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How The Vans Warped Tour Has Mastered Marketing To Teens For Two Decades

It helped launch Katy Perry and Eminem. It’s perfected the corporate partnership. Founder Kevin Lyman reveals how his baby stays young.

North America’s longest-running touring music festival is growing up–but not too much.

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As it launches its 21st annual trek today to 41 cities throughout the summer, the Vans Warped Tour is as committed to its teen focus as it was in 1995, when music industry vet Kevin Lyman gathered some Southern California club bands and a skate ramp and hit the road. When other ’90s-born alternative fests like Lollapalooza are booking 2015 headliners like Paul McCartney and Metallica, Warped Tour is still focused on the 91.7% of its audience who are 15 to 25; the tour’s biggest names this year are indie rap and pop-punk acts like Riff Raff and the Wonder Years (the tour is known, however, for helping break acts that go on to be huge, like Katy Perry and Eminem). In addition to keeping ticket prices low for those with less disposable income, Warped Tour this year is letting each attendee bring a parent for free, and hosts a tent for grown-ups that Lyman calls “reverse day care.”

Lyman may be 20 years older than he was when Warped Tour began, but he’s still as tuned in to youth music culture as ever, pushing the event to evolve with technology but not change its mission. Now that Warped Tour is old enough to consume beverages beyond the Monster Energy Drink that sponsors it, Lyman spoke with Fast Company about how he consistently serves new generations, how to make brand sponsorship matter, and who he predicts will break out of the artistic pack this year.

Kevin LymanPhoto: Chad Singstock

When you founded Warped Tour in 1995, what niche were you trying to fill in the live music industry?

I was trying to fill this niche of the underserved musician, and also expand the California lifestyle. We were growing up surfing, skating, we were doing events where the Red Hot Chili Peppers would play on top of a ramp for $250 at the end of a skate contest. I had heard about this thing the X Games [the extreme sports competition that also began in 1995], and I said, well, this thing could potentially start to build out of Southern California and we could end up working for someone else doing it. I’d already worked in the music industry for 13 years as a stage manager, I went to Lollapalooza in ’91 and worked on that tour. I was maybe trying to get a real job.

So I rallied up a few bands that I’d worked with in the clubs of L.A. and also bands that kind of knew me from the circuit, and built a skateboard ramp, and we headed off on the road. It served bands that weren’t necessarily being played on the radio at that point. And I look at it now, we’ve pretty much come almost full circle again, where there are so many acts and artists that are independent again, who don’t have that luxury of touring around the country three or four times to build their audience. So by pulling a community together–I like to call it the Warped umbrella–we keep our community strong. A majority of the artists are on independent record labels. The majority of artists aren’t getting on radio, aren’t necessarily household names yet, but some will be.

Since Warped Tour has always been aimed at teenagers and young adults, and those people are obviously very different people than they were 20 years ago, what are some of the key elements of keeping the festival attractive to that audience?

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Warped was always about a value proposition, and continues to be that proposition. The ticket price, even with the Ticketmaster fees and parking and everything else, is still under $50 for a nine-hour festival. [Ed. note: Tickets for last weekend’s Bonnaroo festival, for example, started at $299.50, plus fees.] We get half a million kids each summer, and for many, this is the first festival they’re allowed to go to. It starts at 11:00 and ends at 8:30 at night. You’re not camping in the dirt. You’re not gone for three days. I think it spurs interest in kids to go to festivals.

Every Time I Die onstage at the 2010 Vans Warped TourPhoto: Flickr user Elizabeth McClay

The Warped Tour always feels like that backyard party. The accessibility to the artists, for the fans, we never change that. The only thing that has changed is the way we communicate with our fans through social media. I was an early adopter of the idea that every person in the world could connect to me. My kevinwarped@aol.com address is everywhere, and any kid can let me know exactly what I’m doing right or wrong.

You’ve even started a parents-get-in-free program at Warped Tour and give them their own tent to encourage younger kids to attend. What does that entail?

We call it the reverse day care center. You check your parents in and we’ll watch them while you have a good time. We don’t hide it, it’s right in the middle of the festival grounds. It’s funny, I get a lot of emails from parents going, “Wow, I never knew I’d like a band called Every Time I Die.”

