Warped Tour

Warped Tour to Hit the Road For Final Trek in 2018: Exclusive Interview With Founder Kevin Lyman

The music industry’s last remaining major traveling festival is saying goodbye.

Next year, The Vans Warped Tour will ride into the sunset for a final summer’s worth of North American dates. According to producer Kevin Lyman, who founded the fest in 1995, numerous factors -- including an evolving summer festival industry, a shrinking pool of bands, and declining ticket sales amongst its teenage demographic -- led him to declare the tour’s 24th year its last.

“Before Warped I was on three years of Lollapalooza, so [it’s been] 26 straight summers out on the road,” Lyman tells Billboard. “Not that I’m completely going anywhere, but traveling around the country with a tour this size in the landscape that we’re in is… to be honest, I’m just tired.”

But Warped still has one final summer’s worth of dates on the road. No artists have been confirmed, and in fact, Lyman is still filling the bill, hoping some Warped icons will hop on to make the last hurrah extra special. “You’re gonna see a big mix of bands I felt really embraced the Warped Tour lifestyle,” he says. “I don’t want to say a ‘mature’ lineup, but bands that I think could use one more big push of Warped Tour to help further their careers."

Warped built its brand of a “punk-rock summer camp” by bringing out scene staples like NOFX and Bad Religion numerous times. But it was also an early champion of bands like Blink-182, No Doubt, and Paramore -- punkers eventually embraced by the pop world. And outside of punk entirely, Warped’s past lineups are ridded with pre-superstardom misfit toys who found an early home amongst the skate shows and merch tents: Katy Perry, Eminem, Kid Rock, the Black Eyed Peas, G-Eazy, Bebe Rexha. Their ranks were rarely favorites of critics, but they no doubt shaped culture.

After coming on as an initial sponsor in 1995, Vans became Warped’s primary sponsor the following year and it’s been the Vans Warped Tour ever since. “Kevin came to us about how he wanted to do this tour and he needed money,” the iconic sneaker company's vice president Steve Van Doren remembers. “For myself, Vans was really strong in Southern California, but I wanted to get our brand out to the youth of America around the country.” The son of Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren, he’s been a fixture on the tour since that first summer, distributing stickers in the Vans tent at center festival, flipping burgers at their nightcap barbecues each evening. But he, too, echoes Lyman’s sentiment: “I just turned 62 years old… I’ve been doing this since day one, almost half my life.”

Although 2018 spells the final trek across the continent, the Warped name won’t be going away, at least not until it celebrates its 25th year in 2019. In our exclusive interview, Lyman teases what the future holds, outlines his wish list for the 2018 lineup, and reflects on one final summer of 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls, 100-degree afternoons, and nights up late navigating the latest crisis.

“I wanna go have fun,” he says. “It hasn’t been fun the last few years.”

Here is a condensed version of our lengthy conversation.

Take me back to 1995, when the Warped Tour began. How has the playing field for punk bands changed since then? 

Back in ’95 I was still working in the clubs. Every night I would hear [about eventual Warped Tour acts], ‘Oh, you would’ve done better if Seaweed wasn’t [on the bill]. Oh, you would’ve done better if L7 wasn’t here.” I felt the community of punk rock I grew up in was kind of fragmented and one of the reasons I put Warped together was to bring that community together.

Then it evolved to where the community was strong… NOFX and Bad Religion would take a step back to move forward, and they would bring the young bands up behind them. [Bad Religion guitarist] Brett Gurewitz once said it best: “We all get under the Warped umbrella to keep the community strong.”

Then we went into that phase [around the turn of the millennium] where radio couldn’t ignore the strength of the bands. We were going around the country doing 10,000 to 15,000 people or more a day. So we had this relationship with labels on how to work together. They would invest in the bands around Warped Tour, release records on Warped Tour, and then we would try to build, develop headliners. And then I had the opportunity to work with some of these bands one-on-one as they were breaking -- acts like Paramore, A Day to Remember. They would come out when they didn’t really mean anything, and then they would come back when they were kind of getting known, and then they would come back and actually draw, helping people to see the new wave of future young bands.

[Now] I think the community is, for many reasons, not as unified as it used to be… And to be honest, it gets a little frustrating now, because we invest in bands, and all of a sudden they’ll shift their focus. You invest a lot of time in them for a summer, and then you want to try to bring them back when they’re gonna start meaning something, and they go off in a different direction, for whatever reason.

I get a sense, working in music, that artists sometimes turn down potential fans in favor of chasing some aesthetic or “cooler” fanbase. 

