Vans Warped tour founder Kevin Lyman is admittedly suffering from tour fatigue when we meet up with him in Pomona, Cali. “You are catching me at the end of the tour,” he says as we discuss Warped, Taste Of Chaos and more under his personal tent on the first day of the final week of Warped 2016.
So some of Lyman’s uncertainties and wariness about the future of his festivals are understandably, perhaps, exaggerated by lack of sleep and another summer on the road. There is no question, though, as Lyman candidly talks with Billboard, that he is at a crossroads. His wariness becomes even more understandable as we get to witness firsthand how exhausting it is putting on this tour with a steady stream of questions and well-wishers coming in throughout the chat.
The conversation kicks off on a positive note, with a reflection on the successful comeback this tour of Sum 41 and frontman Deryck Whibley from a near-death experience.
How gratifying is it for you to see someone like Deryck come back. Are there other artists you feel the same way about?
Good Charlotte was out for a run with us. I’ve always said there’s no better place to come back than on Warped tour ‘cause your core fans will come back and see you if you do a club tour. But how are you gonna get new fans? When Less Than Jake asks, “Have you seen us before?” half the audience says, “No.” A lot of bands could use a good Warped tour in their career. Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Yellowcard’s probably going, “Why are we leaving now?” because they’re having a huge response and new fans. So I think there are a lot of bands that could use a good Warped tour. It’s hard work, you put in your thing, play your hits, remind people of what a great band you are and then get them to come see you three, four months later.
How has the crowd changed?
It’s evolved and it’s changing year to year. Last year I was trying to get kids at a younger and younger age; I think it’s important for Fearless Records, Hopeless Records, those people still buy records and will be part of it. But I think I went too young last year, too much young energy around the show; it was manic teen energy. And now there’s been this real balanced energy of young enthusiasm, experience and you’ve really seen younger bands and older bands hanging out… A lot of kids weren’t ready to come to Warped tour last year. They came, they kind of fan girled out, and then passed out. There wasn’t a lot in between.
Most people into this music right now are in their twenties.
And I also wanted the 20-year-olds to come back to Warped tour because it’s an affordable day, more than some of these three-day festivals. They’re not affordable for the vast majority of people in their twenties, really.
Good Charlotte and Sum 41 are right up there in this crazy comeback scene with bands like the Used and Dashboard Confessional. Talk about this stuff coming back since you have Taste Of Chaos as well.
The Used came in and they made their kind of comeback out here a few years ago. It was funny cause I tried to get Bert [McCracken] to do the whole tour and he’s like, “I gotta do Warped again?” And I’m like, “Yeah, if you really want to have a second run.” And he did half the tour, the day after the first show he walked off the stage and he goes, “Oh, man, we should’ve done the whole thing.” But then they came back that second year and did the whole tour. I don’t think it’s out of the question… bands like Saosin, Taking Back Sunday, the Used should be back and they might do the Warped tour.
How do you determine then when you’re booking who does which tour?
It was interesting with Taste Of Chaos, I don’t know if there’s going to be a Taste Of Chaos next year. I’m kind of getting to this point that I really want to focus on one tour. I’ve got all my other business ventures, all those other kind of things that I enjoy. But it’s a Warped community, I’m out there for three hours trying to get the kids in cause you want to get them in and they have ownership of this tour. And every time I’m like, “I might be done.” Then you go out there and speak to those kids and realize this is important for a certain community.
How do you think things would shift if you focused all your energy on one tour?
I spend probably eighty percent of my time on Warped; between Saint Archer, Taste Of Chaos, Mayhem, other companies I’m involved with, toothbrush companies, things like that, I spend twenty to thirty percent on that. But yesterday was interesting, an energy healer friend of mine came from San Francisco — she’s really good. She sat with me and she goes, “Wow, your batteries are at thirty percent. You’re blocked up creatively.” Our business is such a struggle, unforeseen, not Warped tour, but Live Nation, CAA, everything else in the world out here, that your creative energies are blocked up. So what I’m gonna try to do is scale back myself so I can get those opened up again to keep creating out here.
How are you going to do that?
I’m going home, shutting down my office next week, I pretty much let everyone know I’m not doing any other festivals next year, I’m gonna focus on this one.
How have the issues with Warped this year affected your thinking?
With Warped tour there were a lot of problems with routing, people touring on each other and all these things going on early summer. But I knew I had a good tour and then of course it catches fire on the last 14 shows. It’s weird because no matter what you do it takes some time and there were too many tours right on top of each other so it was affecting everyone. But we got our momentum going and we have 17,500 paid today and 3,000 guests. Not bad.
When you’re out here in the midst of tour what are your priorities?
By the time I’m out here all I care about is getting everyone home safe. Warped tour is not fun anymore. For me, it’s not fun anymore. It’s what I do, I think it’s important. I get up in the morning, get everyone in and hopefully get everyone home safe. And at the end of the summer, I get everyone home safe. Used to be maybe a little more fun; I was traveling with more peers. But now the peers I’m out here with, now the older bands out here, they’re all going to bed at 10 o’clock, everyone hangs out for 20 minutes after the show and they’re like, “I’m tired.” So those days are over when you were traveling around with all your friends cause it’s a really physically exhausting tour.
Do you think about doing other things then that are fun?
Yeah, like the brewery I did, Saint Archer Brewery, that we built and sold, was fun. I’d go out with the sales reps, I went to venues, I got it in there. It was nice to walk into Shoreline Amphitheatre yesterday and have it be a featured beer in there. That’s what I find fun doing right now.
Would you shut Warped down then and do something else fun?
Maybe, I can’t do this forever. It’s also a business, that’s the problem and the music business is doing so many bad things. The live touring business is doing what the major labels did five years ago. Major labels started eating each other and eating each other corporately in trying to save their high-paying jobs. And now it’s kind of settled into what it is in streaming pop hits, that’s pretty much what a major label is. You try to generate pop hits for streaming. So they kind of settled into what it is. The music biz has not a lot of smart things going on around the live touring business right now.
Are there things you see that are smart that you are excited about?
We work with [Paramore‘s] Hayley Williams and her hair dye company, things like that. Helping these people build their companies and brands that start in this parking lot — that’s what I want to do, cause they are really connected to the kids. They’re authentic. They’re putting out good products. You walk out and there’ll be 500 people in that line. People are looking for an authentic brand. They’re not just looking for a celebrity endorsed brand, they’re looking for an authentic, good product.