As the mastermind behind the Warped Tour, the alternative music festival that will soon celebrate its 15th summer, Kevin Lyman has been battered with criticism from musicians and music-lovers alike. They claim his tour is oversaturated with corporate sponsors and that tickets are overpriced. They complain that musicians on the tour are too popular or that the tour has lost touch with its punk-rock roots. They say, of course, that Lyman has sold out.
In order to see what's beneath this surface, Lyman's perspective seems critical, almost mandatory. In an interview with Dane Erbach, he comments the controversial decisions he has made over the past fifteen years and the evolution of his "traveling circus," alluding to what it is that makes the Warped Tour musically and culturally significant.
Over the years, the Warped Tour has evolved musically. It started off as more of a punk-rock festival, but seems to have strayed from that.
If it was the just the "Kevin Lyman Tour," itâd be Bad Religion, NOFX, Flogging Molly, and the Bouncing Souls all the time.
When you think about who was on the first yearâL7, No Doubt, Sublime, Quicksand, CIV, Orange 9mm, No Use for a Nameâit was very reflective of what was going on at that time, but those bands canât be placed into one category. Musically, it was pretty diverse back then. In 1996, when NOFX and Pennywise came out with me, it became recognized because of these larger bands as a punk tour. With the Warped Tour now, I want to pay homage to and recognize the roots of the tour. I think this summerâs tour is very reflective of thatâwith Flogging Molly, Bad Religion, NOFX, Less than Jake, Anti-Flag, Bouncing Souls and those acts.
But it also stays current with the times. In the last few years, Iâve noticed that people live life more with their iPod on shuffle; theyâre listening to all different types of music. This year, I tried to appeal to the 13- to 19-year olds, like my daughter, and what they would want to listen to. The idea is to stay current and remain classic at the same time. The Warped Tour has never been for that 10 percent who considers itself completely gutter-punk.
I see this as an opportunity to help my friends, who have been touring for 20 or 25 years; it gives them an opportunity to connect with new fans. I remember when I brought TSOL about seven or eight years ago and kids ran from the stage scared because they didnât know them. Now, the kids go research the lineup. They may know 3OH!3 and Devil Wears Prada because itâs whatâs going on in their lives right now but, when they see a bandâs name on the Warped Tourâs lineup that they havenât been exposed to, theyâll go in and learn a little bit more. By the time they come to the show, they might go and check out someone like Shooter Jennings. They might not buy the ticket to see him, but theyâll check out fifteen or twenty minutes to see if they like him.
Considering that bands like 3OH!3 and Devil Wears Prada are primary draws of the Warped Tour, is it still possible to call it a punk tour?
I donât think thereâs a clear-cut definition of punk-rock anymore. Punk-rock is a genre of musicâthree chords, and in your faceâbut, thematically, itâs always been a response to the times. And during economic times like this, you see bands respond in a couple of ways. You get some bands, like Anti-Flag, respond politically because this is a very politically charged time.
But itâs also a "get up and party" time because people are trying to get away from their worries. With 3OH!3, people want to get up and go crazy; they want to have a good time. Like my daughter says, weâre really tired of hearing boys cry about their problems. You just want to tell them, "Yeah, youâve got problems, but everyone has problems." Punk was always about attacking those problems, not crying about them.
This is an interesting interpretation of the term "punk," but the Warped Tour is often criticized for losing touch with its punk-rock roots; they say the Warped Tour has lost its punk-rock credibility. Some bands wonât play Warped because of this, and itâs funny because bands that have criticized us at some point are now playing on our tour. Iâve seen videos where UK Subs, the Adicts, DOA, or DI maybe didnât have the best things to say about the Warped Tour, but those bands have come back, played it, and said, "Look, this is a great way to get out and play for kids."
I love the punk-rock music. Thatâs where I grew up; I worked in the club for 12 years. I worked with metal bands and with indie bands, but I love the energy of punk shows. Thatâs itâs fun for me when I can go back and get bands like Flipper, bands that I worked with in the clubs, bands that lost their outlets to play, out on the Warped Tour.
Itâs also fun for me to see a dad bring his 13 year old daughter and saying, "This is the music that I went to see." He might say, "Letâs go see the band you came to see," which might be White Tie Affair, "but letâs go see my band too," which might be the Bouncing Souls. I think the Warped Tour has become cross-generational. I want to book enough so that dads and moms might want to bring their children to the Warped Tour for a day of music. Is that punk? Is it punk to go to a show with your parents? I think so, but I donât know.
Earlier, you mentioned how access to the internet has made the Warped Tourâs audience more informed about the musicians featured on the tour. The internet has also provided fans another forum to criticize your decisions. On a recent news update on the Warped Tourâs website, you refer to these kids who sit on their computers and complain as "haters."
Itâs funny because, when you put your thoughts up on a message board nowadays, youâre attacked immediately. It makes kids afraid to put their posts up or put their thoughts out.
They can attack me. Thatâs okay. I like when someone can criticize me, but only when they have a solution. 20 years ago, when I was in the clubs, you had to give a solution or no one was going to pay attention to you. Now, you can sit there all day long and throw things out on the internet. But, before the internet, you didnât have a platform to complain.
My thought is this: You donât have to like Brokencyde, or Jeffree Star, or the Millionaires, and Iâm not saying that I do necessarily. But they are doing something, capturing something, stirring up controversy. Punk bands used to stir up controversy; if youâre taking that as the definition of "punk", these artists could fall under that category.
Is that the rationale behind asking artists like the Millionaires to play on the Warped Tour? I was seeing them all over the web. And there were people requesting them. I was trying to fill spots and make the show a little more diverse and, subtly, people were like "Millionaires, Millionaires." I met them; theyâre kind of nice girls.
