“Three years ago, when I started thinking about the end of Vans Warped Tour, I knew I wanted to end with Pennywise’s ‘Bro Hymn’ and bring old friends on stage,” Kevin Lyman told Pollstar on Aug. 6, the day after the festival’s final stop at Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Fla., some 24 years after it all began.
“It ended exactly how you’d envision it,” the 57-year-old Vans Warped Tour founder said as he and his wife were driving to the beach for a very well-deserved vacation.
“And then it rained the minute the show was over and everyone walked backstage.”
As Matt Malles, former bassist for ska band The Toasters and partner of Star Business Management, described the rain falling after Pennywise’s last power chord: “I chose to believe the rain was either the universe shedding a tear, or washing away ours.”
For a slew of bands, agents, managers, venue owners, production crews and fans alike, Warped’s final tour was an emotional moment and marked the end of an era. Since the Warped Tour kicked off in 1995 with a 24-stop outing featuring California adrenaline-filled acts like Deftones, No Doubt, and Sublime, the festival became an important vehicle for legions of artists and their teams.
The Vans Warped Tour was not only the launching pad for punk and rock bands like Paramore, A Day To Remember and Simple Plan, and helped sustain the careers of veteran acts including Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, Pennywise and NOFX, but its purview grew to include hip-hop and pop stars. Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, and Ice-T appeared at Warped in 1999, Katy Perry performed there in 2008 and Demi Lovato in 2010 among others.
But no matter the roster, at the heart of Warped is a sense of community fueled by youthful, non-conformist vigor as well as philanthropy and education – and at the center of it all is Lyman himself, one of the most genuine, conscientious and friendly humans you’ll ever meet.
“It’s not easy to be the world’s oldest teenager, and have as deep a heart and soul and sense of charity as Kevin Lyman does,” said Rand Levy, founder of Rose Presents. “Kevin is a magical combination of street sense and show business wisdom.”
Lyman’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident early on. As a kid growing up in Claremont, Calif., he and his siblings were always figuring out how to make a little spending cash. This included creating a fake amusement park in their back yard with their stuffed animals and charging friends admission.
In college at Cal Poly Pomona, where he earned a degree in recreation administration, Lyman built up his DIY skills while putting on events and trying to raise money for the ski club. “When they said I couldn’t sell beer, I decided to sell people mugs and give the beer away for free,” Lyman recalled. “So I was always just trying to challenge the norms of how things were done. Everything I’ve ever done has been anything but routine. I had to create the chaos in my mind to make it all work and keep myself interested.”
After putting in 12 and a half years in the music business – including running a production service company that included clients Goldenvoice, Nederlander as well as many artists and independent festivals such as Lollapalooza – Lyman launched Warped Tour in 1995 in partnership with Creative Artists Agency.
“There was a meeting at CAA that Kevin was in, and a bunch of us threw out ideas about a festival,” CAA’s Darryl Eaton said. “We had an idea for a punk rock festival and Kevin brought up the idea of integrating action sports with punk rock music, and developing something that embodied the California lifestyle. Being from Orange County, this was the music I grew up with and the idea really resonated with me. From there, a partnership was born.”
The festival was originally going to be called The Bomb, but the Oklahoma City bombing happened the day the tour was to be announced. Lyman asked Warp magazine, which he had produced events for, if he could borrow the name.
The first 24-stop Warped Tour began with three trucks and six buses; at the end of this year’s 38-date run Lyman and Co. were up to 29 buses, 29 band wagons, 20 vans and 19 semi-trucks, with an average touring personnel of 700. All together, Warped played some 974 gigs in North America and sold a mind-boggling 11 million tickets worldwide.
Lyman reminisces that the first edition of Warped had no catering some days and no stagehands others. Sometimes they had to run their own security.
“We actually played shows where the promoters thought they had canceled the show and we showed up and set up the shows ourselves. It was such a band of pirates going down the road. That’s what appealed to bands like NOFX and Pennywise the next year because they heard about how crazy this thing was.”
Lyman said he never expected Warped to last nearly a quarter century and was surprised it got a second chance.
“Everyone saw that it was a cool idea so they gave me [another] chance,” Lyman said. “So I tell kids all the time [that] building up a network of people who will support you when you fail is very important. If you start too early or try too soon or get too impatient nobody is going to give you that second chance.”
Eaton remembered it being a scary moment having to tell his bosses that not only had Warped lost money the first year but he needed a check to pay out debts. But “CAA never hesitated. They saw the passion and that success was on the horizon.”
