Warped Drive: Kevin Lyman

Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman admits to weekly ideations about walking away from North America's longest-running music festival, but as long as fans keep pouring through the gates, that's not likely to happen. 

Credit: Chad SengstockCredit: Chad SengstockSixty cities, 129 bands, more than a half-million fans, most of them under age. Keeping them all happy is a hell of a feat, but it’s what brings Kevin Lyman to work everyday. Creating the then-grassroots festival two decades ago with the help of a few music promoter friends, Lyman’s baby has grown into a force in the punk and hard rock scene, a presence that has overflowed into fashion and charitable initiatives. And it’s still growing. This year, the Vans Warped Tour announced its first-ever dates in Alaska—Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have already been covered—and Lyman himself began managing the Rockstar Mayhem metal festival.

Warped is a beast. It’s currently the longest-running music festival in North America and maintains a staff of 220 full-timers who run everything from stage schedules to catering. Despite bringing in about 13,000 fans, on average, to each show, the tour typically takes an economic hit on tickets, meaning that Lyman’s team has to be proactive throughout the year in building strategic sponsorship deals and brand partnerships that can fund the festival without alienating fans. There’s no staying still. Just as the music business has shifted its revenue models, the Warped crew is always tweaking how they bring in cash, the best ways to keep the fan base happy—offering a free ticket for any parent who brings their kid helps—and how to deal with unexpected crises ranging from canceled acts to inclement weather. It’s a juggling act, one that Lyman doesn’t execute without a boatload of stress, but does maneuver with the finesse of a pro.

Get In Media: You’ve been working with Warped Tour for 20 years. How has your role changed?

Kevin Lyman: My [role] is kind of overseeing. I still do the booking. I’m still working on the promoter deals. I’m basically curating a festival now. [I don’t] have to be as hands-on, like go out and unload the truck every morning like I used to, [but] I’m still negotiating the venue deals, putting together the contracted vendors each summer. I still work on all that. I’m still hands-on very much on all aspects of the tour.

GIM: How do you curate Warped Tour and how do you decide how the tour is going to evolve?

KL: Our core audience is 13 to 19 [year olds], but now we’re bringing a lot of bands who maybe played on Warped Tour at one point in their careers and they’re coming back, like The Used and Yellowcard and New Found Glory; those types of bands that are at different points in their careers where it makes sense to be back out on Warped Tour. It’s always a constantly evolving thing. We’re more skewing toward our fans than anything else at this point, the people who come to the show.

GIM: If a band wants to get on Warped Tour, how can they do that?

KL: They’ll contact us in September or October. I’ll have a good idea of whom I want to book, but then I’ll start listening to a lot of different music and different things to help fill out the lineup, but I know there are certain bands I have to get.

GIM: How do you find those bands?

KL Well, I stand out in line and watch kids come in, and see what shirts they’re wearing. The shirts that they’re wearing of the bands that aren’t on Warped Tour are the ones that I know I need to get for next summer. We also have this great way to reach them through things like SurveyMonkey and things like that. It’s a year-round relationship with the fans that I think keeps Warped Tour where it’s at. We put it out, “Who would you like to see on Warped Tour?” and 60,000 kids in a week and tell us the top five bands they want to see, and you know what? They match up very much with the shirts that I saw in line. We’re trying to engage our fans all the time to show that we’re booking who they’re asking. Once I know that I have a core of those bands, I can go out and make it a very eclectic lineup, and to me, that’s what’s really good about Warped. If you look at how eclectic the lineup is, it makes for a great thing.

GIM: How do you guys stay engaged with fans throughout the year? And not only fans, sponsors?

KL: It’s not just on-site presence. We just signed a three-year partnership with Journeys and you’ll see Warped Tour presence throughout the year in the stores, in their catalogs. We just were able to shoot a couple of the artists that are going to be on Warped Tour who were in their catalog. It’s working with the bands. They know that when they’re releasing a record or album, they can come to Warped Tour and say, “Hey, listen, can you help us market what we’re doing and getting the word out on us?” because we have the kids coming back year-round.

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GIM: In terms of budgeting, roughly what percentage is sponsorship dollars coming in to fund Warped Tour versus ticket sales?

KL: I think the easiest way to say it is Warped Tour has only made money on ticket sales one time in 19 years. If we turn a profit on the tour, it’s because we have partners and sponsors. That’s just how it is. 

GIM: Do you have any strategies for making those connections with sponsors that are an appropriate fit?

KL: You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to go meet people and, you know, put yourself in the right situations. South by Southwest, just being down there, I ran into different companies and different people. It’s just doing a good job. We have a lot of people who we’ve worked with many years and it’s great to have that kind of thing.

GIM: What’s been your biggest challenge in doing Warped Tour?

KL: Constantly tracking to make these relationships and these sponsorship deals, because sometimes the companies, it could be a great experience, but things change within the company and all of a sudden you’re back to square one. Always making the finances all work.

GIM: You’ve certainly branched out in terms of doing Mayhem and Stagecoach in addition to Warped Tour. Why add that on top of what seems like an endless job?

KL: That’s the thing with Warped Tour is it’s never been a point where the only thing you can do is Warped Tour. Does that make sense? I’ve had to always make it work and make the company work. It’s [also] great to keep busy and keep on things and not become one-dimensional.

GIM: [At South By Southwest], you spoke about how there’s an over-saturation in music festivals. For someone who wants to move into your job, is starting their own festival the way to go?

KL: I think there are a lot of people that think it’s easy. It’s not easy to start a festival and most of the people that have started their own festivals were promoters at one point, worked on shows before, put time in, but now you’ve got venture capital money coming in and trying to do festivals. Everyone’s trying to do a festival right now. It’s the logistics of how to service the fan right. I’m constantly hearing these nightmare stories. There are people like, “Oh, buy a ticket. Their festival’s on sale without announcing a lineup.” There are only certain people that should be able to do that. The Coachellas, the Bonnaroos, Lollapaloozas. We can do it because I think the fans, they trust that we’re going to come through.

GIM: What is the number one mistake you see new festivals making?

KL: Trying to go too big too soon.

GIM: What advice do you have for them in terms of scaling up?

KL: Just build up. Build the community. Build your relationships with the cities. You’ve got to build it and make the experience good not only for the bands, but the fans.

GIM: Warped Tour has been around for so long. What mistakes have you guys made and corrected?

KL: We’ve made a lot of them, but it’s important. We went too big too soon. We did too many cities the first year. We went and did 20. We went around the world too soon, but then you learn. You come back and you keep building on it. Right now, we’ve got a great relationship with the fans [and] the bands still love being out there, so we’re in a very lucky position right now.

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GIM: What is the single biggest logistical problem you’ve encountered?

KL: Weather. Weather is the biggest thing you encounter out on the road. The unknown weather and the potential that our weather is getting more and more drastic and more and more harsh. That’s what we’re facing.

GIM: You’ve been doing Warped Tour for 20 years. Has there been a point when you thought, “I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore”?

KL: Oh, weekly.

GIM: What keeps you coming back?

KL: The kids that we’re servicing. I think these kids really look forward to it and I think it brings something to their communities. What we’ve spun off of [Warped Tour], all the nonprofits, the charities, hearing that kids are putting on their own shows or starting their own clothing companies. They come back to me and say, “I was inspired by Warped Tour.” That’s why you do it.

Warped Tour 2014 runs through August 3. Click here to find dates and tickets for shows near you.

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