Warped Tour Founder Kevin Lyman Discusses Its Impact, for Better or Worse
A look back at the positive and negative aspects of the long-running festival that made it a lightning rod for controversy.
Chelsea Lauren / WireImage
Kevin Lyman is tired. In the evening when I call him, he’s had a long day of fielding emails and text messages about the big announcement he'd made that morning: The Vans Warped Tour, the long-running, punk-rooted festival he started in 1995, will make its final trek across America next summer. But Lyman’s been tired for a while. He’s been meticulously hands-on with Warped Tour for the last 22 years, perhaps to a fault, and lately it’s taking its toll on the 57-year-old. He’s got tinnitus, undergone a knee replacement, and had an ankle rebuilt, he notes. “You look in the mirror and think: Where did all that time go?” Lyman says.
In its tenure spanning more than two decades, Warped Tour has become something of a rite of passage for young music fans, bringing millions their first live music experience, especially in the small towns of Middle America where thriving music scenes don’t typically exist. What started as a modest gathering of primarily punk and ska bands like NOFX, Bad Religion, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Sick of It All exploded into a multi-million dollar operation that incorporates a wide range of genres, from hip-hop to metalcore to mainstream pop. The tour has boasted early career performances from Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas, and Katy Perry. For better or worse, the Warped Tour has had an enormous impact on the direction of alternative music.
Warped Tour has run into its share of controversies as well, especially in recent years. In 2015, Lyman came under fire for allowing Jake McElfresh, who performs under the name Front Porch Step, to play the Tour’s Nashville date after McElfresh was outed for allegedly using social media to solicit nude photos from underage fans. And now, in a climate where allegations of sexual impropriety against bands that fit the Warped Tour’s mold are being made public with more frequency, many believed the tour was headed for a social media reckoning.
But despite the negative stories that have dragged Warped Tour into the headlines, Lyman is optimistic that Warped’s legacy will be the work it’s done for non-profit organizations and its philanthropy. Lyman, who runs the talent and brand strategy firm 4Fini, Inc., founded the fundraising organization Unite the United, which has raised money for various non-profits. He also received the Humanitarian Award from Billboard in 2009 for his philanthropic work.
Immediately after our interview, Lyman’s publicist forwarded me an email at his request, “one of hundreds that have come in so far,” from a young fan who credits Warped Tour, specifically its act Handguns, with saving his life after coming out of a diabetic coma. These are the experiences that have made Warped Tour a worthwhile endeavor in Lyman’s eyes, but now it’s time to move on. “I remember the first band I ever saw was Van Morrison and getting those goosebumps,” he says. “And I always said: When you don’t get the goosebumps, it’s time to get out.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noisey: Do you remember the moment when you realized it was your last year?
Kevin Lyman: It probably went another year longer than I physically felt I should have. But once you’ve made the decision, you’re committed a year out to do it. You’ve got sponsor contracts, you’re talking to bands, everyone’s working so far out on things now.
The Warped Tour is so tied to you personally. Were you worried at all about what would have happened if the tour kept going? Do you think it was headed for something bad?
No. I don’t think it was headed for anything bad, knock on wood. We’ve been able to read the giant storms that are out there and get the kids to safety, and I just felt it was time. The music industry’s changed, too. When we started this, there were a few travelling festivals. You’ll remember H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair and Ozzfest. In America now, we have over 900 festivals, not all in the realm of this music, but bands now are forced to be on tour all the time, because they’re trying to make up the revenues they don’t make from CDs, so it’s hard to put a unique package together for two months.
What do you think the legacy for Warped Tour will be, and what impact do you think it’s had on, specifically, punk?
We’ve built a lot of non-profits that are now national non-profits. There’s a lot of bands that became live touring bands. I think Katy Perry doing Warped Tour as her first tour taught her how to be a live act, and also turned her into a good citizen. She got involved with non-profits. I’m on the board of MusiCares and that first year she was out with us, she came and played the benefit show afterwards. So, it’s not all good, it’s not all bad. To be honest, I’m just tired. It’s okay to get tired when you’re gonna turn 57 years old and you’re still out running the kids’ game and you’re doing 18 shows in a row. I have friends that come out for two days and are like, “Fuck, Kevin, I can’t do this anymore.”
Have any of the recent allegations mounting against bands with young men in them played any factor in ending it? That’s been an issue with Warped Tour in the past.
It’s an issue, I addressed it the best I could. For me, I’m always very proactive, so that’s why I got involved with A Voice For The Innocent. I started this festival to bring a bunch of bands together and skateboarders together. It grew into a cultural thing and I address things the best I possibly can. For me, it was going outside and getting Voice For The Innocent involved and other organizations, who now all travel with us. I subsidize them to come out on the road and be there for people. We address things the best way we possibly can as a tour that is not part of these bands’ lives all the time—they come together with us for eight weeks a year.
