A Warped History Of Traveling Festivals And Yes, There’s A Future

Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
– Warped
HOT FUN IN THE SUMMERTIME: Crowd surfing July 29 at one of the final Warped Tour stops, at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.

For the last 24 years, the end of Vans Warped Tour meant the end of summer for multitudes of high school and college kids (and sometimes their parents) – and for legions of baby bands sometimes getting their first taste of life on the road with ringmaster Kevin Lyman’s much-loved traveling circus.

The concept of taking one’s show on the road, for primarily young audiences, often during the summer months when school is out, didn’t begin with Warped. It didn’t begin with Lollapalooza or even with The Grateful Dead and its band of camp followers. It began with the circus.

While the roots of the modern circus can be traced to the Romans, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey would soon revolutionize not only the circus, but touring techniques – using train transport to get animals, performers, costumes, construction crews and equipment from city to city. While traveling festivals move amps instead of elephants and cross the country in caravans of 18-wheelers, busses and vans, the romantic notion of seeing (or joining) the  circus on a hot summer night endured.

Just more than a year after Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus struck its last Big Top, Vans Warped Tour rode into the sunset on Aug 5.

As circuses – from small regional family circuses like Bindlestiff Family Cirkus to Cirque du Soleil – face challenges from TV, rising costs and animal rights activists, some adapted and evolved. Many didn’t.

We may have to wait and see if the same holds true for the now-traditional summer touring concert festival. Warped survived when worthy treks like the original Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Lilith and others did not. Others, like Uproar, Taste of Chaos, Mayhem, Tattoo The Earth, and others tried and also fell to the wayside.

It’s hard to imagine future summers without either the circus or the traveling concert festival. Both seem part of American summer DNA.

“Warped Tour could be the last traveling festival,” Lyman told Pollstar. “Now, a festival may do select weekends and have the same name, but I think the era in America when one really goes out there and hits 37 to 42 cities during a short period is coming to an end. I hope not. But I don’t know if it could be done anymore.”

SEE Kevin Lyman Wraps Warped: It Worked Because It Was Never Perfect

There’s plenty of factors in play now that weren’t part of the landscape in 1995 when Warped launched in June at the Idaho Center in Boise.  Things like skyrocketing insurance, fuel and talent costs; a fragmented entertainment market; and the expectations of a lot of stakeholders in what once was a relatively simple, nearly DIY, endeavor.

Paradigm Talent Agency’s Sam Hunt, who represents Diplo and dipped a toe in the festival waters with Mad Decent Block Party, is guardedly optimistic about the chances for the birth of a new festival model to fill the space Warped occupied for so many years.

“I see no reason why something like that couldn’t take place, but you would have to build it from the ground up,” Hunt told Pollstar. “I do think the idea of the festival as a clump of artists is not particularly appealing, where the idea of a festival that is a truly unforgettable experience that you can share with your friends is very appealing. We’re seeing what’s successful.”

Hunt somewhat echoed the words of Perry Farrell, the original Lollapalooza co-founder and visionary. Nearly 15 years ago, Farrell talked to a Pollstar conference audience about his experience as a DJ and his dreams for Lollapalooza even as the fest was suffering a hiccup making the transition from traveling to destination fest. He saw others coming into the festival space, but had his own ideas.

Some cats come up with packages,” Farrell said. “It would be like, ‘OK, man, we gotta be a metal fest. So, everybody’s gotta be metal.’ And the other packages would be, ‘Well, we’re gangsta and we’re gonna be just about gansta.’ And I think it’s all crap because, when you think about it, when that thing dies, your festival dies alongside it.

I think you can put OutKast with Loretta Lynn. I swear to you, it could work, but you’ve got to be savvy.”

And savvy producers and promoters will find a way to incorporate the branding and sponsorships alongside the idealism, communities, and nonprofit, educational components that have been key elements of festivals like Warped and Mad Decent Block Party – intangibles that can’t simply be bolted on to a new festival.

“I think there will still be packages, but my biggest thing is: will it still include nonprofits, will it still include all those other things that made Warped, Warped?” Lyman asks. “Warped is more than just a bunch of bands on a stage.

“There will be lots of shows that can figure out how to put five or six [bands on tour]. We did it with Taste of Chaos. We’ve done it with other things. I think you’ll see some of those next year. And you know, they’ll probably sell VIP packages and they’ll treat it like a normal tour. But will the fans embrace it? I don’t know.”

One of those attempting to fill the space left by the departure of Warped from the market will likely be John Reese, who worked with Lyman on many shows and festivals over the years including Mayhem and Taste Of Chaos. His company, Synergy Global Entertainment, produces some of the top touring and destination festivals in the country, including the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival with Dave Chappelle.

And Reese has been somewhat ahead of the curve, introducing craft beer, wine and higher-end food menus to festival. Now, it’s not unusual for festivals to announce culinary lineups along with their bands.

“Since 2004, SGE has created 54 different festival brands, of which probably 13 are touring brands. We’ve done college tours, emo festivals, active rock fests. Beer and food festivals,” Reese told Pollstar.  The future is bright for traveling festivals, as far as he’s concerned.

“I think the climate next summer is going to be the best it’s ever been because there’s no competition,” Reese said. “We’re working on a couple of ideas right now; one in the EDM space and one in the rock space.

“Ultimately for me , I’m in the curation business now. I curate festivals with giant artists and I give them ownership stake. It’s kind of a new model and I have 37 (artists)of them. I have beer festivals that travel with The Offspring.  We’re doing beer, food and attractions festivals with Chase Rice and 12 artists that goes out next year and the year thereafter. I can’t wait.”

So, if Reese has anything to say about it – and he does – the traveling concert caravan will pack up its trucks and busses and hit the road again next year, perhaps just in a somewhat different form.

“Great ideas will always win,” Reese said. “People want to have wonder in their life. We have 500 channels at any one time on TV to tune in to. They don’t want to just pay a bunch of money for concessions. They want an experience. Give them that experience, and they’ll pay.”

Like they say at the circus, the show must go on.