April 26, 2023
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Production Lessons Learned from the Warped Tour with Kevin Lyman

Shaudi Bianca Vahdat
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Meet Kevin Lyman. Lyman is the founder and event producer behind the legendary Warped Tour, the longest-running touring music festival in the United States. 

Warped Tour (officially known as Vans Warped Tour) helped shape the music landscape of the 1990s and early 2000s. The “punk rock summer camp” toured 40 cities with about 100 artists each summer from 1995 to 2019, when it officially came to a close with a special 25-year anniversary event.

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Kevin Lyman, founder of the Vans Warped Tour. SOURCE

The tour saw its share of controversy over its 25-year run. It was also an indisputable driver of North American music and youth culture. 

Bands like Blink-182, No Doubt, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore appeared on Warped Tour just as they were erupting into international fame. 

While rooted in punk rock, the tour’s lineup was always somewhat genre-diverse, including an ongoing ska presence. 

Among the more surprising acts that played the Warped Tour early in their careers were The Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, and Katy Perry. 

As the founder and owner of Kevin Lyman Production Services (now the Kevin Lyman Group), Kevin was incredibly hands-on in running the Warped Tour each year.

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Simple Plan performs at the 2018 Warped Tour. SOURCE

Kevin got his start in event production putting shows together in college, and getting to know the LA music scene along the way. After stage managing with famed promoter Goldenvoice (the company behind Coachella) and working gigs like Lollapalooza, Kevin founded his own company in the mid-1980s. 

In addition to the Warped Tour, Kevin’s company produced events and festivals like It’s Not Dead, The Taste of Chaos, and many benefit events. His philanthropic work has been recognized by organizations like the Billboard Touring Awards and The GRAMMY Awards/MusiCares. He’s currently an associate professor in the Music Industry program at the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music. 

Kevin recently made time to sit down with Wrapbook’s co-founder, Cameron Woodward, to share a few lessons learned on producing memorable, meaningful events.

Watch the full interview here:

1. Have a strong business foundation

Kevin stresses the importance of mastering “basic business structure.” Before you produce any event, invest in educating yourself on business acumen and setting yourself up for success. Learn about incorporating your business, and understand how you’ll pay taxes, both federally and in the state or states in which you work. Protect yourself with liability insurance to safeguard against risks inherent to event production (Wrapbook can swiftly generate an insurance quote for you). And implement an efficient crew management system for hiring, tracking, and paying your crew (Wrapbook can also help with these aspects). 

Knowing these business fundamentals keeps you organized and protected as you take on larger events.

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The poster for the very first Warped Tour in 1995, featuring a lineup that included Sublime and No Doubt. SOURCE

2. Gain insight into all roles for successful tour management

Leverage opportunities to familiarize yourself with as many roles in the industry as possible. Kevin credits his time working various jobs in the clubs of southern California with helping him manage complex tours successfully. 

Tours are incredibly collaborative endeavors, and as the producer, you can’t do it all. But you can learn enough about each role to hire the right people, and communicate with them effectively in the language of their job. 

Don’t worry about genre specialization… at least not yet 

Experience is experience. You can always specialize further as your company grows. 

While Kevin eventually became closely associated with punk rock and related genres, in the beginning he took on all kinds of clients.

“I was running up to 320 shows a year, never turning down a gig. One of the biggest mistakes some people do early in their career is they think that, ‘I only want to work in this type of music.' The punk rock crowd [is] where I kind of came from, but there was other days of the week. So I’d be working hair metal shows. And if there was a show on Thanksgiving, and it was a Persian show, I’d go work that. Later on in life, you can become more specific.” 

Along the same lines…

You never know where these jobs and relationships might lead 

Some of the “small” bands Kevin worked with early in his career later turned into huge acts like Stone Temple Pilots, Jane’s Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

So in the beginning, take on events outside your norm, and practice respect and professionalism in your interactions with every band.

“I treated everyone equally… the smallest bands to the biggest bands, I would try to make sure they had a good experience.”
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Gwen Stefani of No Doubt and guitarist Warren Fitzgerald at the inaugural 1995 Warped Tour. SOURCE

Kevin built a positive reputation in his company’s early days in L.A.

3. Benefit bands, fans, and the community with sponsorships

Much of the innovation of Warped Tour came from the way it utilized sponsors, brand partnerships, and nonprofits. Sponsor dollars kept Warped Tour financially and geographically accessible to fans. That accessibility was part of a strategy by Kevin and his team to build a music scene through Warped Tour. 

Sponsorships should benefit the fans

In 2018, the last year the full Warped Tour ran, general admission tickets were $45, significantly lower than tickets to similar festivals. Kevin credits brand partnerships for this “artificially low” ticket price. 

While some have criticized the tour for its abundance of sponsors, Kevin sees sponsor funding as the path to being able to

“... Do a show for the other 90% of the people out there.”
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Brand partnerships, like this one with Cool Gear, kept Warped Tour accessible to fans. SOURCE

The right partnerships can benefit your audiences by keeping events more accessible. 

As you brainstorm potential sponsors, think about the audience and band relationship, rather than going straight for companies with the most recognition. Know your audiences well enough to know what brands they might actually want to connect with. And be sure to consider how association with those brands could benefit your artists.   