Obviously, men in bands being accused of sexual assault is not a problem that’s specific to Warped Tour.
No, it’s all… go to hip-hop right now.
But Warped Tour seems like a specific case because it’s this petri dish where you have predominantly young man-boys in these bands and they’re being unleashed on what is a predominantly young, teenage female audience. It seems like a recipe for disaster.
When you really dig through all this, when you really dig into it, how much of it actually happened at the Warped Tour? I know there’s something floating around today that said something happened at a show. But really go into these stories and see if they happened at the Warped Tour.
Well, was it just not reported? I think something like 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.
You only know something if it’s reported, right? As a reporter, you can only report what you’re told, correct? So we addressed things when... Early on on Warped Tour, there was a way things were addressed.
And how was that?
Let’s say a guy in a band wore a shirt that said “cunt” on it, they’d be taken behind the bus and told, “You have two options: You eat the shirt or take it off and never wear it again, and this is why.” Because the Warped Tour is run by women, I don’t know if you know that. Other than myself, the production staff is… Warped Tour has given more women a production role than any other tour in music. So it’s a very safe environment to be out on that tour as a woman, and it’s also… we police the bands more than probably any other tour out there. But if someone really wants to get in trouble, they’re gonna get in trouble, correct?
I know you took heat for inviting Jake [McElfresh] from Front Porch Step. Is that something that you look back on with regret?
I took the best resources I possibly could at that point, okay? When he was kicked off the tour, his counselor group, which is a group of people through MusiCares that were dealing with him, came to me and said, “We think it would be okay to let him come play a show.” They’re the professionals. You take professional advice.
But you’re still putting him in front of teenage girls.
He was supervised, he walked in, played 25 minutes and left.
So the motivation was purely for his rehabilitation? Was that—
Well, that’s how it was approached to me and they’re the professionals. Sometimes in life—I was a guy who was production manager for Jane’s Addiction—and I go to outside sources, I removed him from the Warped Tour, and probably I look back at that and it wasn’t… For the thousands of people I deal with and the tens of thousands and 11 million fans across the country, I feel like I’ve done a pretty damn good job.
The bad things get spotlighted, certainly, and obviously it all comes down to you because you’re the founder. But one artist that always seemed like a strange case on the Warped Tour, because they’re one of the tour’s biggest draws, was Falling In Reverse. That frontman, Ronnie Radke, was flying out of the tour for court dates for a murder trial in which he was ultimately indicted and he was invited back. And then he later pleaded no contest to hitting his girlfriend and was invited back to the tour then too. What was the motivation there?
That’s a conversation you should probably have with people like [Epitaph Records founder] Brett Gurewitz, and not Kevin Lyman, you know? And he was also accused of a rape or an attack on someone, do you remember that? In Salt Lake City? And the girl recanted the whole story. And to be honest, the person driving the van that was one of my production people who’d been with me 20 years, said they were trying to help this girl actually get home, who was actually overdosing on drugs. None of this is randomly like, “We’re gonna endanger people.”
I don’t mean to imply that. I just mean, with his record, was he the best choice to put in front of an audience of teenage women?
You know, he doesn’t interact with the women in the crowd. He does his show and leaves.
I think we’re going down a weird path because maybe there’s a separate thing there but I think you should be interviewing a whole segment of people—he’s on a record label, he has a management company, who manages women, and continues to manage him, correct?
Right, but just because he’s managed by women doesn’t excuse of him of impropriety.
No, no, no, I’m just saying it’s all the way around, and you’ve got to look at the other side of somebody like Ronnie—he does the most charity work out on Warped Tour with the kids that come from our Make-A-Wish program and our Living The Dream programs. I don’t think anyone’s reported that side of him.
Yeah, I mean, there’s enough bad stuff to overshadow it.
Yeah, but that’s what we focus on it. Like we said, you focus on the bad. And we watch that guy spend hours sitting with kids in wheelchairs that have terminal diseases and illnesses and he makes a special lunch for him, he hangs out with them, he brings them out on stage, he lets them sing songs with him. And I don’t know, it’s not a perfect world, you know? It really isn’t.
He got involved in a weird online controversy that revolved around the Warped Tour last year, which was the Dickies incident. That seemed like a storm of the old world of punk who says, “We’re gonna say what we want and fuck you!” running head-on into the new wave of punk that’s more diverse and more minded towards social issues, and it seemed to crash. Have you thought about that in the months since?
