Interview with Vans Warped Tour Founder Kevin Lyman
with Song River
And the beat goes on…music and people. A dance as old as time. As Kevin Lyman talks about his beginnings and his viewpoints of the world and the effects we can have for the positive on our young people one quickly realizes music is Lyman’s vehicle to help allow the youth to change their own part of their world into a better place. What more can a philanthropist do than to create opportunities for our tomorrows to become better today? I think Kevin Lyman put it best, “Ah, if people would just give a crap.”
Song River: Van’s Warped Tour had their huge kick-off in Florida on March 22nd to showcase this years bands. It was a great way to open the excitement up for fans across the United States for the tour.
Kevin Lyman: Yes, it was and I am very excited. It was a great success and I even got a little fishing in while I was down there. It was good to have a little RnR mixed in with the excitement of the Warped Tour at Full Sail University.
SR: Looking at the music industry today and its structure in this ‘New World Order’ through our technology and education plus how we are connected globally how much of this factors into your developing various festivals and your mindset?
KL: The thing is (paused) I think in the ‘New World Order’ it can be overwhelming. Does that make sense?
KL: If you read today’s headlines and try to understand them, it becomes overwhelming. So in the same sense it is how I think we’ve minimialized the issues on a world level in politics to their lowest common denominator. You can’t understand global, it is really hard to understand on a global level what is going on.
Now look at what we’ve done, it’s really nasty, we have taken it to three things: guns, gays and abortion. These are very emotional things. And they became a “yeah or nay” on them. So people get really passionate about it and that comes from the influences of the churches in the South a lot. They were able to influence a lot of people and that even goes back to our public school system letting people down. (paused) I know I am getting deep into this.
SR: That is fine Kevin, this is what I wanted from this question. Please continue.
KL: It goes back to when Obama was first running for president. It’s always unique the person that has the most social reasons to be there or really wants to do the best for people probably at the lower end of the economic scale never win. You notice that? They never have a chance because no one can really understand the ‘macro’ reasons of what is going on, so they go to the ‘micro’ reasons of “right to carry a gun,” “do you believe in gay marriage,” and “do you believe in abortion.” It doesn’t take a lot of thought process to make your decision on that one.
SR: Would you say then everything has become extremely polarized?
KL: Absolutely. That is why this election is going the way it is now. So, all I look at doing with the Warped Tour is to try to show kids on a local level how YOU can make a change. That is what we need to tackle first. So through our blood drives, we tackled a long time ago when they were having a hard time filling up the blood banks, we came up with how to help this on a local level at each city we came to. With over 1400 people signing up to help run the blood drives during the Warped Tour that has help solve a local problem. When we do the can food drive at Warped Tour we are able to restock a pantry at a local level for at least the short-term.
Then I have kids emailing me that they on their own are running food drives at their own local school. They are understanding that we have to take care of each other locally and then maybe we can start pulling together those pieces on a national level.
SR: Taking global issues, breaking them down to manageable local levels and getting the young people involved.
KL: It is really trying to build a strong community.
SR: Your Ted Talk that you did back in 2015, listening to what you had to say, you seem to have this innate ability to ‘foresee’ things. You are a solution finder. Is this something you learned from your own parents or is it something that came naturally to you?
KL: I don’t know. I don’t know who my biological parents were, I was adopted, so I cannot say genetically. However, I had great parents. We grew up in a nice home, but I have no idea how my father was able to raise four kids financially. We didn’t have a lot of money really. We were four kids who were adopted, but we never went hungry, we were all treated with respect and we were also taught to work.
I think when I look forward right now, I see very frightening things. When I talk about bullying and I am trying to get the kids to be anti-bullying and then we have candidates running for office who are bullying each other how are we going to end bullying? We have parents who are supporting potentially the biggest bully in the world right now, how are we going to end it?
SR: Kids follow the examples, don’t they?