Yeah. We do so much data and so much research on our fans. So I kind of know what these people want to see. And when the band says, “Oh, we’re not really into that,” I’m like, “Wouldn’t you want to go where the people who really want to hear you are?” It just makes sense to me.

I watched the people who did it right. I watched Gwen Stefani… I always have that [saying], “You gotta be ready to give up the punk when you go pop.” And when you’re ready, you have to have your fanbase so solidified so they’ll follow you, understand you’re maturing as an artist. Hayley Williams has done that well. But I watch artists now, all of a sudden they start grasping onto a scene of music, and then they decide they’re gonna go into another scene of music: “Oh, we’re gonna be indie now.” Well, that indie world is a weird world to navigate. You haven’t even solidified the fans who really back you and then you’re gonna jump to another scene of music? You see that story happen quite a bit.

What about it in terms of ticket sales and profits? Was there a dip that influenced this decision?

We were doing fine, but we had a pretty big dip last year. It was that younger end of the demo. It was an interesting tour -- the bands didn’t feel the dip because the fans that were there were super engaged… Everyone’s lining up at 11 o’clock and they don’t want to miss a band. So that [younger] demo changed, but then I talked to people after the tour and bands did great on merchandise, they had great crowds -- everyone had good crowds in front of the stage. But that casual fan that’s learning how to go to a music festival -- they were not there last summer... It was a really great show, sponsors were happy, but our attendance was down.

In a 2015 interview, you floated the idea of imposing an age limit on Warped musicians and crew. Do you think having a younger crowd than most festivals led to some behavioral issues?  

Well, there were those, and then to be honest, this past summer, the 14 to 17-year-olds disappeared. I kept thinking, “Is it the Warped Tour? Is it the bands I booked?” Well no, I booked all the bands that should become the next Sleeping With Sirens or Pierce the Veil. I booked Neck Deep and Knocked Loose and I Prevail and Beartooth -- all doing really well as bands. But when our demo jumped, our average age jumped almost three years last year, up to 19. So then you’re sitting there at night on the bus going, “Where are the kids?”

This year, The Atlantic ran a great story wondering if kids just don’t want to go out... You talk to people across the country and they say, “Yeah, my kids don’t want to go out anymore. They just stay in their room. They want to stay in their room and they want to watch Netflix.” So I think as an industry, we’re gonna be facing some big challenges. And then some people go, “Well, kids are into hip-hop right now.” And I go, “Well, the younger end of that is not going to shows.” But if we don’t get kids out of their rooms and going to shows, they’ll turn into 18-to-21-year-olds soon… If you don’t have the DNA of going to concerts by then, it just doesn’t become a part of your lifestyle.

Aside from kids not leaving the house and the role of technology, do you think some of this has to do with rock music just having a smaller place in the culture these days?

I mean, we’ve weathered those storms before, you know? I think there’s also a general… After 9/11 we all feared one thing in the world… I think there’s a lot of undertone to fear. From sitting in truck stops and talking to people, I feel like I’m doing a sociology experiment every summer. I talked to parents, truck drivers, promoters, security guards…

There’s this weird undertow of fear and nobody knows what this fear is now. After 9/11 we just had this general kind of [general attitude], "If my kids want to stay in their room, I’ll let them stay in their room. I feel they’re close to me. I feel they’re safe." Even though we know that the mobile device can be as dangerous as anything, almost. You know, we have the highest rate of teen suicide in America right now. If my kids want to stay in their room, fine. There’s a lot of reading I’ve been doing and putting it all together in pieces, because it was my thoughts of what was going on this summer.

Chad Sengstock
Kevin Lyman

What about the shooting at Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas last month? As someone in the industry, what was your reaction to it?

I’m speaking at the Billboard Touring Conference about it actually. I’m part of [Tuesday’s] panel [“Silence Is Not an Option: A Conversation With Everytown For Gun Safety”]. My personal thing is that it’s inevitable in the society that we live in. If you take the progression of the attacks on venues and things, I think it went to a whole new level. But I wasn’t 100% shocked. If you just go back a couple of years, to the Bataclan in Paris, venues are soft targets. Then I saw what happened with Ariana Grande [in Manchester]. That happened right before Warped Tour this year.

That one affected us, probably in a lot of ways, because parents were questioning, “Should my 14-16-year old go to that festival or concert this year?” Given the option that you still have the control, I think that a lot of people were like, “You know, stay home. You know what? You can go next year.”

What was it like dealing with issues of sexual harassment on the tour in recent years? 