Oh yeah, we’re trying to be a tour that was crossing 40 years of people. Think about that. And trust me, I definitely thought about that. I’m 57, but I can have a conversation and understand where War on Women and Safer Scenes are coming from and what they’re about. If there was a point where people sat down and had a discussion… We used to sit down and have discussions. Punk rock was always controversial. I worked in the 80s in LA, but you’d be able to have those conversations, face to face. And you may not have agreed, but you had these conversations, and everything now is taken into a public forum very quickly. But then I sat there on the bus after all this going, “If they had just come over to my tent…” One of the reasons I’m there every day is to have discussions and flush out differences, because you’re gonna have differences when you’re a thousand people on the road. But I sat and realized we had someone who was in their 60s on tour with someone in their 20s. No one had ever really done that. There was a lot of things that had never been done until the Warped Tour. And I sat there going, “Woah, maybe it’s gotten too spread out.”
You’ve been booking this since the beginning. How do you think punk has changed since the Tour’s earliest days where it was NOFX and Anti-Flag and Bouncing Souls?
Well, Anti-Flag still does Warped Tour. They were out last summer. I like that Anti-Flag comes out, because they have something to say and they don’t mind that it’s a diverse crowd because they’re hoping new people will hear what they’re talking about.
My background is punk. I ran all the shows for Goldenvoice, that’s my whole world. I want punk to come back, but it’s weird that people keep asking for NOFX, Bad Religion, and Pennywise. We need new punk bands. So that’s why I push bands like the Interrupters so much. We need bands that say something and that’s why Anti-Flag’s always welcome to come on Warped Tour.
Do you think Warped Tour has helped shape the direction punk has moved in over the last 22 years?
I think we’ve kept it somewhat visible. Even through the early years, those bands like Pennywise, Bad Religion, and NOFX were underground at that point. In those years when it all became about Limp Bizkit and that kind of music, I think even those bands, if you talk to them, they could come and play and revitalize their audiences.
As far as your personal taste, what’s your favorite era of Warped Tour?
It would be the beginning for me. That’s why I did that It’s Not Dead Festival on the West Coast. I did that tour purely for my soul. Does that make sense? I realized why Warped Tour keeps going is that you’re not booking for yourself.
What’s your intention when you’re booking Warped Tour then?
I’m trying to introduce new generations to live music and rock and punk and that kind of music versus, say, hip-hop and EDM.
So how much of it is dictated by “we’re gonna give kids what they like” versus “we’re gonna tell kids what they should be into”?
If you go through the history of Warped Tour, there’s always gonna be some ska and punk-influenced bands out there. I was hoping for this new wave of hip-hop that’s out right now, I thought it was gonna be like the hip-hop I worked with—the Public Enemies and N.W.As, but it’s not. Kinda mindless, in my opinion at least, except for a couple of them. I’ll agree with Eminem when he said the other day that mumble rap sucks.
Looking back a year, five years, ten years after Warped Tour hangs it up, what do you think, and what do you hope, will be the legacy?
The non-profits, to be honest. To Write Love On Her Arms, Hope For The Day, A Voice For The Innocent, these big large non-profits who started in a ten-by-ten tent and now are helping this generation of kids the best they possibly can.
But from a fan’s perspective, obviously the most memorable thing is the era in which they saw Warped Tour.
And the emails I’ve been getting all day and the texts—you know, we can talk about these negative points, but for every one of those, there’s hundreds of people that say “this influenced my life in a positive way.” And either that positive way encouraged them to start a band, to start a brand, to work for a non-profit, or to approach life a little differently. And that legacy will live on because when I go to other festivals now, all the big production crews on the Coachellas and the Bonnaroos and all these festivals, the majority of those people got their start on the Warped Tour parking lot, getting their first gig working on that tour. We did a festival in Nashville—we do a lot of consulting for other things too. With that ticket price on Warped, I have to work other jobs to keep the company going. [Laughs]
Well, you’re doing okay off of Warped Tour, right? You couldn’t sustain just off of Warped Tour?
No, not at all. Warped Tour has made money one year on tickets.
Right, but there are other methods in which it takes in money. Is it not lucrative enough?
To be honest, I haven’t really made money in three years on Warped Tour but I love doing it. I had a brewery we sold to MillerCoors. That was awesome. Bunch of skaters and surfers started a brewery, fastest growing brewery in North American history, that was pretty awesome. Now I’m working on a coconut water, I help Hayley Williams on her hair-dye company. It’ll free up time to do that. But the last few years, everyone gets paid but it’s not like I’m rolling out of there with money.
