Vans Warped Tour Founder Kevin Lyman Reflects on 20th Anniversary: ‘I Love It When People Talk Sh-t About Me’
It's a less-than-perfect day on a less-than-perfect tour, but Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, president of 4fini Productions, continues to fight the good fight.
It’s a less-than-perfect day on a less-than-perfect tour, but Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, president of 4fini Productions, continues to fight the good fight. In the 20 years since the Warped tour launched as the preeminent live brand in punk rock, Lyman, part camp counselor, part fearless entrepreneur, part social/environmental champion, has seen it all. But this year’s tour, marked by social media grousing from fans and bad behavior from bands, has been plagued by an atypical rough edge. And this particular day at the Fairgrounds in Nashville — where raging storms forced two evacuations, and a controversial (and unbilled) performance by Front Porch Step put Lyman on the defensive — was particularly nasty.
The bad weather probably cost Lyman, who is the promoter on the show, 1,000 walkup ticket sales, but Lyman prefers to focus on the 10,000 who did show up. Lyman’s hard-charging optimism in no small part has led Warped to be the longest-lived touring festival AND the most venerable live music sponsorship deal with Vans (dating to the tour’s second year, 1996). The promoter, who also co-founded the Mayhem and Taste OF Chaos tours, and this year will launch two new one-day festivals in Taste Of Chaos with Jimmy Eat World, The Used, Dashboard Confessional, and Thrice and Not Dead Yet, and It’s Not Dead with punk legends, both in San Bernardino, Calif. Other business interests include Sideonedummy Records, the Saint Archer brewery, and a new recyclable toothbrush venture. His environmental work (most of Warped’s 146 vehicles run on biodiesel fuel, at considerable impact to the bottom line) led to Lyman receiving the Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Billboard Touring Awards, and the fact that Warped has moved more vehicles more miles than any other artist or tour over the past two decades led to a Road Warrior award three years later.
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Lyman’s history in live music dates back to stage managing at legendary L.A. rock club Fender’s Ballroom (doomed to a Molotov cocktail from an irate neighbor, according to Lyman). After a stint at Goldenvoice, Lyman launched his own Kevin Lyman Productions, then ended up on the road as production with the groundbreaking Lollapalooza tour before launching Warped, which has now outlasted Lolla the tour, as well as then-contemporaries like Ozzfest, H.O.R.D.E., and Lilith Fair.
Warped has endured because it stays true to its punk origins even as the genre goes through its own ebbs and flows. With 80 acts per day and 950 people on the road, Lyman has a unique skill set and, today, he’s putting it too use. Dressed in plaid shorts, a fedora, flip-flops, dog tags, and a faded Hurley t-shirt, Lyman enjoys a Lone Star as he weighs in on his live music history, in between frequent interruptions on the radio, well-wishers, complainers, and a punk-loving teenage girl sent by the Make A Wish Foundation escorted by Lyman’s daughter, Sierra, 20, who, like Lyman’s other daughter, Sabreen, 16, was virtually raised on the Warped tour. Lyman was raised in Fairmont, Calif., and now makes his home with wife Fran is in California’s San Gabriel Valley, but he’s spent much of the past 20 years in parking lots, making a career out of a tour turns its audience over every three years and keeps it’s ticket prices under $50. Lessons learned as a stage manager on the groundbreaking Lollapalooza tour in the early 1990s led Lyman to do things differently on Warped, which has provided scores of musicians their first view of America and served as a launch pad for bands ranging from Kid Rock to Paramore to this year’s headliner, Pierce The Veil. Two decades of walking gravel parking lots across America have taken a toll on Lyman’s wheels, but surgeries have brought him back to “fighting shape,” and, even though he surely could quit the circus and work closer to home, in true punk rock spirit, Lyman, 54, soldiers on with Warped, his “fuck you” to the increasingly corporate conventional concert business. On this gray day in Nashville, Lyman looks back, takes stock of the day, and enthuses on upcoming events.
Billboard: Who makes the call on an evacuation?
Kevin Lyman: Ultimately it comes down to me. Everyone out here’s an expert weatherman, but they never want to commit to anything. You have to get that gut feeling, someone’s got to make that call. I’ve been in parking lots for 25 years now, I can tell when there’s a little randomness in the air, and, so far, I’ve made the right decisions.
What’s the impact of a stormy day?
We’ve been doing 20 percent walkup, and we’re our own promoter in this town, but you can’t let that overshadow the safety of the fans. It was a tough day. The impact was probably about 1,000 tickets.
I guess it doesn’t hurt to have these sort of evacuation workouts.
