Record sales are slumping and struggling tours are constantly dropping off the map, but the Warped Tour — which launches today in California — has repeatedly overcome the odds, remaining one of the few successful fixtures of the summer tour circuit. It's an impressive feat considering the traveling festival was originally envisioned as a one-off show in California in 1994. "Warped was just going to be one last summer with some friends, going out and putting a skateboard ramp up and doing some music and having some fun, and here we are 16 years later," Warped founder Kevin Lyman tells Rolling Stone.
Besides tapping into a vital and overlooked strain of youth culture, Lyman's ear for emerging talent has made his trek a springboard for mainstream success. Katy Perry, No Doubt, My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy can all thank the Warped Tour for thrusting them into the spotlight. "Katy Perry was booked on Warped off demo tapes," Lyman says, adding that a large number of Warped acts are recruited based on demos. "I still listen to a lot of music."
This year, Lyman predicts that electro-soul singer Mike Posner will be the Warped Tour's breakout star (read our profile on the recent Duke grad here.) "You're starting to see Mike Posner getting a certain amount of commercial success right now. I booked him off his demo tapes, basically, back in October," Lyman says. "If he can pull it off live I think by the end of the summer you'll see that level of that groundswell that came in behind Katy Perry and a band like 3OH!3." Lyman also foresees big things for emo singer-songwriter Never Shout Never (a.k.a. Christofer Drew), who already has a sizeable and loyal cult following. (Watch Never Shout Never's exclusive Live at Rolling Stone set here.)
While the scope of Warped has changed since its beginning — Beck and surf legend Dick Dale were on the 1996 lineup — Lyman credits bands like NOFX, Bouncing Souls and Bad Religion for sticking with Warped and giving it a solid backbone. "They continue to put out relevant music. I don't think they just depend on their old hits. They come out, and they're writing music that's still relevant," Lyman says. This year All-American Rejects are also returning to the tour frontman Tyson Ritter tells RS is the real "rock & roll camp."
Still, the 16-year-olds who came out for the maiden Warped Tour are 32 now, and perhaps a few short years away from chaperoning their own kids to a Warped show. For those fans, or for the kids interested in punk's roots, Lyman offers up a Legends stage for the California gigs, where pioneer acts like Fear, the Adolescents, Angry Samoans, Agent Orange and the Untouchables will perform. "I worked in the clubs of L.A. for 12 years before I did this tour. There was always that historical connection," Lyman says. "Parents are bringing their young kids to see the Warped Tour, and to bring back these acts and have them play for these people now, it's kind of fun." Warped is also expanding its already stocked lineup to include a hip-hop tent, where regional talent from each stop will be able to perform in front of their local fan base. Lyman and other industry folk will also hold seminars offering up advice to the young bands hoping to attain DYI fame.
Lyman admits that ticket sales are slightly down this year, and that some markets that have proven unsuccessful in the past were skipped over for this year's trek, reducing the Warped Tour by two weeks. "We're down a few percentage points on ticket sales in certain markets, and we're up in a few markets," Lyman says. But Warped will soldier on, and Lyman says he's looking forward to the 17th Tour, and many more.