Well, that sexual harassment didn't happen on Warped Tour. If you go through every one of those stories, it didn't happen on Warped Tour. The Jonny Craig thing did happen on Warped Tour, and I addressed it the same way. We sent him away. And then all of a sudden, I've gotta have town hall meetings with it. But if you really go through all that stuff, things happen prior to the tour or things… it's part of the culture.

Warped Tour, the thing is, it's funny because the way we used to deal with any problem was if we found out an artist was disrespecting a woman, they were usually brought back behind a tour bus by some people on the tour, and given a few options in life. Your life was not being threatened, but you were educated out there.

There's artists that come to me and go, “You know what? I was young. I didn't know I was offending the women... I didn't know that until one of the bands that I respected growing up pulled me aside and told me this is unacceptable.” The Front Porch Step thing, to be honest -- he wasn't on the tour, but then we brought him to that one show. I was still going under the premise of asking professionals, thinking it was the right thing to do. I still looked to professionals, because I'm not a trained therapist or psychologist. So the way we addressed it was, I supplemented the organization A Voice For the Innocent to come out and be a part of my tour. They've grown into a large organization that's helping all these kids year ‘round now.

What was it like for you as those disputes moved from being settled in person to being aired on the social media?

It was a few years ago when I would read something an artist posted online while they were on tour with us without coming and discussing it with me first. I thought I at least should have the respect at this point of an artist -- the times had changed -- where an artist would come and talk to me about something they didn't like or something I was doing that they didn't agree with, not read about it when I wake up on the bus in the morning on their Twitter account.

Maybe it was logistically difficult from them to bring it to you?

No, that's why I have Bus 1. Bus 1 is parked in the same spot every day. You know? It's not logistically big that way. We always have the same catering, we always use the same production office, I sit under the same tent every day. And that's when I had to go back and tell people, "Look, you're not going to be on my tour unless you can at least discuss situations with me before I read about it in public. If you still then don't agree, or if we don't come to a resolution, then that's what it is. But you at least owe me that respect, because I am paying you, right, to be out here? I am feeding you to be out here. At least have the respect to have that discussion with me."

And maybe I come from an old school of doing business, but I thought, "It's my school," you know? And when you're on the Warped Tour, it's kind of my place, to have those discussions with you.

Let’s say there’s a young pop-punk band. They’re fairly new, around the popularity level of a band trying to get a few dates on Warped for the first time.  What long-term advice would you pass onto them?

Don't narrow your scope. Don't eliminate opportunities. I always see bands in their early-going say, “I don't want to tour with this band” or “I don't like that scene.” Embrace everything you possibly can, okay? Embrace these bands. And I've seen these bands -- the La Disputes, the Balance and Composures, the Modern Baseballs -- those bands have done very, very well on Warped Tour, but they say, “Oh, we don't want any part of that scene.” And then I watch what happens with their crowds, because they'll get hot for a bit and then they'll settle into this thing, and they never get as big as they possibly should, because they don't expose themselves to the maximum amount of people.

And the managers -- constantly these stories come out -- we have to teach these bands to be citizens. They live in a different world. They don't get the opportunity for error that maybe growing up used to allow. Does that make sense? I'm watching today -- this band With Confidence had to kick their guitar player out because of some discussions he had with an underage girl online. It's a really tricky world out there right now. And as my wife said this weekend, we watched what happened with Brand New and these kinds of things. And she goes, “Oh, I see a storm gathering. You'll get sucked into this somehow.”

But I also learned not to react to everything online. You know, when someone posts something and they think they're being funny, but maybe it's an offensive thing. You just let it go. I've learned also through the years -- I'm in my mid-50s -- you can't negotiate, you can't debate and you can't educate people a lot of times on the internet, you know?

What are some bands you're hoping to have this coming year?

We've gotta have Less Than Jake and Every Time I Die. Because I always tell the bands, "Why don't you pattern your life after Less Than Jake?" They've now been around a quarter of a decade themselves, you know? They don't overthink it. They go out and play. They've managed how to navigate a career as a ska band. What's wrong with that? So I'm gonna support those guys. Or Every Time I Die is one of those rare bands that put out their biggest record after 10 years... Somehow, they've managed to figure out how to move forward. That's the kind of stuff I want to tour with this summer.

I'd like to have The Maine and Mayday Parade and those kind of bands because they've shown how to navigate a tricky system. The Maine is an indie band. Those are they type of bands I'm looking to be out with. Would I love to have Pennywise, NOFX, and Bad Religion at some shows? Absolutely. Let's see if we can figure it out.

