Twentieth anniversaries should be momentous occasions. They’re a time to crack out the themed memorabilia and look back at obstacles that could have ended careers, but instead strengthened them. Warped Tour, which celebrates reaching its second decade this year, certainly knows a thing or two about obstacles. Back in July, I questioned founder Kevin Lyman’s decision to let Front Porch Step - a member of which had allegations levelled at him of sending sexually explicit pictures and texts to underage fans - play a date of the American tour, and my voice was just one amid a mass outcry from fans and musicians alike. 13,000 signed a petition to have them removed, but Warped Tour chose to ignore it.
“Being a festival producer, you make hard decisions and you aren’t popular,” explains founder Kevin Lyman as we chat at Warped's UK leg at Alexandra Palace. “I was recommended by professionals [to let Front Porch Step play] and I also wanted to show him that you’re not just going to be able to walk back in. He’s moving on now and getting a lot of help with his life. I guess the easy decision would have been to say no - I could shut him out, but I’ve helped a lot of people too. Going back to the Eighties, I had some punk rock friends who went to jail. If [they did] something towards a woman, I would never let them around young girls at our show. We want to create the safest place for people to experience music.”
It’s a statement that seems at odds with his decision to let Front Porch Step perform in the first place back in July, but his supposed reasoning lies in his understanding of - or rather, bafflement towards - social media. In a roundabout way, Lyman has had to concede that the summer's debacle taught him a valuable lesson.
“That was the first time I felt generational differences,” he says. “All of a sudden, people weren’t coming to me face to face - they were putting things on the Internet. For me, that’s going to change the way I handle things. I’ve been working with an organisation called A Voice For The Innocent to write a program that we’re going to give all the bands on Warped next year about how to handle themselves on the road, what it means to be a sexual predator, and how to handle social media."
So, as Warped Tour celebrates a monumental birthday, its reputation at large is anchored decidedly on the rocks. Celebrations around the anniversary are tentative; Lyman is releasing a retrospective book, but online fanfare has been subdued. I headed into the carnage of this year's UK leg to assess the mood, and ponder how Warped can recover from the events of the summer.
The tour, which has been visiting the UK since 2012, has a checquered recent history. Since its inception in 1995 as a parking-lot concert for skaters, it’s grown into a travelling behemoth synonymous with pop-punk culture, launching the careers of Blink-182, Green Day and Fall Out Boy along the way, and even joining the green cause by introducing biodiesel in its trucks. But as the Front Porch fiasco showed, it's been anything but plain sailing over the years. In 2004, Jessica Hopper wrote an eye opening expose for the Chicago Reader about how the original American leg of the tour had become commercialised punk playground for impressionable kids with big wallets. And only last year, its line ups came under rightful scrutiny when 2014's running order was revealed to only include 6% female artists.
Yet here it is, still going strong in its twentieth year, with Lyman just as involved as he was at the start.
“I think one of the reasons it’s successful is that I’m there to address things,” he says. “It’s more important to me than anything that I can be out there, in a sweaty parking lot, walking around the show. I have so many good people running the operations, that I’m right there, looking at the bigger picture.”
Is he going to tackle the lack of women artists that has become a hallmark of his line ups? "The line-up I’m booking for next year is more balanced. Also, I need old mentors out there. Last year, a lot of the older bands talked to the younger bands about respect, and I’m bringing that back.”"
I'll give it to him, it's certainly one of the most accessible alternative festivals to visit the UK. Day tickets are cheaper than the likes of Download at £51 a pop, it’s held at Alexandra Palace, which, while being a bastard of a venue for gobbling up sound in its cavernous interior, is easily accessible by train. Even the super young are encouraged to come, with parents given an adult crèche - full of coffee machines, Chesterfield sofas and copies of the Daily Mail - to chill out in for the day. Although, there is definitely something reeking of subtle capitalist manipulation in the way the parents are siphoned off so the kids can be marketed at directly.