It seems like the Warped Tour, since its earliest days, has been a lightning rod for controversy. Why do you think that is?
At the beginning, was it a lightning rod?
I remember in the early years of Warped Tour, the argument was that it was taking away from local scenes and local bands or local venues.
But we were the only national tour that would ever put local band on. We always had a local stage. You can go back—Godsmack was playing on a local stage one time. But I also wanted all these bands that were touring in the clubs that were beating each other to death when I was working in the clubs to team up to show people how important this music was. But if you don’t break out of the clubs—some bands want to play clubs all their life—but despite what anyone says, they’d love to play for a larger crowd. And I felt that if we could make the scene stronger, and I’m partners with SideOneDummy Records and if the people I looked up to at Epitaph Records and Fat Wreck Chords all teamed up and showed people how important this music was, more people would pay attention to it, and what was wrong with that? And then we had something like Blink-182, rode on my bus, couldn’t afford to be on Warped Tour.
Yeah, their pay that summer? To pay for the bus they had to wear the first Hurley shirt on stage.
One thing I’ve always been interested in is the Barbeque Band. How does that work?
Lagwagon, who I’m sure you know, would do a barbeque and started passing out laminates that said “Lagwagon Barbeque” and only if you had “Lagwagon Barbeque” could you come and get barbeque from Lagwagon. And we’re all friends, but I was like, “This is bullshit. These bands deserve barbeque. Sugar Ray should have some barbeque. Let ‘em have some barbeque!” So I said, screw it, we’re gonna start the Warped Tour Barbeque. But the problem with the barbeque is that we tend to have to leave in a hurry sometimes at night to get to the next city, and it’s hard to get down the road with a hot barbeque. So I had to buy one of those giant barbeque trailers. The first barbeque we had ended up in a ditch, broke a wheel. But the second one, PBR, when PBR was coming back, they made me one that looked like a PBR can. And the Barbeque Band, their job, they get to play on the stage, they get some money, but their job is to run the barbeque each evening and get that barbeque to the next city.
Okay, so they’re essentially working to play?
Yeah, they get a full set, they sell merchandise, they sell albums, and I pay ‘em some money on top.
But they also have to work the barbeque.
Yeah, they run to Sam’s Club or Costco or something, pick up veggie burgers and hot dogs. And the idea of the barbeque was to normalize everyone. Because I was the first stage manager at Lollapalooza, and I’d try to bring some of the vendors or sponsors backstage, and bands were like, “They can’t come back here.” And I’d go, “We’re all a community out here!” So what it was was to bring everybody together at the end of a hard day’s work to unite so people got to know each other. And that’s how Vans—when Vans first came out on Warped Tour, they didn’t put banners on stage. They earned that right by making relationships with bands.
One thing I hear people taking issue with is Army recruitment tents on the tour. Army recruitment seems in direct opposition to the tenets of punk.
It’s a catch-22 because early on in the tour, we had some situations—a lot of times when you’re working in a Live Nation venue, they had their own deals with the military. At first, we worked with the National Guard, and I was kinda like, “cool,” but... when did Iraq happen?
So in 2003, we became a warrior nation again. The Army came to me and they were showing me that they were using a video game to recruit people. It was kind of like a 3D video game truck. And I said, no, you can’t come out here anymore, because you’re not showing the true ideals of the military. Because if you were gonna show coffins coming home now… When you’re showing a video game, I felt that was a little bit of trickery. We didn’t have ‘em out for probably ten, 11 years and the only time you would see them out was if the venue had—I have to negotiate with Live Nation, AEG, and all the local promoters—so sometimes you’d have to let them set up.
But then what happened was, the US Army approached me, and they had an artist, a musician who was very passionate about Warped Tour.
Was that Corrin Campbell?
Yeah, Corrin Campbell. So I’ve never had a problem with the military. I’ve had a problem with our leaders and what they do with it sometimes. And also, I’m traveling across the country and meeting kids with little option. So by 2012 or 2013, we knew that we were going to countries and people were dying, so when [the Army] came back with [Campbell], I was like, “OK, you can come for a couple of years.” She also performed and was doing a lot of community service stuff for a couple of years. But to be honest, the third year they were supposed to be out, they burned us, the Army.
It was just… It was really deep and they were supposed to be on a third year and I pulled them off on the third of July and we’d only had a week, and we’ve never worked with the Army since, or military since.
So did any of the artists you had, like Anti-Flag and NOFX and these politically minded punk bands, did they take issue to the fact that there was Army recruitment going on?