It'd be lovely to have Eminem come back. Ice-T, maybe -- he'd be fun to have out for some shows. It would be fun to have more recent bands like Fall Out Boy come back and play. It'd be super fun. All those bands from that era were welcome. Maybe Katy Perry wants to get back to her roots! That'd be awesome, huh? We'd have a spot for her. Thirty minutes, you know? [Laughs.] She exemplified the person that I so loved working with on tour. She worked so hard. She was kind. Also, she's been an exemplary citizen with all her work for MusiCares and other charities. Maybe in a small way, Warped Tour helped with that.

It would be cool if Blink-182 played Warped Tour again. I've never really sat on my laurels for what I've done. But I look back and there's been a lot of people across that platform: Deftones, My Chemical Romance -- they all broke around that period. Avenged Sevenfold, really -- probably outside of Metallica or those bands that were pre-Warped Tour, [they were] the biggest metal band of the last 15 years to break. Avenged Sevenfold, man. They were cool. They showed up with a smoke machine on Warped Tour. Playing at 3 p.m. with a smoke machine, you know they were gonna be big at one point.

I remember being there. 2005 was crazy because Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were on the main stage all summer, while simultaneously they were breaking on MTV and Top 40.

That was the summer of Warped and TRL, you know? We seemed to be perfectly in line. It was also the year Warped Tour almost collapsed under its own success. These kids got off their couches from TRL in the afternoon then came to Warped. But they weren't ready to be out in the sun. And the medical we had to deal with on that tour. All these kids didn't eat breakfast. They didn't go to the bathroom. Drink water! As soon as they band started, they’d pass out.

The hardcore fans were like, “You sold out!” And I was like, “No, it just happened..." I had booked Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance a year ahead of time, because I had them on Warped Tour when they were in vans. And I was like, “This is good music. This is gonna break.” That was the first time I ever booked bands a year ahead of time.

Was that one of your more financially successful years? 

Yeah, well the Warped Tour's only made money on tickets once, and that was the year. People don't realize that Warped only made money on tickets once, and that was the year. If we turn a profit, it's going to be from sponsorships and merchandise. And to be honest, the finances of Warped Tour -- last year was really tough. The two prior years, we broke even, kind of got everyone paid. We kind of did our thing, and I was happy with it because I have other businesses and things now.

Despite what people's perception is, I do it because I love music and I love turning people onto new bands. Last year, the finances weren't good, and it was tough because you're sitting there going, you worked this hard, and at the end of the summer, you might be in a position to write a check, to keep it going. So we're not ending it because of that. We don't mind running it to break even. But you've got to be smart in business, too.

But really, this decision, to be honest, was made last year. It was prior to this summer that we were talking about this.

Warped was the last major traveling music festival. Why do you think it endured so long?

90 percent of the things we did weren't driven by finances. So we kept it going past a certain point. I think we adapted, but we never completely radically changed the tour. They'll go, “Hey Kevin, you should bring more EDM or you should bring more hip-hop and do this.” I don't think we chased those trends. We've always tried to adapt it, but it's still supposed to feel like that backyard party that anyone can go to.

I've been getting people -- this word's kind of been filtering around -- I've gotten calls from people saying, "Hey, Kevin why don't we just buy the brand from you?" And I go, "You know what? That wouldn't be the way for me to do it. I don't think I could send the brand out without me being attached." For whatever reason, if it's right or wrong, it's the thing I worked my whole life and dedicated my whole life to. I just don't think I could trust… I don't think I would let someone [else] go out there and run it.

Post-Warped Tour, what endeavors will you personally be working on? 

…Education, philanthropy, and music are important to me. My biggest thing about stopping this thing is, how are we gonna continue all the non-profits that I’ve been involved with, whether it’s the blood drive, the canned food drives. So a lot of my future initiatives I hope will include me working in that direction -- HeadCount, registering people to vote, things like that.

As a company, I really enjoy working with a small crew of people and everyone’s been aware of what’s going on and we’re also looking at it like we’re also working with brands now. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of different brands like a craft brewery which was for surfers and skaters [Saint Archer] and I’m partners with Hayley Williams on her hair dye company. Things like that.

But the biggest thing is, I’ve put my body and soul into this thing. I’ve had a knee replacement. I’ve had an ankle rebuilt. I’m going to beat the hell out of myself working in this business for 37 years. You look at pictures from four, five, six years ago, and these years have taken a toll on me. I’ve definitely taken on the weight of a lot of different things, and you know that when you don’t sleep at night. You’re lying there thinking about things, and it’s time to make a change for your own health.

Anything else? Any other loose ends you want to toss out there? 

I'm looking to bring everyone a great show and have a great summer and connect with a lot of people, you know? For me, the saddest thing is I'll be seeing sunrises and sunsets for the last time in a lot of those parking lots.