Vans became the tour’s main sponsor in 1996 and a partner the following year. The tour added four shows in Europe in 1996 and then expanded to more cities on the continent in 1997, along with dates in Australia and Japan.
After losing money the first few years, Warped got into the black by 1997, when it charted on Pollstar’s North American Top 100 Tours list at No. 69 with a gross of $4.2 million (nearly $6.6 million in today’s dollars).
Warped’s all-time highest gross and total tickets was 2005, with $19.2 million grossed ($24.8 million in today’s dollars) and 717,736 tickets sold for 47 shows in 47 cities. That year, which featured a lineup with My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Avenged Sevenfold, The Offspring and All-American Rejects, also marked the only year Warped made money off ticket sales, in addition to sponsorships.
Lyman, very much to his credit, has always made a point of keeping Warped ticket prices low, ranging from an average price of $14.40 in 1995 to $39.42 in 2018. He explained that whenever Ticketmaster or the facility raised fees, the festival would take on more of the expenses rather than pass it on to the fans.
“Some people said, ‘Kevin, that was stupid. You gave up millions of dollars doing that.’ Most people would have said, ‘Oh, that’s another dollar to go to that show, another two dollars.’ … And I just resisted that. … It maybe hurt us the last couple years. A lot of people talk about diminishing ticket sales, but really ticket sales only kind of slowed down the last couple of years.”
Lyman noted that some of the more established bands were willing to take a smaller paycheck on Warped as opposed to what they might make on another tour because they knew if they played Warped it would replenish their fanbase. The paycheck wasn’t the bottom line because bands were still making money on records. That changed in recent years as the music industry structure shifted and bands had to evaluate whether they were going to think long-term or address the short-term problem of making more money. But the tour was always more than just filthy lucre.
“Warped Tour was a perfect storm of summer touring, great friendships between bands, and a built-in audience,” said Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello, whose band holds the record for most Warped appearances with 12 years and a total of 440 shows.
“Warped became a great way for new eyes and ears to see and hear the band. It was an opportunity to reach into another direction when our core audience became a bit older with more responsibilities during the daytime hours of Warped Tour.”
Along with Warped’s egalitarian pricing, the fest eschewed the trappings of multi-tiered VIP packages and luxury perks.
“A lot of people were saying Warped Tour is the last festival of the people, where the majority of festivals now are focused on the VIPs,” Lyman said. “We only sold one VIP package per show and that was for charity and all the money went to the T.J. Martell [Foundation]. Or you donated blood. It was a festival that was accessible to everyone. It was inspiring because you weren’t in awe of Warped Tour. Kids would come and say, ‘I could do that,’ because there was no big production. It was just a sound system on a simple stage.”
Lyman said the overarching challenges Warped began to face grew with the rise of the internet and included everything from misinformation to fans bickering online. He lamented that some artists in recent years aired their problems on social media rather than coming to talk to him directly. Perhaps, he said, it was a generational thing, that as he got older and became a bit “more of a disciplinarian or a mentor, some people weren’t comfortable with that.”
But Lyman was always available on site to discuss any problems, noting, “All people want is to be listened to. … I think that’s what we were ultimately put on earth for.”
Force Media Management’s Randy Nichols recalls the summer of 2006 when Underoath was one of Warped’s biggest main stage headliners. After getting a call that there were major internal problems between band members that were about to explode he drove directly to the airport and booked the next flight.
“Due to thunderstorms I sat on the runway for five hours and couldn’t meet with the band to help. The only viable option to address the issue was to ask Kevin to talk to the band on my behalf. Twelve years later I’m still blown away with what he did – he told the guys they should go home and work their problems out. He was more concerned with their mental health and future than having his main stage headliner finish the tour.
“At midnight I arrived to a surreal view of the parking lot where all the stages and buses were gone except Underoath’s bus sitting in the middle of the empty frame of what was once a Warped show. I rode on the bus with them for 24 hours heading home and slowly began working with them on their issues. In 2007 the band returned to finish what they missed and we were excited to join Warped for three shows this summer to celebrate this history of the tour.”
On this last Warped trek, multitudes of fans came up to Lyman to share stories about how attending Warped Tour taught them it was “all right to become themselves.”
He added, “And once you become comfortable with yourself that allows you to go do good things. Or stretch your boundaries. I think Warped Tour was that place, where you could come into that parking lot and yes, you could be a weirdo and be OK. And I use weirdo in the most affectionate way.”
Warped’s biggest hurdle over the years, however, wasn’t necessarily man-made, but something far more out of Lyman’s control: the weather. Spending so much time outside over the years, Lyman instinctively learned when to call a show.