We would sit there and talk about it at my tent. Anti-Flag would sing their songs and NOFX would sing their songs—I don’t know if NOFX was still coming out, I’d have to look at the years—but Rise Against was out once when the military was out. But it’s like having SPAM and PETA on the same ground.
Yeah, but this seems particularly like you’re creating an industry where you’re grooming young people for the Army.
No, they’re not forced to go to the tent. They don’t come out of their 20-by-30 space unless someone comes in and talks to them. I’m not grooming anyone. It’s the platform. And punk rock was a platform. A couple of years ago, the Students For Life wanted to come out on Warped Tour.
The pro-life organization?
Yeah, and then people started to say “Kevin Lyman is a subversive [supporter] for the pro-life movement.” That’s bullshit. I put the first pro-choice shows on in LA. Remember Rock For Choice and those things? I support those things. But I also talk to those kids [from Students For Life] and I’ll tell you how cool those kids were. And I didn’t agree, but you know what I agreed with? They were pro-adoption. And you know what? I was fucking adopted. Allowing them to be there sparked Planned Parenthood and local people to come out and have the other voice. The first call we’d make every year would be to Planned Parenthood. We didn’t seek out Students For Choice. We got more people off their asses to come out and have a counterpoint and view by allowing them to be there than we could get out by inviting them.
Yeah, but you and I are grown men who can make these sorts of distinctions, but certainly teenagers are much more impressionable.
No one forces anything on anyone! When you were there, did anyone beat you over the head with a Yoo-hoo can?
No, but I think there’s a big difference between Yoo-hoo and the United States military-industrial complex.
Well, that’s your opinion, but no one forced anyone to go talk to ‘em. I don’t have this exactly, but something like 18 to 20 percent of our audience is military.
Was already military?
Already military, that come to the shows. The letters we get from people that—[Warped Tour] is the show they can afford to go to, this is where they go see music. On a soldier’s salary, they can’t afford to go to [elsewhere] so they save up and figure out how to get that day off for Warped Tour. And when I had Chuck D on the Warped Tour, we all sat under the tent and had a debate with a bunch of Marines. And he’d say, “I’m not anti-you, I’m anti-our leaders.” And a lot of them would say, “Yeah, but, you know, gotta do what I’m told.” We’ve made things so non-controversial in some ways. Punk rock—you sound like you’ve been around a while—punk rock was sometimes putting stuff out in your face and having those debates. But you can’t do it on social media, because you can’t educate and debate there, so getting people to talk is not a bad thing.
Warped Tour’s been a lightning rod. I made a lot more money when I was doing world tours for Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and the Stone Temple Pilots. I ran all three world tours at once for ‘em. I made a lot of money, and all we were doing was kinda regurgitating the same show every day. The Warped Tour is different every day, and sometimes having that sparks a little unrest. And I haven’t handled it perfect, and I challenge anyone in the world to go through what I’ve done and handle it better.
Running a festival is certainly not as easy as people think it is.
No, and everyone can armchair quarterback.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with?
That period of 2015 was real tough. And I really thought you had to answer every person who puts a tweet out. I thought if someone sent that message to you, you owe them the respect to answer them.
And how has your view of that evolved?
You don’t, and I still don’t know how to use DM and things like that. But reach out to me at my email, give me a call. Wanna come sit down and talk about it? And a couple people did and we had great conversations and I learned from them and I think they learned from me, but the ones that continue to attack you—and it was weird being a 54-year-old man in this world, but I feel for the teenage kids. I see what happens to them [on social media]. I also realized all death threats come after midnight.
Last summer, I found out one person who was attacking me had 221 profiles. And one, she somehow slipped and let her full name come out and where she lived, so I tracked down her mother who worked at a real estate office in the middle of Indiana.
Jesus. To do what, scold her?
Well, just to inform the parent, not to scold the daughter. Because the daughter was making threats against my family, making threats against me. I just called the mother and said, “Is your daughter this name?” And I said, “Please, I’m not a weird person. I’m a parent, trust me.” I raised my kids through Warped, they’re very good kids—one runs my non-profits, one’s a physics major. I said, “I just want to inform you, I don’t know if you’re aware, but I’m pretty sure your daughter sits at home all day while you’re out working hard, making death threats against families.” And you know what? Three days later I got a call from the mother. “Thank you very much, we had no idea.”
When you wake up the morning after the last day of Warped Tour, what’ll you do?
Well, for this summer, we’re ending in Florida. So I’m going fishing with a bunch of friends, like I would normally do. And probably get back to work. I’ve got so much work to do every day beyond Warped Tour. I will be sad. I’ve gotten to see 43 different-looking sunsets every summer for 20-something years. But I’m also getting tired of running towards the lightning.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.