Friday, July 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman talks about the festival's growth, future

At a certain point, the 55-year-old guy spending every summer on the Vans Warped Tour has to call it a night, right? Shouldn't Kevin Lyman think about hanging it up at some point?

"I never thought I'd have a business my daughters come and work with me on," says Lyman, left, who in 1995 founded what has become the longest-running summer festival tour in North America, which returns to St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park on Friday. One daughter is graduating college, and the other's in high school and loves it. "As a father," he said, "I'm doing it as much for her."

Still, each hot summer brings a new round of frustrations Lyman's way, from old complaints that Warped's not punk or metal enough to last year's more serious complaints about sexual impropriety on tour. One artist, Jake McElfresh, was allowed to perform on Warped despite ongoing allegations he sexually harassed underage girls; another, Slaves, was kicked off tour after singer Jonny Craig allegedly harassed a female merch worker.

Lyman is optimistic about this summer, though, and always eager to return to Florida. When he came to Winter Park for a Warped Tour lineup announcement party in March, he planned to sneak in a two-day fishing trip out of Madeira Beach. Moreover, Warped has always had a strong presence of Florida bands Less Than Jake, Sleeping With Sirens and Tampa's own Set It Off, "and we're going to have a good presence this year."

Here are more excerpts from our conversation.

You've mentioned that you felt frustrated last year with what Warped has become.

It was just how people deal with things differently, understanding that you can't negotiate with social media. I used to think it was punk rock — we talked to everyone, we worked it out. And then I found that people don't do that anymore. They voice their frustration, their ignorance, their opinions, without being willing to have a discussion. So I was trying to deal with that, but it took till the end of the summer to understand it. I'd sit on the bus trying to answer every tweet from every kid. You've got to just do what you do best.

I can imagine social media has been one of your biggest disruptors. What else has caused the Warped Tour to evolve over the years?

Changing tastes in music. You have to evolve musically or you wouldn't be there. I love old punk rock, but you can't get people to come out on a Tuesday at 11 in the morning to see Bad Religion. Those bands don't tour the same way. I did this festival in California this year called the It's Not Dead Fest. I put all my old punk bands together on a Saturday, and 21,000 people came out. There's still that love of punk rock, but you just can't tour it. We have to work six days a week to financially make this work.

Over the last 10 years, so many more weekend and destination festivals have popped up. Has that impacted how the Warped Tour operates?

No. We still do a half a million people every year. Warped is a niche festival. It's that entry-level festival for people 13 to 19 — their parents don't want them to go away and sleep in a swamp for three days; they can still go and be home by dark. Now I look at it as a festival for people who maybe don't have the financial resources to go to a three-day festival.

What do you want the Warped Tour to become? Can it continue if you leave it?

I think it probably could pop around for maybe a couple of years. But 90 percent of the things we do with Warped Tour are not financially driven. I just don't know if anyone would put that time and effort into it.

A lot of companies like Live Nation have bought festivals, or stakes in festivals, over the years. Have you had to fend off barbarians at the gate for Warped?

There's been inquiries. But why would they buy me? I make them money. And they don't have to pay me a salary. I'd probably command a pretty big salary if I went over there.

At this point, does Warped run itself?

No. It's a lot of work. We tweak it. You've also got a $20 million budget to manage. And we still try to bring a value to kids. When the business changes, when ticket fees go higher, you don't want to charge kids more. You've got corporate partnerships that are usually one-year deals. Most of that, you're starting from scratch every September.

Every time I talk to a musician or fan about Warped, they describe it as a rite of passage, a seminal moment in their youth. You must see that every time you go out.

When you see kids run up, and they're yelling at their mom, "We met Simple Plan and Sum-41 and the Used!" You know those parents had their moment. This was their moment. You just watch that moment where a musical light has gone on in their heads. Those bands are speaking (to them) the same way the Dead Kennedys spoke to me.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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