Since founding the Warped Tour in 1994, Kevin Lyman has gone from punk rock summer camp’s head counselor to one of the music industry’s biggest players. He’s created and produced a handful of annual tours (including the still-going-strong Mayhem and Taste of Chaos), partnered with Joe Sib and Bill Armstrong on their SideOneDummy Records label, and consulted in no small way on Coachella’s ever-growing campground setup. Despite it all, Lyman remains humbly indebted to Warped, which he still travels with and pulls the day-to-day strings for every summer. (When we spoke, a series of tour-related injuries had Lyman laid up, recuperating from a rather painful-sounding knee surgery.)
Still, his belief in the little punk tour that could remains strong, vested in a long personal history with the show and its players. When asked about the catalyst behind Warped’s birth, Lyman nostalgically recalls “sitting at [Board Aid] with my friends and just thinking this whole world—skateboarding, snowboarding, the X-Games—was coming together so quickly, and that there needed to be a tour where we could go out with our friends’ bands, at least one time, and do a tour the way we want to do it.”
“We really had no idea what we were doing, and that’s probably why we were successful,” Lyman laughs. “We did it on passion, and I still like to believe to this day that there’s a lot of passion in the tour. That original root of passion, just going out there, putting up a show, making a backyard party, and having fun while you’re doing business [is still there]. I think to this day, the Warped Tour feels more like that backyard party than a concert.”
While passion and heart play a large role in Lyman’s modus operandi, it’s ultimately business savvy that’s gotten him to where he is today. And that balance between work and play will no doubt loom large over his Saturday-afternoon keynote address at New Noise Santa Barbara.
“When I started out, you’d be lucky if you made $50 playing a party,” he explains. “Then someone got smart and started charging $50 for T-shits. That was the punk rock model. Now you’ve got to sell $50 T-shirts, make the money from the party, and sell your own music every night. The earlier you can develop that philosophy and figure out how to make sure you take every opportunity to get in front of people or make contact with people, the better your chances for success.”
As the figurehead and primary booking mind behind his tours, Lyman not only knows how to run a five-stage operation, he also knows how unsigned bands make it from demo tape to festival mainstay—a subject he’s both adamant about and still trying to figure out himself. “I’m listening to music and demos all the time,” he explains. “But I’m also trying to program a show that’s balanced. I think last year, it was a little heavy. But I also went out and got the heaviest bands that I could. You have to pay attention to the current state of music and what the kids want to see. … It’s about mixing the punk, the pop, some of the crazy stuff you see on the side stages, and trying to make the show as entertaining as possible.”
In between it all, Lyman, like so many others in his field, is trying to navigate a music world that barely resembles the one he grew up in. In recent years, sales for Warped have declined, forcing many (including Lyman) to question—and answer to—what the future holds for the tour, the bands, and punk rock at large.
“I think Warped Tour is still a relevant thing,” he says. “I think it’s not only relevant for bands, I think it’s relevant for brands. I think it’s also relevant for awareness and education, because we’re creating a good time, but the 10 percent of the kids that leave learning something at the Warped Tour is a pretty cool thing, too. There are 50 or 60 nonprofits involved with these shows now.”
In the meantime, environmental awareness, education, and local hooks are at the forefront of the Warped Tour’s current design, signaling a need for change that seems to be running throughout the industry.
“The old model is gone,” Lyman asserts. “If you think that thing of getting a record deal is going to solve your issues, it’s not. The best bands from this point forward are the ones that create their own business model—and that can start figuring out how to monetize from the beginning. I’m not driven by money, but I understand that it is a business now.”
Kevin Lyman delivers New Noise Santa Barbara’s keynote speech, The Shape of Punk to Come, on Saturday, November 6, at 3 p.m. in the Canary Hotel’s Riviera Room. Visit newnoisesb.com for tickets and info.