Sponsorships build and expand your scene 

Warped Tour also used sponsorships to build and sustain a community of music fans and bands. Money from sponsors meant more stops were possible. Being able to include smaller cities that weren’t typical punk rock tour stops was key. 

“If we brought punk rock to Boise, Idaho – they didn’t get a lot of shows like that. They could have a show a year that would help build our scene of music.” 

Expanding the Warped across the country benefited bands, audiences, and sponsors. What brand wouldn’t want to be associated with a thriving, growing music scene? This ensured the tour’s financial sustainability, without having to raise ticket prices.

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Attendees at the 2008 Warped Tour stop in Camden, New Jersey. SOURCE

When planning an event or tour, it’s easy to get bogged down in the more urgent short-term details. Carve out time to think longer-term. How can you make your tour or events more sustainable? If you’re working on a summer tour for a particular band, how do you build excitement and community around them in the months leading up to the tour? This type of artist development can help ensure your audiences grow year after year.  

Connect with nonprofits 

Nonprofit and music education organizations were a vital part of Warped Tour from its early days. Fans could get free percussion lessons or learn from artists at The John Lennon Educational tour bus. Nonprofits like To Write Love on Her Arms and Hope for the Day provided tour-goers with mental health support resources. PETA connected with fans on preventing cruelty to animals. There were also blood and food drives associated with the tour throughout the years.

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Food drive for “Feed Our Children Now” outside of the 2019 Warped Tour. Attendees could donate to receive an Express Entry wristband. SOURCE

There’s huge potential to offer services or leverage support at music events. There’s also potential to come off as tone-deaf or appear as if you’re using a cause for your own gain. You can avoid the latter scenario by knowing your audience and building strong relationships with the organizations you partner with. 

Is there an issue that particularly affects your target audience? Is there a cause the artists you work with care deeply about that you can rally your audiences around?

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The PETA booth at one of the final years of Warped Tour. SOURCE

Once you identify the issue or cause it makes most sense to connect with your event, reach out to established organizations with strong track records who are already experts in that space. Then, be sure to respect their expertise. Integrate them early in your event planning. Make room for their ideas on the role they can play in your event or tour. 

Partnering thoughtfully with organizations that are a strong fit with your event, audience, and artists will lead to meaningful integration of community-building work into your event. 

4. Remember, it’s a “people business” 

The most important takeaway Kevin wants aspiring production professionals to remember? 

“We are a people business.” 

Here are a few actionable ways to center humanity in your event production work. 

Technology is there for support 

Technology is obviously incredibly helpful to production professionals. 

Advancements in technology also mean that more emerging production professionals have access to education online, which helps remove some barriers to entry into the industry. There’s a wealth of videos, interviews, and articles to help supplement your on-the-job experience. 

It’s also worth remembering that technology can’t replace your humanity, particularly when it comes to event production. As Kevin puts it,

“You can’t Google ‘hey there’s a storm coming towards my venue, what do I do now?’” 

Remember to build your skills in person-to-person communication, critical thinking, and staying calm in challenging situations. 

Center mental health

The music industry, and touring in particular, can tax the mental health of everyone from rock superstars to temporary stagehands. As a tour producer, you can play an important role in advocating for mental health care for your crew, artists, and fans.  

For example, Kevin organizes a mental health festival called 320 Festival for his students on the University of Southern California campus each year. In partnership with Talinda Bennington (of the mental health campaign Change Direction and the nonprofit 320 Changes Direction), the festival brings free mental health classes and resources to students.

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The nonprofit Hope For the Day at Warped Tour. SOURCE

Consider how you can invest in the mental health of your crew, artists, fans, and yourself. 

For the last decade of Warped Tour, a counselor was part of the touring team, providing artists and crew with personalized support and meditation sessions. Warped Tour also donated a portion of its ticket sales to Musicares, an organization that provides mental health, wellness, and financial support to music professionals. 

As you plan your tour, take the wellbeing of your team into account. What would it take to add a licensed counselor to your crew? How can you create an organizational structure in which talking about mental health and asking for help are normalized? Is it possible to allow families and partners to join on the road? 

Being proactive in protecting the mental health of your team is vital to the longevity of not only your production company, but the music industry as a whole. 

Know the trade-offs 

In addition to the effects on mental health, live production is a physically demanding field. As you plan your events and career long-term, recognize that you (and the people you work with) might need to scale back as your age and/or physical ability levels change. This was actually referenced by Kevin in 2017 as one of the reasons Warped Tour was coming to a close.

Most production work also means you’ll be working most of the year. Even at the height of Warped Tour’s success and popularity, Kevin’s production company was working events throughout the year. 

This work schedule can impact you and your team’s personal and familial relationships. Kevin shared that between grueling tours each summer and other event production work the rest of the year, he and his family

“... Never got to do those vacations that normal people do.” 

Being conscious of these trade-offs in your career is the first step to finding creative ways to still prioritize personal relationships and take time off for your own health. 

Wrapping up

We’re thankful to Kevin Lyman for taking the time to share his insights with us. 

Working on an event right now? Learn about assessing scope of work, hiring and communicating with the right people, and more in our guide to best practices for staffing live events

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Shaudi Bianca Vahdat

Shaudi is a Seattle-based musician, theatre artist, writer and social media marketing specialist. She holds degrees from Berklee College of Music and the University of Washington School of Drama.

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