One year growing up in Land O’Lakes, Kelly Ogden drove to Jacksonville for the Vans Warped Tour.
"I think it was ’97, and we were watching the Mighty Mighty Bosstones," she said. "Dicky Barrett pulled me up on stage to dance. It was my first time on stage at a rock show, and at that moment I felt like maybe it was where I belonged."
The feeling stuck. Twenty-one years later, Ogden’s band the Dollyrots played a handful of dates on this summer’s final Warped Tour, which stops at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Saturday for its second-to-last-ever show.
To call the demise of the Warped Tour the end of an era undersells its importance to a generation of musicians raised on it. How many suburban punk and skate kids since 1995 call the Warped Tour their first concert ever? How many made each year’s visit to Tampa or St. Petersburg a rite of summer passage? And how many of them went on to form bands of their own?
"I remember going to the Warped Tour, and the people on stage were just a couple of years older than me," said Dashboard Confessional singer Chris Carrabba. "It was this weird thing where it seemed possible, like maybe I could pick up a guitar and I could make music and maybe I could be on a tour one day."
In announcing the decision to pull the plug on Warped, founder Kevin Lyman told Billboard its time had simply come. He said ticket sales experienced "a pretty big dip last year," especially among younger fans, and the effort to sustain those dwindling crowds simply "hasn’t been fun the last few years."
In general, rock’s place in music culture has diminished considerably from Warped’s early and peak years, when bands like No Doubt, Fall Out Boy and Paramore — to say nothing of non-rock acts like Katy Perry and Eminem — could springboard from those summer boot-camp stages to mainstream stardom.
"You’re not turning on MTV and seeing Headbangers Ball and seeing Zakk Wylde still shredding after all these years, inspiring kids to pick up a guitar," said Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian. "It’s so much harder for that to happen, for 10,000 kids suddenly tomorrow morning to wake up, and there’s the new greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever made, and it makes 10,000 kids want to go play guitar. It’s not going to happen."
So many of the skateboard and extreme-sports enthusiasts who once made up Warped’s core demo have long since moved on to hip-hop and EDM.
"It’s a generational change happening now, where a tour like Vans has to change to become something else to stay relevant," said Mike Peters of the Alarm, an ’80s post-punk band that played Warped in 2017. "The synergy of that concert and what made it work as a concept was that it was not just music, but a lifestyle altogether. It became known as being a music concert rather than a lifestyle, so I think its appeal maybe narrowed."
Even for artists who have spent multiple summers on Warped, the appeal has diminished. Underoath’s Spencer Chamberlain said the backstage experience had begun to feel less DIY and more TMZ.
"I’m not trying to be an old guy, but there used to be the old bands and up-and-coming bands, and there was a whole lot of camaraderie — you felt like you learned from each other," Chamberlain said. "That kind of changed. I would go back and visit, and there’s bands with one hot record that are in their 20s, and they’ve got bodyguards and tour buses and people following them around with cameras. It’s not Warped Tour’s fault; I just feel like a couple of years ago, it turned into a popularity contest. It was not about going to discover bands. I just felt dirty every time I went."
One thing artists agree on is that the death of the Warped Tour doesn’t mean punk and metal will soon join it. Some other tour will likely spring up in Warped’s place, snatching up its sponsors and co-opting its dates on the calendar. Other bands, such as Underoath, have decided they’ll start taking more Warped-style bands on tour, "linking back together where it used to be when the scene started," Chamberlain said.
Carrabba said taking punk back underground, away from Warped’s amphitheaters and fairgrounds, can only help it grow into something new.
"It’s frankly a more personal thing," he said. "Maybe this brings it back to a homespun (feel), making things locally driven, local scene pride."
Whatever happens to the Warped diaspora — of fans, of bands, of sponsors and merch makers and stringy-haired guitar techs — Ogden hopes they find their way back to some sort of Warped-like community. Even if it looks nothing like it has for the past 23 years.
"Really, I just hope young people still pick up real instruments and learn to bash on them rather than pat softly on keyboard keys through software," she said. "It’s so, so satisfying to hit drums and strum guitars and yell. I would just hate for them to all miss out on that."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.