KL: Yes, it all really comes down to basics. And I think that is why this year I decided to break everything down into three things: It is about the fans, the bands, and philanthropy. Of course, we understand what the first two are about, but philanthropy could be about something like looking out for each other.
SR: Right. Sometimes people think you must have money to be a philanthropist, but you don’t.
KL: Right. And in some ways even I am fighting the music world because in some ways it has become a train wreck. It is a train wreck unto oblivion and they can’t even see it in front of them.
SR: When you say, “they can’t” who are you referring to?
KL: The agents. A lot of the managers don’t see it. What is going to happen soon when Live Nation owns everything? Could the agents and managers who are trying to build for me, me, me right now going to become obsolete?
You don’t trust a lot of people in this business. It’s weird. You just get used to working with them. Then you have the people who are closest to each other… I am watching those who are closest to each other eating each other right now.
There is always going to be a music business, but I guess what I am trying to teach the younger people is there is softer, gentler way of doing this. That really comes down to the music. It is funny because so many times it doesn’t come down to the music in what I have to deal with, and sometimes I have to deal with people.
SR: What does all of this really come down to for you Kevin?
KL: For me? Look I make a nice living, I have never said I don’t. Have I taken advantage of the music business for my own personal gain? No. I work really hard, I have some money in the bank, I’ve put my kids through school but I have not taken advantage of the music scene. I think what we have going on right now is everyone is trying to get one foot up on each other.
SR: You see it every day.
KL: You see it across businesses everywhere. The music business is just one thing, it is generally where we are at in the world right now.
I have always said people can make a living in the music business. And to me making a living was having a house, maybe a vacation once in a while, some nice food on the table. That was the idea of Middle-Class America. Or what it was about. But the middle class of the music business is getting crushed right now.
Sometimes to move forward, you have to quit hanging on to what you think your current lifestyle should be. You know what I mean?
SR: Yes, sometimes you do need to take three steps back to move forward.
KL: Take three steps back to move a whole scene forward.
SR: Why did you choose the music industry as your vehicle?
KL: I love live music. And really I just fell into it. I didn’t go to school for it.
I was running summer camps, that was what I was doing. Running youth programs (laughed). I run youth programs really in the music business if you think about it. So, really I just transferred what I was doing to a different platform. Warped has allowed me to use that platform for way longer than anyone imagined. It wasn’t meant to be here 20 some years later (laughed). I was going to do it for a couple of years and move on with my life.
SR: And here you are.
In my observations Kevin, there seem to be certain types of people you gravitate towards. Andy Biersack seems to be one of those people you have forged a strong bond with. What is it about your relationship with Andy?
KL: I think with Andy it is that he had a vision. He had a direction for himself. And he is such a compassionate person. He also realizes not everyone is going to like him. He has a view for who what he wants to do and who he wants to become. I think for a young person he is making that progress there.
We hang out maybe a little different, you know they come to the house for dinner, we do a lot together, we don’t vacation together, well one time he did go fishing with me. I see him as a person, a young person who is very passionate about what they are about. And he brings that passion to what he does. Will he continue to evolve? Yes, he will. I think he is a great person.
Along the way, I have worked with so many people. I’ve seen people who have had a rough start to their lives. People in the crew on the road who are good people but for one reason or another they get off track. They are good people. Some comeback and some don’t. You look at Andy or even look at Ronnie Radke. Ronnie at first he was his own worst enemy. I really think he has been through a lot. Some self-created, but much of the drama around him was created by others. As he becomes more comfortable can he now talk to kids about these things when he is out on the road? Talk about what he went through, how to avoid some of these pitfalls, yes he can.
You know this day in age with social media anyone can put up anything about Ronnie and people would believe it. The only thing that can be substantiated about him is he went to jail and did some time. Everything else is a rumor. We live in a society where people get attention by lashing out at these people. Creating things that aren’t true.
SR: Bullying behind a computer screen.
