be relevant. Fly South's Mark Mercado spoke warmly about Paramore's connection with the event. "For someone like Hayley [Williams], Warped is just where she's from. It's where she grew up so it's like going back home for her. There's just a connection there you can't get anywhere else on Warped, with A Day To Remember or Devil Wears Prada, too. Last year John [Youngman] and I joked about getting a management bus because we had so many bands on the tour."
Speaking of busses, Lyman said the biggest shift in 2012's strategy had to do with routing. "Last year we were driving all over the place and re-routing for people. This year I said, 'You know what? I love your venue, but I'm going to find somewhere else to play.' Because it cost me a quarter million dollars extra in overdrives and fuel last year. And all these young bands it cost them extra in fuel. So I said, 'This year we're going to route in a straight line.' Why are those electronic kids so quick? Because they're nimble. Moving with their fans. I'm realizing I need to be nimble.
"I don't want to get bogged down in antiquated systems," he continued. "This is what is right for my brand. Is it right for AEG or Live Nation? Sometimes, it's not. But to keep this brand going, I have to make decisions. It's a fine budget. It's tougher to make a living. Even with the success and the people out there, my bottom line has shrunk. I don't mind it being smaller, but I can't afford for it to go down any lower. Even though we're successful - we do 550,000 tickets - the fan can't be pushed any harder."