It gets me back in fighting shape, you can get a little too comfortable. The kids were great, if ever there was a crowd that gets it, it’s the Warped tour kids. Who didn’t get it was all the parents we let in free. They couldn’t understand what was going on, but the kids were cool.
What kind of kid were you?
I was a kid that didn’t quite fit in with everyone. I remember being picked on now, but I guess I really didn’t notice it at the time, I was too into my own thing. I was into water polo, basketball, skiing, I was on the slalom team in college. Then I went to Cal Poly Pomona and fell in love with music. Myself and [Coachella founder] Paul Tollett, his brother Perry, [Goldenvoice exec] Skip Paige, put on parties and concerts.
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What was your first gig in music?
I put on parties in college trying to raise money for the ski team. I’d rent halls, and that’s how I learned how the sponsorship world works. They wouldn’t let you sell beer, so we sold cups and gave the beer away for free. Things were a little looser back then, I tell kids when I speak at colleges, ‘we created some of those rules you don’t have to suffer through now.'”
What did you study?
I graduated with a degree in recreation administration, running summer camps, then ran a weight loss camp for girls in Hawaii. It wasn’t that serious, the motto was, ‘lose weight, get a date, get a tan, get a man.’ It wasn’t too politically correct, we’d get in trouble for saying that today. But then I came home not really knowing what to do in 1985.
Well, you figured it out. Let’s talk about Lollapalooza, which was a very innovative tour for its time.
It was easy to be innovative when none of us knew what we were doing. We really did change the way the business worked, because we didn’t know better. I didn’t know you couldn’t move gear around on a union stage in Chicago or New York, I had a job to do. They didn’t know what to do with me, beat my ass or what. I was breaking every rule, but I didn’t care, I just wanted the work done. Now, this many years later, they look forward to our tour coming through, they bring their kids down.
What would you today think of you then?
I’m looking for those guys every day. We train ’em out here. I know people sometimes talk down about my tours, but you go through who’s out there working [in the music business] today, a lot of people with great jobs out there started on the Warped tour. We have a great work ethic out here.
How did your role at Lolla evolve?
In 1991 I was doing everything, in ’92 I was stage managing and took on the some on some of the assistant production manager role, and by 1993, because some of the people at the top of Lollapalooza didn’t really want to deal with the artists, they hired me to be the artist liaison. I was paid way more money to teach the Buddhist monks that were out with us with the Beastie Boys how to play basketball.
What happened with that tour?
I saw that [Lolla] was starting to lose it’s charm. They thought they could run it part time, shut down from September-January, then pick up and book a lineup and put the tour together. You have to work on these things year-round. I still remember that; I can take a few weeks off after Warped, but we’re picking right up around Sept. 1 to get it going.
What did you want to do differently when you launched the Warped tour?
I learned so many things, good and bad, on Lollapalooza. One of the key things I got out of it was watching Henry Rollins Band play to empty seats as the opening act. I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice if Henry got to play right before Jane’s Addiction one night and blow all these people away?” I didn’t like the whole model of doing everything the same way every day, I always thought if I ever did anything on my own, I’d write the [band] schedule each morning, like I still do. Now it’s turned into 90 percent of the kids were here at 10 a.m.
I also learned that we waste too much time on lights; most of the time [on Lolla] all these bands came out of the clubs, so all of a sudden all these club lighting guys had trucks full of lights they didn’t know how to run. I spent more time setting up lights than sound. Warped was about mixing it up, simplify production, that’s why you don’t see any lights out there. Make it sound good, skip the lights. As soon as you need lights, you need chairs, and most of the music I work with doesn’t need chairs.
Warped really wasn’t punk in the first year, and when I look back at it now, that’s probably why it wasn’t successful. It was almost too eclectic for the audience I was trying to appeal to. At first, it was more my sound, from working in the clubs every night. I liked indie, Seaweed; I liked L7, a grungy punk sound; I liked Sublime, a surf reggae sound; I liked No Doubt, a ska sound. So putting all on one bill the first year, I think now, was too confusing for people. We got known as a punk festival when the bands Pennywise and NOFX came on in the second year, they brought the credible punk aspect of the artist. I was the first person to start a touring festival without an artist attached. I still don’t think people have accepted that I was the guy out there loading the vans when I started this tour.
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How did you land on the name “Warped” for the tour?
You learn a lot about branding; the original name of the tour was going to be “The Bomb,” that was a term of the day. I was going to announce the tour, and that morning the Oklahoma City bombing happened. I woke up and realized you couldn’t call something “the bomb” that day. Six months later, it would have been “the bomb bombed,” because the tour wasn’t successful. The name “Warped” came from a magazine that was put out by TransWorld Publications, and I put on a lot of their [skating] events. I didn’t have money for a name search, so I called the editor and asked if I could borrow the name if I never started a magazine and he didn’t ever start a tour, and he let me have the name.