Anyway, there's always the music. Warped Tour started as a punk rock festival, and has largely stuck to that ethos ever since. The current metalcore boom was well represented at this year’s British leg by the likes of The Word Alive, In Hearts Wake and headliners Asking Alexandria. Black Veil Brides, leaders of the millennial hair-metal resurgence movement, were the main draw, and pop punk still has a place here, in the shape of Forever Came Calling, The Rocket Summer and Chunk! No, Captain Chunk!. Metal and hardcore are also represented by August Burns Red and Frank Carter, who don’t have a jaunty melody in sight, but still draw the crowds. In some ways, it’s like a three-day line-up distilled into one day, and then, of course, there’s the veterans like Reel Big Fish.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster; a clash of genres, age groups and hairstyles that’s bound to leave some of the stages deserted, and on some occasions it is, but for the most part it worked in London. Alexandra Palace was a shrewd move; enough rooms for the different fan factions to coexist, but small enough to ensure that it’s always possible to wander into something you've never seen before. And judging by the age of the majority of attendees, it might well be the first time they’ve encountered Reel Big Fish or Anti-Flag. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lyman.
“It was a very young tour this year,” he says. He’s also noticed that the female-to-male ratio of the crowd is shifting. “You look at the audience today, and its always the girls who come first. Back when it started in ’95, it was a guy show - it was punk rock. But now [there are more] girls; they tend to be about 14 to 17 years old, maybe they were into One Direction or something, and now they’re looking for the next phase of music.”
With a statement like that, I'm immediately drawn to write Lyman off as a little condescending when it comes to younger female music fans, but the more we speak the more I realise it's partly just an awkward choice of words. He’s the first to admit that he’s “three or four generations away” from both the bands and the fans at Warped, and while he does use generalisations, they’re quite often just that - figures of speech.
As tempting as it is to keep raising Warped's many problems with Lyman, it would be unfair to also rubbish the tour’s achievements throughout its twenty-year life. It’s widely credited as the platform from which numerous bands found mainstream success, and isn’t afraid to stray outside of the punk-rock genre to find performers - Katy Perry’s first tour was on Warped 2008, and Eminem has also played. Lyman is still as passionate about seeing bands make the big time now as he was when he started.
“Take Pierce The Veil,” he says. “They weren’t an overnight success. They were around almost ten years before their sound worked. But if you’re not a nice band and you don’t have people rooting for you, you won’t get those chances. [Nice people] are the ones I believe should get a chance to stay in the game.”
It does seem like Lyman learned some lessons from his experiences over the summer, and he's evidently started making changes. He wants the bands and the fans to work together to “take control of their scene”.
“I want to help, but they have to speak to each other,” he says. And more musicians publicly decrying misogyny goes along way, especially when he can encourage bigger voices to join the cause: “I can give them a platform, but so many of these artists are fearful of speaking out for fear of being attacked. The ones that could speak with the biggest voices are the ones that are most scared; they’re afraid one little thing could destroy their careers.”
Another step brought in, following the Front Porch Step debacle, is to involve band managers in his new safeguarding plans. “I’m going to say: ‘Put it in your contract that you have to come clean about everything in your life. Tell us anything that might pop up with your past history. We may decide not to work with you, but we may figure it out ahead of time and know how to address it.’”
Throughout our chat, he continues to make big promises, and time will tell whether those promises became progression. But one thing is for sure, implementing them will be crucial if Warped’s reputation is to fully recover from the events of this summer. At the London event, it's clear that despite all its flaws, one thing that hasn't suffered is the vibe itself. As Black Veil Brides close the evening with a set full of posturing and fire in front of thousands of face-painted fans, it feels like the ethos is still just about hanging on. Warped has always been a place for the alternative kids to convene and lose their shit to the music that unites them – in this case, five men in tight trousers who really like Mötley Crüe.
If Lyman implements the changes he’s laid out, it’ll be the true mark of success; Warped will perhaps once again become somewhere those kids can carry on losing their shit in safety. God knows we need it.
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