How Las Vegas’ When We Were Young Dominated The Zeitgeist and  Demonstrates Emo And Pop-Punk’s Continued Strength

Romancing The Past
Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images
– Romancing The Past
In one of the final shows before its hiatus, My Chemical Romance performs at Big Day Out in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 26, 2012. The emo legends will headline When We Were Young and a sold-out arena tour this fall.

Kevin Lyman was teaching a USC class online on Jan. 18 when his phone started lighting up. The deluge of notifications tipped off the Warped Tour founder that something was up – he just wasn’t sure what.

“I was worried that something bad was happening, when that many people were hitting up my phone,” Lyman tells Pollstar with a palpable sense of relief.

In fact, many in the veteran promoter’s orbit were celebrating: Live Nation had just announced When We Were Young, a one-day Las Vegas festival scheduled for October uniting dozens of artists who had earned their stripes playing Warped Tour, the traveling festival that brought emo, punk, hardcore and more to legions of North American fans from 1995 to 2019 and grossed more than $367 million in the process.

Topped by My Chemical Romance and Paramore, two of the scene’s most revered artists, When We Were Young’s lineup features a slew of genre stalwarts, including The Used, Senses Fail, Hawthorne Heights, Bayside, We The Kings, A Day To Remember, Alkaline Trio and The All-American Rejects. For more than a few Millennials, the bill might as well be the artist list on their banged-up iPod Mini circa 2005.

Nostalgia is a powerful motivator, and it propelled When We Were Young, with general admission tickets priced at $245, to an immediate sellout. According to CAA agent Matt Galle, who represents My Chemical Romance and other When We Were Young bookings including Taking Back Sunday, Saosin and Boys Like Girls, demand for the event on Front Gate Tickets set a record for the platform, informing the decision by Live Nation and partner C3 Presents to add second and third dates with identical lineups, which also sold out instantly.

With 65 artists booked, the festival’s sheer scale sparked consternation among some, who wondered how a one-day festival could pack in so many acts. (Internet speculation, echoed by an agent representing several When We Were Young artists, has suggested at least one stage at the event will use rotating “turntable” technology to reduce gaps between sets; Live Nation declined to comment about event specifics for this article.)

What Happens In Vegas
Courtesy Live Nation
– What Happens In Vegas
When We Were Young will bring more than 60 emo, pop-punk and alt-rock artists to Las Vegas for three one-day festivals this October.

But for bookers Jeffrey Shuman and Andy Serrao and the agents they worked with, the extensiveness was the point.

“It’s the overall picture and the overwhelming amount of artists that all scratch a little different itch that made this as successful as it is,” says CAA agent Mike Marquis, who books When We Were Young performers including Mayday Parade and The Maine. “People that were into and are into this style of music have really broad taste and they have a lot of like Easter egg artists that they love that never made it. … The idea that it could be like a cover-all for that entire moment in their life is the appeal.”

When We Were Young isn’t merely a Warped Tour redux, of course. In retrospect, artists like Dashboard Confessional, Bright Eyes, Manchester Orchestra and Avril Lavigne seem cut from the Warped cloth, but none of them ever played the festival. Car Seat Headrest and Meet Me At The Altar would’ve made sense on Warped, but rose to prominence well into the ‘10s. And the lineup also features newer artists like jxdn, Nessa Barrett and The Linda Lindas who were little kids during Warped’s cultural apex.

But When We Were Young shares lots of DNA with its iconic predecessor: More than two-thirds of its artists, 47 to be exact, played Warped Tour at least once, and 44 played it multiple times. Nineteen When We Were Young bookings played Warped five times or more, including Silverstein, which leads the pack with 10 Warped Tour appearances.

“A lot of festival promoters try to do these things in a way where they just want to spend as little as possible, maximize profits,” says Sound Talent Group co-founder and agent Dave Shapiro, who represents Silverstein and other When We Were Young Warped alums including Motionless In White and Story Of The Year. “[Serrao and Shuman] had the ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I think it worked. They basically said, ‘Let’s not cheap out on this, let’s just go big, get every band that we think makes sense and it’s gonna work.’”

CAA’s Marquis praises the “depth of knowledge and a real, true understanding of the culture” displayed by the bookers, which he says contributed to making When We Were Young “a must-attend [event] for this very specific subset, culturally, of people that were in this scene.” And Shapiro adds that the festival channels Lyman’s method of creating bills that transcend specific artists.

