Warped Tour Founder Kevin Lyman Defends Festival's Controversial Anti-Abortion Tent: 'I Wanna Stir It Up'

General atmosphere at the Vans Warped Tour in Pomona, Calif.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

General atmosphere at the Vans Warped Tour in Pomona, Calif.

After 23 years of touring, the Vans Warped Tour has faced its share of drama. From band members’ sexual misconduct with minors to the most recent display of verbal assault earlier this week, it seems the tour can’t avoid negative attention. Kevin Lyman knows this better than anyone.

As the Warped founder, Lyman has been recognized time and time again for his philanthropic work (including Billboard’s Touring Awards Humanitarian of the Year in 2009). He personally supports nonprofits on the tour that may otherwise not be able to fund their summer and still attends every single Warped date every year. However, most of the chatter surrounding him online tends to focus on the wave of allegations that arise every summer. While he’s not personally responsible for the actions of everyone on the tour, there’s a moral responsibility to protect the young audience members from potentially dangerous situations and individuals.

Over the past two years, Rock For Life has set up shop to promote being pro-life with a series of voting games devoted to asking teens when the fetal rights override the rights of the mother. Last year, their merch featured designs emblazoned with “ALL Lives Matter” messages. This year, we spoke with Lyman to get a feel for his views on the organization and its return to Warped. He stressed Rock For Life’s focus on adoption (to which he has a very personal connection) though its parent organization, Students For Life, is clear in its goals to “abolish abortion in our lifetime” and defund Planned Parenthood. Here’s what Warped’s leader had to say. 

How are nonprofits screened and selected for Warped Tour? Are there rules they have to follow or are there groups you won’t allow?

Kevin Lyman: Yes, anyone that promotes racism, hatred… pretty much that, you know? There’s a line there, racism and hatred and bigotry towards others. That’s where we’re at. So we’ve got about 100 nonprofits throughout the summertime.


One of those nonprofits is Rock For Life. Warped is the only secular event they attend and they’ve stated their goal to meet teens before they’ve decided what they believe. After a year of protests and abortion rights coming under fire, what impact do you think an anti-choice booth could have on young women attending Warped?

They're not chasing people down. There's four girls that sit at a tent and if someone walks up and asks them questions, they answer them. What I do is I use them to drag out the pro-choice groups because we reach out -- and if anyone looks through my history, I put on the first Rock For Choice shows in Los Angeles in 1991, alright? I'm a very pro-choice advocate. But I also believe that counterpoints need to be allowed in spaces. We travel all over the country. Warped Tour plays for about a half a million kids every summer. I tend to put a little aside at Warped Tour but my public opinion is I'm very pro-choice and you know what? We couldn't get the pro-choice groups out until we had a pro-life group out here. That's been the thing to stir it up a little bit. That's what punk rock was always about. I watch them, they're one of the most passive groups out here. A lot of people stand in front of their tables or try to bring kids in. They just sit there until someone walks up. And from what I’ve seen, they're very pro-adoption. I was adopted and I'm sure glad that someone took the option to have me adopted versus an abortion.

It's definitely good that it's growing the other presences at the festival. I noticed that there are a lot of nonprofits this year on the other side of the fence, including people like A Voice For The Innocent.

And I fund A Voice For The Innocent. They couldn't afford to be here unless I paid them the money to be here. Last year, I think I invested about $30,000 of my own personal money. We need these things, but that's what punk used to be; you used to put it out there. And I know that some people might be offended, but it should rally them up to help get the other point of view in. And I don't know if you've ever followed when someone attacks me online, I say, "tell us, help us," we're a small organization. Warped Tour is run by a total of six people and we want pro-choice groups out here. I want them out here. But you know, their booth is four girls. To be honest, all four of them packed up in 10 minutes yesterday in Vegas because it was too hot for them.

I don't feel like I need to defend it but I look at ‘em and go, alright, I may not agree with them but that's what we're about. We travel through the South and there are punkers that have pro-life opinions and maybe there will be people that come this year and get changed at the pro-choice booths. Or you know, 90 percent of the people come here just to listen to music and have a good time.

Since last summer I know there has been a lot of backlash -- especially online -- from bands and fans alike. Has it affected any of the decisions for this year's tour?