So how did the Vans deal come about the next year?
Promoters weren’t going to pay me any money the second year, because we lost money the first year. So we had to go out for almost nothing, or whatever we earned at the door, it was gonna be tight. At one point, it could have been the “Calvin Klein Warped Tour,” we were going to meet with them and it came the blizzard of 1996, they were stuck on runway for 24 hours. During that 24 hours, I got a call from Vans, they wanted me to come out there, I thought they wanted to be involved with amateur skate programming. I had 15 minutes with Walter Schoenfeld, Vans’ CEO at the time, and I just had to go for it, it was this fine line of nothing to lose. I told him no one would ever go watch amateur skating unless it was attached to my successful music festival. He wrote I check, I saw him writing a “3” down, I thought $30,000, and he gave me $300,000. Another cool thing he did, when he found out we had sold the merch rights for the tour for $100,000 to Sony Signatures, this legitimate old-school t-shirt company who had no idea how to sell to this crowd, he gave me an extra $100,000 to buy the merch rights back.
How did that sponsorship change the game for Warped?
Basically, we just survived the second year. I had bought the talent, but I hadn’t paid for it. We came home that summer and paid everyone back from the first year. The promoters that stuck with us are still involved, the majority of them, 18-19 years later.
There used to be this big action sports element to Warped, I remember going to one of the early ones where a guy got shot out of a cannon.
That was up in Fresno. We almost killed that guy that day, we had no idea what to do with him. I met him at the fair convention in Vegas, the human cannonball. I said, “I need you on the Warped tour,” he had no idea what the Warped tour was. I brought him into Fresno, and I went up to Dicky Barrett from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “Dicky, man, can I shoot this guy from a cannon over the stage while you’re playing?’ He was like, “whatever you want to do, Kevin.” The guy shot himself over the stage, his feet touched the roof going down. After he said, “Kevin, that was a world record shot right there, I didn’t think I’d make it.” Those action sports guys, we were the first guys to say here’s a paycheck, $800 a week and per diems, to come out on the Warped tour and hang out with their favorite bands. There are more options for them now, and they can make a better living, and I wanted that for them.
Music and culture have gone through a lot of changes in the past 20 years.
We’ve evolved musically; people live their lives on shuffle, and [Warped] is an eclectic mix. We added the acoustic tent, and now we’ve added a comedy tent. As soon as I announced we were adding a comedy tent, the hardcore kids were like, “you can’t have comedy on Warped!” and it’s packed out there every day. Comedy’s hot with this audience, because it’s not all about the two drink minimum in clubs now, kids are getting comedy online.
Has your process of booking bands changed?
There was a moment in time about five years ago where I was kind of booking a different way. Now I realize that if I book the right lineup, everything else becomes a lot easier. That’ll start Sept. 1, and I take it very seriously. The people I like to work with, the agents, managers, labels, all know to start scheduling Sept. 1 and my office is a revolving door of musicians, artists, labels, managers. We listen to lots of CDs and people come in and just play guitars, that’s how Echosmith got on two years ago, they walked in and just started playing. I still rely on gut feeling. Some agents I never book anything with, they just don’t get it. That’s alright. I book a lot with the smaller agencies, we’ll get a random act once in a while from some of the bigger agencies.
How much do you rely on fan input?
A lot. Pierce The Veil was the No. 1 band kids wanted to see this year, and they’re here. I think it’s important to be here when you’re the No. 1 band, if you have that big year it can push you to the arena level or wherever Day To Remember has gone, or Bring Me The Horizon. Those are the bands where I tell the manager, “you’re No. 1, let’s figure this out.” If you’re out here when you’re No. 1, you can solidify your career, because if you’re not, someone else will be No. 1 next year.
Do you feel that Warped has proven its value as an artist development platform?
Absolutely. We give you a chance to play in front of half a million kids, with all the social media that goes along with that. We teach you how to be a live act; every band out here becomes a better live act from playing out here. People bitch about this tour, I always say, ‘tent’s open, come tell me how to do it better.”
What kind of bitching?
I guess people are saying this year I don’t know how to route, “why aren’t there bigger bands?” But now I have a lot of kids out in that field that realize how hard I work year round on this thing, and they tell them, “shut up, or go talk to him.”
Have festivals impacted your business?
