Warped Tour founder reflects on its end

Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman. Photo by Chad Sengstock.
By Alan Sculley
For the Call

The Warped Tour will make its final stop in St. Louis Tuesday, July 3, at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, 14141 Riverport Drive. Doors open at 11 a.m. Tickets start at $30.

Kevin Lyman is approaching this summer’s 24th edition of the Warped Tour thinking about something that never needed to enter his thoughts during the many years of the tour. He’s thinking about his life without the Warped Tour.

Last fall, Lyman announced that 2018 would be the last year for Warped as a traveling festival visiting cities coast to coast. The festival hits St. Louis July 3 at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.

The Warped Tour’s end marks the end of an era in the concert world, as it is the last of the traveling festivals. It outlasted Ozzfest, Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Lilith Fair and every other traveling festival tour. Warped wasn’t the first traveling festival – that honor belongs to Lollapalooza, which Lyman worked on for three years when it was breaking ground as a touring multi-band festival before he launched Warped.

Lyman suspects the concept of the traveling festival has seen its day and sees multiple reasons why tours like Warped, Lilith Fair and Ozzfest are unlikely to happen again.

One reason is finances. In the case of the punk rock/alt-rock-leaning Warped, the transportation costs of getting some 70 bands and everything that comes with it to the venues has increased, as have band fees, insurance and other costs that go with a festival tour.

It’s also become a bigger challenge in recent years to book bands popular enough to anchor the Warped stages and drive ticket sales. That wasn’t such an issue in the first decade or so, when Warped was essentially the only big summer tour going for bands in the punk and alternative rock worlds, and managers and record labels clamored for one of the coveted slots on the Warped Tour.

But the music and touring business has changed in big ways – and the changes haven’t always worked in the Warped Tour’s favor.

For one thing, album sales have tanked in the eras of downloading and streaming services. Without much revenue from album sales, bands have to make their money on touring. Lyman said Warped is simply not seen by some industry people as the best summer touring option anymore, particularly for the kind of acts that could bring name recognition and a measure of star power.

“When I started Warped tour, there wasn’t a full summer (of festivals) in Europe that you could go to. Bands used to go over there in June, do a couple of festivals in early June, and then they’d come back, (do Warped Tour) and hopefully do a couple (European festivals) in August,” Lyman explained in a phone interview last month. “But now there’s a full three months of festivals going on in Europe. So the economics have changed for a lot of bands because of lack of payments from records and CDs, that type of thing. It’s a time when a band can make their living going to Europe this time of year.

“It’s understandable. They only make their money from touring, so in the short-term thinking, maybe they could go make more money (in Europe),” he said. “Now, unfortunately, people are put in a situation where every quarter you’ve got to stay solvent. So that was the problem.”

On a personal level, Lyman also found himself getting worn down from the long hours he puts in traveling with the tour and making sure things run as smoothly as possible at each stop. Lyman typically starts work before sunrise and doesn’t finish until dark – some 16 hours later. Physically, it’s become a challenge for Lyman, now 57, to maintain his hands-on approach to managing the tour. And he has a knee replacement and a surgically rebuilt ankle to testify to the wear and tear.

“Physically, it’s been a drag the last three summers. I go 100 percent on everything I do,” Lyman said. “I’m always in the middle of it, and I will always be in the middle of everything I do. But the physical toll on me has gotten too hard.”

So yes, Lyman sounds ready to leave behind the grind of Warped. But not until he takes one last trip around the country this summer. And for Warped’s final voyage, Lyman has assembled a diverse lineup of talent that includes a number of veteran bands that have had multiple outings on the tour (Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish and Every Time I Die) as well as emerging acts that touch on everything from pop-rock (Echosmith) to punk (Doll Skin) to metal (Amity Affliction) and beyond.

Lyman said he wasn’t able to book all the returning acts he wanted, although some groups that helped put Warped on the map are making one-off guest appearances at various tour stops. He likes what this year’s lineup offers and what he’s seen with ticket sales so far.

“I have a very solid lineup, and it’s all people who wanted to be there. That’s really what it is,” Lyman said. “I’m very happy with the lineup I do have and also how I think we’re selling our tickets, who we’re selling our tickets to this year. It looks like we’re selling to a fan that maybe remembers their good times at Warped Tour, that’s maybe a few years older, that 20- to 35-year-old set.

“I really think it’s going to be a celebration of people who are true music fans, who remember those times and are going to come out and have a great last summer with us,” he said.

The absence of the Warped Tour figures to leave a void for some bands, especially the newer alt-leaning acts that have been able to establish a buzz and a fan base for themselves on the tour. But Lyman figures those acts will find other touring options that will work.

One area that is a concern for Lyman, though, is the future of some of the nonprofits that have been part of the Warped experience. Working with these organizations has been a major priority for Lyman, and a major effort this year will involve helping the Preventum Initiative, which educates the public about the dangers of opioid abuse.

Each year dozens of organizations have traveled with Warped, and a good number of fledgling groups grew into influential operations through the exposure and volunteer participation they’ve generated on the tour. These organizations will have to find some way to replace the resources that came from Warped.

Lyman said he will do as much as he can going forward to help the nonprofits that have partnered with Warped.

“One of the hardest things of ending this (tour) is trying to figure out how to continue to help them with their missions. We’ve got some plans in place,” he said. “We’re not walking away from them.”

Lyman himself figures to find plenty of ways to fill his time now that he’s not booking and running the Warped Tour. He plans to stay involved with some of the nonprofits and he will be available to consult on certain festivals or other events.

Another part of his schedule will be filled by teaching.

He accepted a teaching position with the University of Southern California starting this fall. Lyman said he doesn’t yet know exactly what classes he’ll teach, but courses involving live music production or musical trends could be among his subjects.

 And he has one other undertaking in mind for next summer.

“Now I’m going to travel in a different way,” Lyman said. “I get to take my wife on a summer vacation. It will be awesome… Next summer will be our first summer vacation in 27 years.”