Kevin Lyman Talks Vans Warped Tour [INTERVIEW]
In this interview we speak with organizational music legend Kevin Lyman, leader of the summer long concert series leviathan that is Vans Warped Tour, about the direction of the tour and the complex logistics that go into making it work.
Guest post by Dave Brooks from the touring industry news site Amplify
Vans Warped Tour is not a sprint. It’s not even a 10k.
The country’s last traveling festival, with its 700-person road crew and 60+ bands, is an ultra-endurance marathon that traverses America, beginning with a scaled down show in Alaska before landing stateside in Dallas and heading east through the southern states. Eventually Warped Tour makes a U-turn in Holmdel, N.J., and heads back west, coming to a halt at the Portland Expo Center. It’s 42 shows in 31 states with hundreds of thousands of fans and lots and lots of Vans sneakers.
Leading this motley crew is long-time promoter and indie music hero Kevin Lyman, punk rock’s elder statesman who books, routes and leads Warped Tour with the help of his team at 4Fini. We caught up with Lyman last week during a day off in New Orleans where he was serving in his other official capacity — parent of a college student.
“My daughter is in Europe right now, and the other day someone here stole all the wheels off her car,” he explained. “I wish they had left it on cinder blocks. It would have made it easier. These guys literally piled rocks up to support the car. Pretty industrious, actually. They could probably fix America if they put their mind to it.”
This year, you guys launched the tour in Alaska. How is that show different than other tour dates?
That’s a cut-down version of the show. It always seems like a break-even proposition, but the kids like it because we’re trying to spread the music of our bands. There’s a kid up there named Chris Cardenas who works at Alaska Airlines and is really stoked on Warped Tour, so we let him try to do a show each year. We play in the parking lot of a mall. About seven bands fly up there from the U.S. tour. For the rest of the tour, we have 60 bands.
How did you link up with the guys in Alaska?
I used to go up there and judge the Alaska Battle of the Bands and we’d give the winner a spot on some Northwest Warped Tour dates. It was always fun. We’d always time it to the opening of fishing season. I brought up Page Hamilton from Helmet once, telling him “Come judge the Battle of the Bands with me,” and it was always a great time. We’d see some bears, drink a few beers, go fishing and judge the Battle of the Bands. What’s better than that, right?
What can you tell us about this year’s tour?
We’ve cut down a bit this year. We’ve probably got about 700 people on the road with us. Last year it was too much — about 1,000 people. So everything’s a little more relaxed this year.
Why did you decide to scale down?
It just becomes no fun when you have that many people, and it impacts the lines for food and showers and all these other things. This year everyone is pretty relaxed. We have a good balanced lineup of elder statesmen and the older bands that have played Warped a few times. We’ve got some great young bands like Sykes and The Heirs who are really on their first intensive U.S. tour, and they’re sure learning quickly. We’ve also got bands that are right in the middle and have done a few U.S. tours, and all of a sudden they’re on this tour and they’re playing for much bigger crowds and selling merchandise and hopefully will become that band that we’re all talking about in a few years.
Is Warped Tour’s main focus still on breaking bands?
Absolutely. Last year it was Bebe Rexha out there with us and now she’s got that big hit with G-Eazy. It’s funny because they both started out on Warped Tour. Now they have that big hit and it’s fun to see bands break through like that. I had Sykes play at our barbecue the other day. We shoot a little video of their acoustic set and the next thing you know, 25,000 people have viewed that online. That’s a huge piece of marketing for a young band.
How do you decide which bands to invite on tour?
I spend September and October listening to music and talking to people, especially fans of the tour. A lot of it is me just trying to get my head still and asking myself ‘what would make an interesting day?’ Our crowd got super, super young last year. A lot of 14, 15, and 16-year-olds. Now we’re balanced back out to 18 to 22. That seems like the sweet spot. I know that we’re selling a bit more beer. The concessionaires don’t usually stock a lot of beer on Warped Tour and yesterday the concessionaire sold out. It’s not like a big drunk frat party or something. There was an adult crowd, a little bit older. You can feel the energies out on the road. It’s not manic. It’s everyone saying ‘this is kind of cool. I’m here to see some bands. I’m here to hang out. I want to check out all the opening acts and the younger bands that I don’t hear about.’
Last year you announced free tickets for parents who want to take their kids to the show. How is that going?
You know, this year is interesting. We don’t have quite as many parents as we used to, because the kids are a bit older, or they came to Warped with their parents last year, and now they’re going, ‘You know what, you can go to that show on your own.’ On the weekends, the parent numbers build up because they want to come to the show. They want to watch the bands. In New Orleans yesterday, we had like 30-40 parents. Last year we were having up to 700 parents on a big show on a weekend.
Vans has been the sponsor for Warped Tour since the beginning. How has your relationship with them changed over the past two decades?
They weren’t involved in the first year, I did it on my own. They got involved the second year. Steve Van Doren is awesome and he works his ass off. When he sees all the bands the first day, it’s like Christmas for him. They’re all getting their shoes, their socks, their duffle bags, their towels. He hires the In-N-Out truck to feed everyone. It just sets the tone for the rest of the summer. I spent seven hours teaching a young band how to barbecue and how to maintain it on the road. It felt great being a teacher, almost, like handing down the torch to another young band.
So a lot of the bands do the work of the tour?
They do the cooking and cleaning and then go out and play a half-hour set. They sell their CDs and they get known by the other bands. If they’re good, people are going to recognize them.
Warped Tour is the last traveling festival. How have you guys survived so long?
It can be tough. There’s a huge amount of traffic on the road now (from individual tours). Everyone is on the road all the time. I think there’s a little bit of festival fatigue going on out there. We’re seeing it across the board. We’ve been consistently doing over 10,000 people a day and suddenly we’re the only ones left.
What does the shift toward destination events mean for you?
It means I need to get my head examined, Dave.
How do you pick your venue sites?
Well, in New Orleans we’re in front of Mardi Gras World. The guys from Winter Circle have done Buku here and I went over to check it out this year. I thought it could be a fun, funky Warped Tour site. It was tight to jam everything we had into that little space, but you know, when it was all said and done, the venue was happy. At first, all the police were talking about were concerts and drugs, and I go, ‘You’re not going to have that at Warped Tour.’ At the end of the day, the police captain came to me and said, ‘Man, this is really a cool show.'” It’s a place to send your kids. You’ve got a lot of people, extra parents, 200 security pros a day. Everyone out there, from the merchandisers to the vendors to the sponsors to all the non-profits, they’re looking out for kids, and if they see a kid having trouble, they’ll get on the radio and get us in there. There are a lot of people watching and looking out for people. And there’s a lot of people having fun. What could be better than that?