Kevin Lyman: The Warrior of Warped

Photographer: Press photo

Vans Warped Tour creator Kevin Lyman reflects on 20 years of punk rock.

 

(This story appeared originally in the July 2014 issue of Fly Magazine.)

The year was 1994, and Kevin Lyman was tired. Already a 12-year music business veteran, Lyman was touring constantly, working behind the scenes at as many as 320 shows a year.

He served as the first stage manager for the legendary Lollapalooza tour from 1991-93 and spent time working in music clubs on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. But Lyman was ready to completely switch career paths and become a schoolteacher. But despite his road weariness, Lyman was far from finished. In fact, the seasoned producer was on the verge of his biggest venture yet.

The idea was simple: combine the worlds of punk music and skateboarding for a tour across the country. He enlisted friends like No Doubt, Sublime, L7 and the Deftones, and the crew set out on the road for a string of dates across the country. The Warped Tour was born.

Twenty years later, the Vans Warped Tour has grown into America’s longest-running touring music festival, drawing an average of a half a million fans each summer and featuring more than 100 bands this year alone.

“Warped Tour was going to be my one last thing in music,” Lyman explained during an early morning Q&A session at the LAUNCH Music Conference in Lancaster last April. “I was going out for one last summer with some skater friends of mine to do something different. There was no fathoming I’d be doing it for 20 years.”

It’s hard to believe Lyman was ready to completely walk away from music after a lifelong love affair with the sounds permeating from his home outside of Los Angeles. The first concert he ever went to was Van Morrison at the Hollywood Palladium in 1979, and he says he remembers riding home in the trunk of a Ford Mustang.

“You don’t remember the first class you took in high school, but you’ll remember your first concert because it’s emotional,” Lyman says. “Music touches your soul.”


“You don’t remember the first class you took in high school, but you’ll remember your first concert, because it’s emotional. Music touches your soul.”

Lyman ended up attending California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he majored in recreation administration. In college he had no idea what he wanted to pursue for a career, but his passion for live music was nurtured. He found a PA system at the school, and he started putting on live shows in the gymnasium.

He also found some like-minded people at Cal Poly to join him in putting shows together. In fact, one of his friends, Ron Coleman, served as a president of legendary indie label Sub Pop Records. Two of his other friends – Paul Tollett and Skip Paige – went on to create the Coachella Festival. Lyman says his circle of friends learned how to break into the music business themselves.

“There was really no one to teach us the music business,” Lyman says. “And there’s still no one answer to do things in the music business – especially now.”

Today, behind-the-scenes music industry professionals look to Lyman when they want to find an answer to a problem. Lyman says he always tries to stay ahead of the competition, looking for innovative ways to keep the Warped Tour relevant. Last year, he made the festival free for parents who bring at least one child under 18 to the concert. He says the move was to combat what he calls the “One Direction effect,” where parents spend a fortune on a show they have no desire to attend, and at the same time try to turn some of the younger pop music fan base on to Warped Tour bands.

Lyman also spends months personally listening to music at home, looking for bands who may be a good fit for the tour. He books all the bands for each upcoming tour in September and October – a short time after the previous tour ends – and announces the lineup by December, giving fans several months to digest the tour’s lineup.

With the changing demographics of concert-goers, Lyman says he also made the decision in recent years to move away from featuring older, more established acts and focus on developing new bands who can headline the tour and receive exposure. For the 2014 festival, he pointed to the Boston-based band Bad Rabbits as one act that’s on the cusp of stardom.

“You know within a few days if a band ‘gets’ the tour,” Lyman says. “And if they don’t get it, I’ll go and talk to them and say, ‘You’re wasting this opportunity.’ You can usually tell within five minutes who’s going to make it and who isn’t.”

While on tour these days, Lyman is mostly in bed by 10 p.m. and up by 5:30 a.m. He still has his hands in most aspects of the operation – checking in to see how the truck drivers are doing, watching out for bands getting tired, monitoring the weather – but his role has evolved, too.

“I’m not a peer to anyone out on the road anymore,” Lyman says. “I’m a mentor or a disciplinarian. My days of jumping my bike through a bonfire are over.”

Lyman says his biggest challenge today with the Warped Tour is finding the financing to keep it afloat. He says sponsorships are down this year as more festivals look to the same sources for funding. Warped Tour has only profited from ticket sales once in 19 years, he says, which is not surprising since the average ticket is well below most festival pricing. So sponsorship is key in keeping the tour financially feasible. That was one of the main reasons Lyman reached out to Vans Shoes in the early days of the festival; with Vans on board, he could put on a premium-quality show while not gouging customers.

 

“So many people are afraid to fail that they don’t try. I could run a whole school on failure if I wanted to. But you learn from your failures and move on, because the only thing you’re going to run out of in this life is time.”

Lyman’s marketing savvy has also led to an interesting partnership this year with Journeys shoe stores. He and Journeys CEO Robert Dennis developed a way to bolster the Warped Tour brand in malls. As part of the concept, the Warped Tour made 30,000 shirts for Journeys employees to wear a month before the festival comes in proximity to each of the chain’s 1,100 locations. Journeys is also working with smaller independent bands on the tour to create a unique piece of merchandise that will be sold exclusively in the store, as well as in-store acoustic sets.

Another major worry Lyman is forced to reckon with is the threat of lawsuits from people who get injured at the festival. He’s gone to the length of posting signs this year that say, “You mosh, you get hurt, your mom gets mad, we get sued, no more Warped Tour.”

But there’s one thing Lyman hasn’t worried about throughout his career – failure. He says he’s had just as many failures as successes, and it’s those failures that led to his greatest achievements.

“So many people are afraid to fail that they don’t try,” Lyman says. “I could run a whole school on failure if I wanted to. But you learn from your failures and move on, because the only thing you’re going to run out of in this life is time.”

 

Check out who’s coming to this year’s Vans Warped Tour here.


 

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Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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