Trust me, Iâm not driving down the road playing their CD in my car. If it was the just the "Kevin Lyman Tour," itâd be Bad Religion, NOFX, Flogging Molly, and the Bouncing Souls all the time.
Do you worry about alienating other bands on the tour when you ask pop acts to perform?
Anyone who feels that way doesnât have to be on the tour. If youâre that upset that Jeffree Star is on the Warped Tour, then leave. You donât have to be there. There are 3,000 bands I had to say no to.
Itâs not that everyone has to get along and bro down. When youâre traveling with the Warped Tour, youâre traveling with 700 or 800 people; you can always find a group of like-minded people to hang out with. Itâs a place where youâre getting a lot of business done, but youâre having a good time and a place where you can enjoy your summer.
How do you respond to the people who claim that including such artists on your tour is "selling out?"
What I tell those kids, to be honest, is that I really should have fucking sold out. I should have charged five dollars more a ticket and kept it for myself. Despite the rumors, the Brinks truck doesnât pull up every day and drive away with a truck load of money for me. I make a nice living, Iâm not going to lie about that, but thereâs nothing wrong with making a nice living. I guess thatâs selling out, though.
Iâve never fallen for that term "selling out." There are many levels of selling out. When a band gets played on the radio or signs a record deal, thatâs one level. But then thereâs a-whole-nother sell out. Trust me, I could sell out very quickly if I really wanted to.
How do you mean?
I could have sold to one of the big concert promoters, like Live Nation. I could have sold to one of the big entertainment conglomerates. I could have sold to one of the major record labels, but then I would have been a tool for their bands to be on my tour.
Iâve been doing this for 27 years and music is the thread in my heart. Thatâs why I do this. If it was the money, last year, I would have cut a stage a week into the tour, or I would have sent 25 people home. Trust me, the accountants were telling me to, and I said no. I said Iâd rather make less money than put my credibility in jeopardy and tell the bands that 10 of them need to go home so we can afford to keep going down the road. I sucked it up and it came out to be an okay summer.
Some might suggest that the number of sponsors on the tour suggest the money is the more important priority.
There are a lot of corporations that we donât work with because they donât fit with what we do. But there are others that work very hard to support us.
Companies like AT&T are maybe as un-punk you can get; yes, their intent and everything they do is to sell you service and phones, but they do a lot to support the bands. When we started working with them, they were making posters for the bands that, at the time, were on indie labels that couldnât afford to market their musicians. AT&T still provides this promotion; the only difference is, now, when bands are signing those posters in their booths, theyâre paid to do that. The bands that play private acoustic sets for fans backstage are paid in the same way by these same sponsors.
I know that bands are having a harder time because their label canât give them tour support. We carve out money from our corporate sponsorships that goes right to the artists. It helps these bands get down the road. I could charge fifteen or twenty bucks more per ticket and have no corporate sponsors, but I donât know; itâs all a balancing act.
In what ways do these sponsors and advertisers affect the overall Warped Tour experience?
I think it enhances the show. The sponsors are out there sweating with the rest of us. Theyâre paying to be part of this, but only so the artists can benefit.
It took Vans four years before they were allowed even to put a banner on a stage. He had to earn the respect of the bands. And it was a band, I think it might have been MxPx, who actually put the Vans banner on before I allowed it. And you know why? Because Vans gave them clean socks, Steve Van Doren cooked barbecues backstage for them, Vans made those relationships.
The funniest thing is that, when a band is booked and I confirm them, the next call we get is from the bandâs management to see how they can align with a company. These companies help our bands get down the road.
So the bands are benefiting from these sponsorships; how do you think your audience benefits from its Warped Tour experience?
I think kids enjoy the tents, the booths, the interaction, but I hope that the Warped Tour affects people beyond the music, that thereâs at least ten or fifteen percent that walk into the Warped Tour and learn something. They sign up for PETA, they sign up for Amnesty. It took me a long time to convince Amnesty International to come to the Warped Tour, but now they say weâre one of their biggest recruiting spots. And weâve got the whole Eco Initiative. There are fifteen or twenty kids that come to the Warped Tour the just help with the recycling.
The Warped Tour is an alternative to the county fair that comes through your town every year. You can come in and learn about companies I feel have done good things for the scene, like Hurley or Volcom. And now youâve got this new level with companies like Babycakes or Glamour Kills; Jamie Tworkowski, who created To Write Love on Her Arms, has been able to reach lots of kids with that.
And the Warped Tour helps these nonprofits as well. Itâs a jumpstart for them. You get in there and you get access to six-hundred and twenty thousand people that I think are coming to the Warped Tour with an open mind. If the Warped Tour also encourages these people to use AT&T phones, then they made a choice that was stimulated by a great day that they were having. And, if AT&Tâs sponsorship fees can help us with our Eco Initiative, itâs all the better.
And you think that the Warped Tour has succeeded in reaching its audience at this level?
Every once in a while, I get these letters that reach out in more of a personal way, ones that say that going to the Warped Tour has changed their lives, helped me stay in school, encouraged me to pick up a guitar.
I got an e-mail this weekend from Judy, this quiet, shy girl from Canada who was very passionate about fanzines. I let her run the fanzine booth at the Warped Tour for a few years. We watched her learn out on the road and blossom into a young woman. She just wrote me to tell me sheâs graduating law school. Apparently, she sits on a board of lawyers in Canada that helps bands get grants from the government. She also helps touring bands that have trouble with their immigration into Canada. This was from Judy, who a lot of people didnât want to pay attention to, the shy kid who was a little goth. But she grew into this person who can deal with people on a very professional level.
Iâd rather focus on that than the guy who says that Iâm a sell out or that I suck.