A lot of the big national festivals tend to book similar lineups to each other, and go for superstar nostalgia headliners, but Warped Tour has a consistent identity as a fest for young emerging acts. What are you looking for in artists and how do you find them?

My office is a revolving door of managers, musicians, labels, artists. Artists who aren’t even represented will come to my office. We had over 3,000 submissions for this tour.

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I put it all on a big whiteboard. I get input from the kids–we have a very direct contact with them, so we’ll ask, “Who do you want to see?” And 70,000 kids will give us their top five choices. I talk to my daughter and her friends. I also use my ear. I think I can hear things that people don’t really hear. People will say, would that really fit on the tour? I put them all on a big whiteboard, keep moving them around, then I put it all on an old iPod–yes, I listen to it and walk around with it on shuffle and think about how it would be, like if you were wandering around and heard this coming from different stages.

Warped Tour has a reputation for breaking bands that go on to be huge. Who are some recent breakouts, and who do you expect to level up after this year’s tour?

Last year it was Echosmith. I brought them out for two years, developed them on a small stage, moved them up to a bigger stage last year, and I just looked, I think their second single just keeps getting bigger and now they’re playing all the big festivals.

[Rapper] G-Eazy–he started on Warped Tour, and is on his first national solo tour. Then you go back to the Paramores, the My Chemical Romances, the Fall Out Boys. People don’t realize that Black Eyed Peas started on Warped Tour, kind of. There’s a legend that they met Fergie in the parking lot at a barbecue one night. That’s kind of the urban legend, I’m not quite sure it’s verified. People don’t realize Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and Sugar Ray, they all kind of broke their teeth out there.

This year is a really interesting one. I think there are six or eight acts that could break this year. We’ve got Bebe Rexha, who’s a young artist who wrote “The Monster” for Eminem and Rihanna. She’s also got some minor hits, but she’s never really toured on her own. She was a backup singer for Pete Wentz in his side project. There’s a band called Night Riots, that one single “Contagious” was sent to SiriusXM to see how it went, and it went to number one. There’s also a band from the UK that sounds nothing like their name, which I think is going to be their hardest thing–they’re called Moose Blood.

What are the most important sponsorship considerations for this audience and these artists?

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We really try to integrate artists into the sponsorships. Journeys has been really involved with the artists on the tour and they put them in their catalogs–the catalogs that went out to 1.2 million people for the summer collection of clothing used by artists from the tour. We want brands that are going to support the musicians because the musicians can’t get that kind of tour support from the labels anymore. So every deal we do, we try to write an artist into it where they’re actually getting some financial supplementation that they maybe used to be able to get from their labels. Vans, who is our partner and title sponsor, has brought three or four bands on that they’re financially supporting for the summer.

We have another project, it’s called The Entertainment Institute, where you can sign up for a music lesson from the artists on the tour, actually learn something from those musicians. So these artists will be giving drum lessons and guitar lessons and songwriting lessons out on the road. The kids are signing up right now, and I know over 2,000 individual lessons have been sold already to fans. It’s fun. The artists get up early, and the ones who get motivated and really take advantage of this walk home with a nice supplemental paycheck at the end of summer.

The band Icon for Hire on the Kevin Says stage during Warped Tour 2014Photo: Flickr user Danielle Hevey

Looking to the future of Warped Tour, is there anything new you’d like to try, technologically or programmatically?

We started webcasting the first show, which we will do this year [from Pomona, California, on June 19]. It’s a big undertaking doing the first show. Nine stages we’ll be webcasting. Then what we do is we turn around and cut it into 100 viral pieces in 48 hours that go out on the web as our last big marketing push. I’ve gotten some other proposals from people for the future that would love to help us enhance that even more. I’m exploring those ideas, meeting new people to work with.

That’s the thing, Warped Tour is a year-by-year project. You can’t make a three-year or five-year plan because things are changing so quickly, you have to keep up with your audience. So far we’ve done a pretty good job with it. That’s why we’re still here. If I miss it one year, it might be all over. I have to keep up on it all the time.

About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.

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