We’re a little tick down this year, but it’s up every day, and I think we’ll be right there. I still think we’re going to get to that 500,000 tickets this year, it’s just going to come in different ways. These [bands] aren’t playing festivals, and this fan economically doesn’t come off to me as the ones that can afford the big festivals. That’s a pretty big financial commitment. There’s a small percentage that might save to go to the one festival, but we’re giving them a lot of value for one day. [Warped 2015 ticket prices are $40-$45 this year, up about $1 from last year, according to Lyman]. This lineup has eight or nine bands breaking all around us, there are stars out in that field.
You were a very early adapter to using social media as a tool. You said there was negative feedback this year?
The Internet right now is ruled by negativity. The positives are quiet, they speak to each other. If you believe what you read [on social] after we announced the lineup, nobody was coming to Warped tour. My renewal will come when I turn off social media on Aug. 9, and I don’t plan on it turning it back on until the new year.
What do you do when it’s on?
If you follow me on twitter, I answer every kids’ question, “what time are doors?,” “can I bring a lunch,” “what kind of sunscreen do I need?”
Why engage at that level?
I care for these kids. I really do think they deserve good treatment. They’re young, and they want to come to a festival.
You’ve always had a heavy philanthropic/social responsibility to Warped.
Even more now, with cyber-bulling. My daughter Sierra is running the non-profits right now. Growing up as a teen is really tough, period. We put information out there, we put information in the tents for parents. This is the first generation where kids have to figure it out for themselves, kids can’t be monitored by their parents any more, because they live on 20 different social media sites, they could have four different personalities. We think they’re safe in their bedrooms because they’re not out in the world, but the danger has gone into those bedrooms.
Is the Warped tour still rewarding for you?
For me it’s kind of the big “fuck you” that I’m still doing this to everyone. Being the old punk rock guy that I am, I love it when people talk shit about me. I’m out here fighting for these kids that don’t get a lot, and that’s why I’m here. They may not go into this business, and most of them don’t, but they get a good work ethic and a good head on their shoulders. I still believe in this thing. I don’t know about the other things I do in this business, but this I still believe in.
You’re a partner in Mayhem, what’s the state of metal?
It’s in a rough spot. Metal needs to learn — and I don’t know if they can — to take a step back, like punk rock did, and then take everyone forward with them. It’s too much of a “me, me, me” attitude out there. There’s still too much of that manager/agent versus the promoter mentality. It’s not good. They’ve got to get this mindset that to take metal forward they better start working together. No one’s developing the new headliners we need in metal. I thought maybe we could be part of that, I don’t know if we can.
What about the new festivals coming on line?
The illusion of a three-day festival is usually you’re traveling on the first day to get there; Saturday’s your rocking day; and Sunday you’re burned out thinking, “oh, my god, I have to get up and go to work the next day.” You can’t get that much time off but you buy a three-day ticket. They’re awesome for the people that can go, but there are a lot of people who want one-day festivals. So we’re resurrecting Taste Of Chaos for one day, which is for the 25- to 29-year-old paying off their student loans, has no time, money, just work and distractions. They’re not as happy as they were when they were 15-16 when we did Taste Of Chaos, so we’re bringing all those bands back to play one day for them, play all those happy songs. We sold 6,000 tickets the first week.
The other festival, I am a punk rocker. I love punk rock. So I put together the most amazing group of punk rock bands ever put together in the last 15 years, for anything. I think punk was going through a rough time this year, so I said, “we need to do something one time, get everyone back together.” That’s hard to do, these bands make “X” amount of money in L.A., that’s the one place they can make it, but we need to do something to show our kids punk’s not dead. So I started calling some of the older graduates of the Warped tour and telling them my idea. Then I decided it was time to make the offers for the big bands, Descendants, Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX — I wanted Rancid real bad, but they’re doing something else. But instead of sending four offers individually, I sent one offer to all four agents, copied them all with the same offer, and any time they tried to email me separately, I’d put everybody else back on. And, you know what, they got it. And then word spread, and it’s 28 of the biggest bands of that era, mid-1990s. We’re bringing the old skate ramp back, all the skaters are coming back. I did a soft announcement with a rolling ticket, $25-$30-$35-$40, [July 1] we sold 8,400 tickets, and it’s not until October. It’s called “It’s Not Dead Fest,” and we’re doing it with Rich Best at Live Nation.
What’s your favorite Warped memory?
The memories are usually the days off, but this one [in Nashville] will be about getting the show in, period.
This wasn’t the greatest Warped day.
Yeah, but it challenged me to still be out there making those calls, right or wrong. We’re still gonna give 10,000 kids a great day out there.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.