“Where a lot of people would sit on the computers looking at radar, I’m out there feeling the air and could feel the air change. And you know right then you’ve got to move quickly. So I turned all my businesses into a game in a way.
“And I took it very seriously, but I never took myself seriously. I think that’s why Warped worked – it was never perfect, it was a little raw, a little rough.”
2017 was especially rough, with rain hitting more than two-thirds of the tour. And ticket sales were also weak, with gross estimated at $8.7 million and approximately 253,000 tickets sold – the lowest number since 1998.
Fortunately, 2018 was redeeming in more ways than one, including the 38-show run selling more than double last year’s tally with 540,688 tickets and grossing more than $21.3 million.
“We had great ticket sales, great weather, very little drama if any,” Lyman said. “It would have been a bummer to end last year. Last year nothing went right. … This year we missed every storm except for [Jacksonville], and that’s not bad when you’re doing that many shows. Things didn’t break and we didn’t have as many equipment failures.
“You’re always going to have some injuries out on the road and usually a run where everyone gets sick – and that didn’t happen this year. … It was just a good tour this year.”
With all the momentum behind the 2018 tour Lyman’s been asked if he was having second thoughts about ending Warped.
“I’m totally good,” Lyman said. “And I know why it’s doing so well. I mean, we had a nice package of bands but it was people coming to multiple shows or coming out who wouldn’t have necessarily come to Warped anymore but it became a priority in their lives when we said it was the last one.
“Really, I’ve come to terms with it. I’m at peace with the decision.”
Lyman decided to end Warped Tour for a variety of reasons including feeling as though he had accomplished everything he possibly could in the format it was in, the physical toll of touring, and declining attendance among younger fans.
The economics of touring a festival also changed over the years, including trucking and labor laws.
Another question that got posed was why he didn’t sell the brand.
“It would kill me to see someone else not nurture it the way I think we have. Because Warped Tour has been 90 percent about nurturing the culture, trying to help a community do the best we can.
“I don’t know anyone in that mindset who would put 90 percent of their effort into nurturing a community and 10 percent into actually having to make money.”
From the very first edition, whether a show was making money or not, the festival has always donated 25 cents per ticket to charity. Donations from the 2018 festival went to MusiCares and the Living The Dream Foundation.
Lyman also encouraged fans and bands to actively give back to their communities with their time by organizing blood drives at its shows starting in 1999 and collecting approximately two million pounds of canned food via its food drives for Feed Our Children NOW.
Lyman founded the non-profit fundraising organization Unite the United Foundation in 2005. The next year, Warped began hosting an annual “service day” by setting aside one day to volunteer in a local community along the tour route.
Volunteers helped out following Hurricane Rita in Louisiana, flooding in Nashville, and most recently, the tour cleaned a river estuary in Ventura, Calif., after fires and landslides.
The festival has hosted nonprofits for most of its 24-year run, giving festivalgoers the chance to be educated on topics such as suicide prevention via To Write Love On Her Arms, breast cancer awareness with The Keep A Breast Foundation, and support for victims of rape and sex abuse with A Voice For The Innocent.
While the 2018 edition is the last full cross-country tour, a 25th anniversary celebration is being planned for 2019, with an event potentially scheduled in Atlantic City as well as a West Coast location. A June exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is also in the works and Lyman said he’d love to revisit the Warped Rewind at Sea cruise, which debuted in 2017.
The Warped spirit will live on through Lyman’s post-Warped plans.
“We’re going to start talking to people about running their own canned food drives,” Lyman said. “We’re going to help all the nonprofits that we worked with on Warped. I think we’ll have more time and energy for them now.”
Lyman will also have more time to devote to the FEND (Full Energy, No Drugs) program, an app-based education platform on opioid education using gamification.
FEND now has more than 30,000 downloads and Lyman hopes John Hopkins University will verify the data so the FEND movement can expand across the country.
Lyman will continue his mission of education by doing something he seems pre-destined to do: He will become a professor this fall at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music where he will teach courses that cover live event production and philanthropy in music.
“In the last few years, the norms of business changed and I just wasn’t excited about it anymore. So I think that’s ending with Warped but it’s going to allow me to challenge some of the norms moving forward,” Lyman said.
“And I’m pretty sure when I go in and teach class in a few weeks, it’s not going to be the normal way anyone’s taught a class there. (laughs) So I could either be kicked to the curb in two weeks or maybe it’s going to be a new way to teach kids.”