“One of his biggest strengths was putting bands together where the sum of all parts was a much greater value than any of these bands individually,” Shapiro says. “Through that, he didn’t just help build these bands’ careers; he really helped build a whole genre of music and a whole entire culture around it.”

Upon its announcement, When We Were Young seized the discourse; Marquis describes it as a “phenomenon.” Mainstream outlets picked up the news and the festival’s distinctive poster was memed into oblivion – even the TSA posted a version of it on its Instagram account, replacing artist names with travel safety tips. When We Were Young’s rapid absorption into the zeitgeist ensured it likely would’ve sold well in any market, but the choice of Vegas didn’t hurt.

“Las Vegas has a good reputation for putting these lifestyle type shows together,” says Lyman, citing the city’s long-running Punk Rock Bowling festival, which has been headlined by the likes of Bad Religion, Rancid, Rise Against and NOFX in recent years, as a precedent.

Sin City also provides a host of other activities for Millennials seeking to make When We Were Young the cornerstone of a weekend trip. Today, the same Millennials who turned out en masse for Warped as cash-strapped teens and young adults are well into their thirties, representing a robust consumer base with plenty of disposable income. And many of them also yearn for better days. 

Still Into You
C Flanigan / WireImage
– Still Into You
Paramore’s Hayley Williams performs at Bonnaroo 2018.

“Everyone longs to remember the good times when they were sweating in the hot Warped Tour parking lot, singing their brains out to those songs that made so much sense to them,” Lyman says. “And, hey, the teen years are not easy. But overall, compared to what people have been going through the last two years, maybe with their jobs, with their families, with their parents and everything? The teen years are probably looking like a pretty good time of life.”

But just as younger generations who never saw the Dead at the Fillmore East or the Ramones at CBGB came to love those artists and the scenes they embodied, Gen Z – many now in the same stage of adolescence as Millennials were when Warped first rolled through their towns – have embraced emo and pop-punk.

“You have fans that have grown up with this music, and now they’re older and they’ve followed along with it,” Shapiro says. “Then you also have the younger generation of fans who are discovering it.”

“My Chemical Romance walked away at the top of their game,” Lyman says of the band, which last toured in 2012 and will embark on a sold-out reunion run that was postponed from 2020 later this year. “They were getting bigger when they walked away. … There’s been a mystique around them. A lot of people got to see them, but very few people got to see them, if that makes sense.” 

The passion isn’t limited to established acts like MCR and Paramore. Just look at today’s popular music, where artists like Machine Gun Kelly and Olivia Rodrigo have scored major hits with songs that would’ve been at home blaring over the speakers of a suburban mall’s Hot Topic during the Bush years. (The 18-year-old Rodrigo’s chart-topping “good 4 u” bore such similarity to Paramore’s 2007 anthem “Misery Business” that members of that band subsequently received co-writing credits.)

Lyman says to expect a strong youth contingent at When We Were Young – “There’s going to be a lot of parents looking at their credit cards going, ‘What did you buy?!’“ he says with a laugh – and Galle and Shapiro both predict multi-genre megafests will increasingly book emo and pop-punk artists, appealing to the nostalgia of older fans and servicing younger audiences who missed out the first time around.

“People were afraid of putting this type of music on a lot of festivals in the past,” Galle says. “They thought it wasn’t cool. Now you’re seeing people respect it, and they want this audience that might not even be coming to their festival to come to it. They know they can tap into new ticket buyers.”

And while When We Were Young’s lineup might seem exhaustive – and therefore might seem to preclude future installments – that isn’t quite true. Eight of the 10 artists who played Warped Tour most aren’t playing the Vegas event; neither are two of scene’s most enduring headliners, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. A future event, Lyman suggests, could fuse genre legends like Fall Out Boy and of-the-moment artists like Machine Gun Kelly. “But,” he adds, “I would always play to that nostalgia to sell the hotels and the travel packages.”

To paraphrase the “Field of Dreams” line, if When We Were Young builds it, fans will come.

“It’s nostalgia, but it’s also just that these are real fans,” Marquis says. “They’re not casual fans. It’s really important to them to go to these shows when they’re available, because they’re really meaningful.”