No. I mean I'm always learning. A couple years ago, there was another issue and that's what caused me to make sure we embrace groups like A Voice For The Innocent. For me, my personal choices, I donate to Planned Parenthood in California. I'm a supporter. Every time they do something in California and I'm in town, we get involved or try to be part of it. Online... it's funny. I got attacked the other day by someone and I said, "Look, we have organizations you can help, we want people passionate like yourself to come help" and you know the response I get? "I don't like the lineup this year."

And that's the thing. I'm sick of the online community. Really sick of it. Some of them have motivation and it's great. Some get motivated and help us find pro-choice groups. I'm proud of those kids. But the people that are most vocal, that summed it up: I don't want to help because I don't like the lineup. You should help whether you like the lineup, you don't like the lineup, whatever. But if you're as passionate as you are online, you need to stand up in person. And it's rare. You find the most passionate people online really are the least passionate when it comes to actually doing anything, that I find.

I feel like that's a big thing with the Internet, is that everybody has a platform to use how they choose.

I put my money where my mouth is. I stand up for what I believe in. I also value other opinions. I sit under a bus every day and listen to my bus drivers. You wanna get blown away? Come spend a day with me and listen to the guys from Alabama and how they feel about the world. I bite my tongue but then I voice my opinions. We're having some really good discussions. I'm learning why they're so anti-Obamacare or why they voted for Trump. I have no fucking idea why anyone would vote for that man but by listening to them, I understand their frustrations. If we just throw up a wall, we're never going to get anything fixed. We are so divided, so split, that people won't even open their minds to another person's opinion.

I think if anyone reads through your social media, they'll find your opinions are more left-leaning.

Yeah, I wanna stir it up. I want to stir up the pro-choice to become more active around my tour and sometimes you have to do that in life. I've been doing this for 23 years. If you dig through the history of Warped Tour, there's no tour ever that's done more for nonprofits. We've launched Keep A Breast, To Write Love On Her Arms, Hope For The Day, Music Saves Lives. All those nonprofits launched out of our parking lot. I grew up in a hippie town and I turned a bunch of punkers into hippies.

I look at Warped Tour as a place where 90 percent of the people want to have a good time listening to music. But 10 percent want to overachieve and get involved in nonprofits. They bring canned food. Even in Las Vegas yesterday, we raised 2 tons of canned food for the local food banks. And everyone focuses on one little 10x10 tent versus everything else.

One of the things that struck a chord with people was that the sponsor and nonprofit pages never mention Rock For Life and neither do the Warped socials.

They don't mention 90 percent of them. The only nonprofits that are mentioned are full tour, they pay to get the social media marketing that we can do for them. If you go to our page, you'll see the larger ones or the ones that I support. For example, A Voice For The Innocent doesn't necessarily do that but that's the one I picked that I said we’d do the work for gratis. 

In terms of other people being mobilized to help, bands like War On Women are both performing and running the Safer Scenes tent to promote bystander intervention. How is this received by the team, having a band do both?

It's cool! I think Shawna is really surprised. She only knew what she read online before coming out on Warped Tour. She's writing a blog right now and I guess for sure you know there's going to be certain things, but she's also realizing how many women work on this tour and how engaged this tour really is. I support her, I gave her money for to bring her team and print her materials.

Are there any other organizations that you're particularly excited to have this year?

I love Canvas Foundation. I've always loved them, they support art and art in schools. We've been trying to get corporate sponsors for them; we work towards helping to support these people and help them grow. And Feed The Children Now, I think we're getting about 30-40 percent of the people bringing canned food to the shows now. We've sold less tickets based on not having the poppier bands, but the kids that are coming... we're collecting more food this year than ever. We've got the super engaged fans and that goes back to my point of the punk rock ethos of this tour.

Do you have any specific goals for the tour this year?

Get everyone home safe. That's my goal every year. Get the fans home safe and my crew home safe. We had three of our crew go to the hospital yesterday because of the heat. We had Phoenix and Albuquerque and the hottest three days they've probably had in the last 10 years. Now we're up in Salt Lake City and it's 79 degrees, everyone's walking around with a new smile. We power through and we move to the next thing.