At the end of last year's Vans Warped Tour, founder Kevin Lyman was a little worried.
He felt the traveling extravaganza he created in 1995 to showcase new talent, heavyweights from outside the mainstream, and the indie-rock lifestyle was starting to lose its way. "Last year, it felt a little fractured at times," Lyman says, calling from a tour stop in Buffalo. "Some acts weren't really involved or engaged."
As a result of the economy and some touring issues, attendance dropped sharply last year and Lyman says he decided to address the slide himself. "I realized that it's harder -- I'm 50 now -- and I thought that maybe I started listening to too many other people," he says. "I remember Ice-T told me, 'You gotta go with your gut' and that's what I decided to do."
Lyman decided to choose all the artists himself, taking two months to listen to hundreds of acts and pulling together Warped Tour's most diverse lineup in years -- from the chart-topping, pop-leaning hip-hop of 3OH!3 and Gym Class Heroes to the power pop of Paramore and A Day to Remember to the political punk of Against Me! and the hardcore of The Devil Wears Prada.
Breaking with traditional
Lyman says the change has worked, with attendance back up to 2009 levels. But the switch did mean that some more traditional-sounding Warped Tour bands did not make the cut this year in the name of getting some different styles onto the tour.
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That strategy helped Bellmore-based The Narrative, who released their eponymous dreamy pop debut themselves last year, land a slot on the tour.
Singer-keyboardist Suzie Zeldin says the band was surprised to be selected and even more surprised that Lyman chose them to play on his personal showcase, The Kevin Says stage.
"I don't know that we sound like what most people think are Warped Tour bands," Zeldin says. "But it feels amazing to be picked by him. It's such a great opportunity."
Lyman says he enjoyed their music, which isn't as heavy as most bands on the bill, but he liked their appreciation of the opportunity even more. "They're going to go out and work hard to introduce more people to their music," he says. "They're good kids."
Warped Tour, Lyman tells all the artists, is about hard work. And that is what makes the tour so rewarding, says Terrible Things front man Fred Mascherino.
"I really do have to mentally prepare for it," says Mascherino, who has done Warped four times before as part of Terrible Things, Taking Back Sunday and The Color Fred. "It's the toughest tour on earth to do -- the drives, the heat, the stress. . . . But it's the best tour to get the word out about your band. Warped Tour has built up a trust with its audience. Even though the kids may say, 'I don't know half of these bands,' they still trust that it's gonna be a fun show. That's why there's big crowds every year."
Fuse VJ Allison Hagendorf, who traveled with the tour for its first 10 days to interview artists and fans for her weekly series "Fuse Warped Wednesdays," says most bands come ready for the mix of fun and business.
"It is like punk rock summer camp," she says. "There's no headliner, no egos. The catering lines are for everyone. There's no VIP area. All bands are created equal. . . . They also understand that it's an important platform to reach 600,000 kids in the summer, that it's the biggest traveling tour and that a lot of major names have come from the tour."
Let the day begin
For every Warped Tour band, the day starts before 8 a.m., when they find out their set time for the day and learn how much time they have to set up their equipment and merchandise tents. The workday generally continues until after 8 p.m., when bands pack up their stuff and drive off to the next tour stop to start the cycle again.
"You have to work hard in this business," Lyman says. "It's like a microcosm of the industry. Nothing is ever going to be handed to you. Those bands that had a sense of entitlement, that thought they didn't have to work hard, they aren't really around any more. The bands that have been rolling around forever? The survivors? Those are the ones that work hard."
Because of Warped Tour's success, it's not just bands that put in the effort, but businesses and nonprofit organizations looking to reach the same demographic. "When you can reach that amount of people, that's an opportunity you definitely have to take," says Jason Blades, who represents the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, which is dedicated to helping those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. "We have to have a presence here. It's one spot where you can meet a lot of kids willing to make a change, who want change for their generation. These are kids who are focused towards activism."
And, for Lyman, these are kids he cares for. He has always tried to keep the tour's ticket prices down and this year he has moved to offer free water to concertgoers, as well as a $3 price cap for bottled water.
"I want them to feel like they are part of something," says Lyman, adding that the tour also runs a food drive on the day of the show and a blood drive in the weeks leading up to it. "This tour stands for something. A mother came up to me at a show the other day and thanked me for the tour because her daughter told her, 'This is the one place that I belong.' That's why we do this."
Warped Tour acts that spark Fuse's interest
With more than 100 bands playing at each Vans Warped Tour stop, deciding who to check out gets tough. Based on her time out on the tour, here are some of Fuse VJ Allison Hagendorf's suggestions to add to your list:
BAD RABBITS "I have no idea how to categorize them -- kind of disco-funk-soul-rock with a D.I.Y. attitude," Hagendorf says of the Boston-based band.
MOVING MOUNTAINS "I love Sunny Day Real Estate and you hear them and a little Jimmy Eat World, but you also hear a little bit of The Cure," she says of the Westchester band. "It's very melodic, moody, with pretty strong songwriting."
YELAWOLF "I'm a huge fan," she says of the Gadsden, Ala., rapper who mixes Dirty South hip-hop with classic rock. "You don't think Warped Tour and necessarily think Yelawolf. . . . But then again Eminem did the Warped Tour in '99."