KL: Yeah, even the those bashing me on the computer screen, I tell them to come on step out. That’s why I invited them out to come and talk to me at 7:30 am in the morning. Two of those kids who actually had issues came out and after we spent some time together they now understand that isn’t the way to go into your community. They have to go out into their community and figure out how to make a change.
SR: Are you seeing hope then among the young people?
KL: Absolutely! But we need to start highlighting those youth.
SR: The media doesn’t want to highlight the positive.
KL: No, they don’t. Our media is about money. Good behavior doesn’t make great stories. Good behavior is not rewarded in our society. Will there be a balance? We need to take our own small little part of the world and make it the best we can.
There was a girl who created a show at her school to help raise awareness about the program called, To Write Love On Her Arms. She did a great thing, but is she going to get the highlights? Now, we are trying to promote those types of things when they happen. We have a kid who emailed me who wants to run a clothing drive for the homeless shelter on the last date stop in Portland. That is change, change for the better.
And I think we are seeing a new generation of kids honestly on the internet who are trying to bring about the positive. I think they are sick of seeing that ‘trolling’ generation. I stay out those things, but I watch. And I am watching the kids just shut them down. And it’s growing. They didn’t want to step out a year or two years ago because they were afraid, but now… now they aren’t. We need to be empowered to shut down the negativity.
SR: In a short version sum up community and loyalty in what you have created.
KL: Ah, if people would just give a crap. You know I go out on the road and see all these kids giving a crap about something that brings them together. You watch from the little tent set up and you see it. I was there in Florida and I had about thirty kids who want to be a part of doing something, you see that hunger in their eyes. Those kids need opportunity.
SR: We need more local opportunities for our young people.
KL: We do, we really do. You look at our country overall the current situation and it is painful.
SR: But we still have hope because you just shared how there are still those out there who want change for the better and to reach out and help others.
SR: An effective leader just doesn’t lead the people. As I have watched you, Kevin, you lead by walking and helping carry the load along with the clan. Really when people come to Warped they feel a sense of belonging. As you continue to use and implement these leadership tools, have you considered writing a book on how to be successful in this industry?
KL: I have and I have started outlining it. Not this summer, but probably next summer.
SR: Every year you make adjustments and tweaks to the tour. Has there been one approach you have tried along the way that you learned a very valuable lesson from?
KL: (paused) I think maybe I really want young kids to come to Warped Tours and really get turned onto this scene and the music and what this can mean. I think the kids who have felt different at school and such have always felt they belonged with us.
I think at one point we tried to be too much for everyone and that is why we are back to the basics now. You look at our lineup and it is very basic. We are just going very simple this year. The kids respond to this. Also moving the sale of tickets later. Bomb them with the line-up first. The kids should control Warped Tour. The tour isn’t for everyone, it’s okay. The kids have taken control.
SR: You have taken Warped into other countries. Are there differences among the young people?
KL: They all want the same thing. They all want something a little different from the norm.
SR: I know we have focused on Warped Tour but what are some of the other festivals Kevin you put on?
KL: We just had, “Taste of Chaos” which I think will be in 36 cities. Then I had, “It’s Not Dead Fest” a little punk rock show. “The Mayhem Festival” there are at least 20-30 fests I’ve worked.
SR: How do you go about choosing your demographics?
KL: You try to create these niches. “Niche Festivals” like that punk show it was set up for that ‘old’ Warped fan that only wants to see a certain type of music. They can’t go for 11 hours on a Wednesday, so a lot of these parents brought their kids to see these punk bands that were so important in their lives. It was a huge family turn out of 20,000 people on a Saturday. I think that is what we need in America. These little niche festivals work really well. People want the experience but they can’t always take two or three days off work, or school or afford to pay for more than one day.
There will be those who can come out for certain festivals at certain times. With the Warped Tour, there will be those who can make it and will have a great time, it isn’t for everyone and that is okay.