This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Kevin Lyman, founder, Vans Warped Tour.
Surf’s up once again for Kevin Lyman.
Like the fabled Beach Boys, he’s gone for the summer.
Lyman, however, isn’t at the beach trying to catch a wave. Instead, he’s standing outside concert gates checking T-shirts of audience members (in order to gauge future acts to be booked) and keeping a check on the activities of the 7-member staff of his 4Fini Inc. event production company with offices in South Pasadena, California, and Nashville, Tennessee.
In its 3rd year, Lyman’s Country Throwdown tour kicked off May 18th in Gulfport, Mississippi with a lineup featuring Gary Allan, Justin Moore, Rodney Atkins, Josh Thompson, Sunny Sweeney, Eric Paslay, and Florida Georgia Line, and others.
Next up, now in its 18th year, is Lyman’s wildly successful, all-summer long Vans Warped Tour--the traveling music and extreme sports festival---that reaches over 600,000 people each summer.
The tour has introduced North American audiences to such bands as No Doubt, Blink-182, Eminem, 3OH!3, Paramore, Fall Out Boy and others.
This year's Vans Warped Tour, starting June 16, 2012, has a lineup that includes: Pierce the Veil, Of Mice And Men, Streetlight Manifesto, Yellowcard, Falling In Reverse, the Used, Anti-Flag, Memphis May Fire, Sleeping With Sirens, All Time Low, We the Kings, Senses Fail, and about 60 other bands.
Lyman began his music career booking bands at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. After graduating, he managed a weight-loss camp for girls in Hawaii before working as production manager with independent California promoter Goldenvoice.
In 1995, Lyman launched 4Fini Inc. as a full-service music and entertainment production company specializing in events, ranging from national and international tours to customized events.
Along the way, he worked as a stage manger and production controller for Lollapalooza.
Launched in 1994, Warped (as it was first called) limped along for a couple of years. However, in 1997, the crowd doubled in size largely to due to the popularity of Blink-182, and Social Distortion.
In 2005, Lyman and John Reese teamed up in order to produce the Rockstar Taste of Chaos tours that cater to fans of the hardcore, screamo, and metal genres. Through the years, these tours have featured such bands as My Chemical Romance, the Used, Deftones, 30 Seconds to Mars, Avenged Sevenfold, and Paramore.
In 2008, the pair launched the annual Rockstar Energy Mayhem tour, sponsored by the Rockstar Energy Company.
The two partners recently announced a Mayhem Festival cruise from Dec. 7 through Dec. 11 that will have Lamb of God, Anthrax, Machine Head and Suicide Silence on board performing to 1,900 fans.
How do you balance the time for the different tours?
I have a small staff. A great staff. A total of 7. We have only ramped up to that (number) since we’ve been handling the majority of the marketing for all of our tours.
Have the annual Rockstar Energy Mayhem, and Country Throwdown festival tours filled in for all of the side live music projects you used to do in the early days of Vans Warped?
Yeah. But on a different level now. As a small company, we don’t have that luxury of quarters or halves (to show profits). I have always run a recession business. So when the recession started, it was not such a big shock.
While Vans Warped has headliners, some people go because of the event itself. For the experience. A friend’s daughter wants to go to Vans Warped, but not in the city she lives in.
I see that transition when kids graduate from high school now. I get these messages that kids are going to three shows. Can they volunteer? Can they help in catering? “We’re going to be at four shows this year.” It’s an affordable road trip out of high school now.
Her parents agreed that her and her friends could attend Vans Warped in Darien Center, New York (July 17, 2012).
We are now second generational in some ways. The tour has been around 18 years. Each summer we are doing (selling tickets to) somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 (people). We’ve played for a lot of people through those years. Parents can now say, “It’s a good environment for the kids. It ends by sunset.” The show is generally a very safe place to go to.
Most troubles at festivals happen after sunset. You took out that element.
Yeah. So these kids can come, and their parents are saying, “Okay. You can go out for a long weekend.” The kids want to test their boundaries a little. Then I think that they get a taste of that (freedom) a bit by coming out to Warped, maybe for a show or two, on the road. The next thing you know, they are going to Bonnaroo or they are on the road to Voodoo Fest. It is turning into the training grounds for all of the big festivals. I see that Voodoo Fest has announced camping. I think that’s going to be huge for them.
[The annual Voodoo Experience festival in New Orleans, first held in 1999, has become one of the largest music festivals in America. City Park officials recently agreed to allow overnight camping for the first time this year. The field across from NOLA City Bark dog park will become a campground for festival goers from noon Thursday, Oct. 25th until noon Monday, Oct. 29th. During that time, there will be 24 hour security, portable restrooms, potable water and 24 hour first aid.]
With Mayhem, I don’t know if we have that (element of people there just to experience the event). It’s very dependent on the line-up each year. But people are getting it. They enjoy that we put out a great side stage of entertainment compared to some of the other metal festivals. When we first started, I will never forget the first day (at the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn Washington in 2008). The venue wasn’t staffed up for the opening. They told me nobody shows up early for these metal shows. They were used to the buy-on culture with bands that nobody knew. I said, “You need to be ready. These bands on our side stage are known. They are just not buying on or some lucky kid got a break (to be on the bill).” When we opened that door at the first show for the first day, there were 5,000 kids lined up around the venue, and they had two ticket takers ready.
Every three years the audience changes over for Vans Warped. The average age attending is 17. Do kids leave and come back a few years later?
From 13 to 19, that’s the Warped demo; the majority. And I know how to book to them. I would say that from 19 to 24 that the kids do go out, and they are experiencing different events. They want the festival experience. They want the Coachella, the Bonnaroo, the Outside Lands (experiences); all of the big festivals. The Electric Daisy. I had to shrink the demo down, but I will do something with them (19 to 24 year olds) when I can. By booking acts this year like the Used, Yellow Card, and New Found Glory that are appealing to that 24 year old (demo). I am really feeling right now that I made the right decision. Hey, it’s (the demographic is) my history. It’s my roots.
And it’s more female this year due to the bands booked?
Female, but it’s surprisingly male as well. A friend of mine, (singer) Juliet Simms was on (as a contestant) “The Voice” (coming in second after Jermaine Paul). I was standing in line, and an usher came up to me and said, “Hey Kevin, that line-up is amazing this year. I can’t wait to go back to the Warped tour.” I said, “Are you 24 years old?” He said, “How did you know?” And I was at Best Buy the other night with my wife, and this kid said, “Hey Kevin, the line-up for the Warped tour is amazing this year.” I asked, “Are you 24?” He said, “Yeah, how did you know?”
How did you know he was 24?
Because I think that a 24-year-old is now responsible. They have responsibilities. They have jobs. They are working at entry level positions at Warner Brothers or they are working at Best Buy. They still want that music experience but that three-day festival is harder for them to go to.
And Vans Warped is one of the cheaper live events around too.
Yeah. You can basically drop two twenties at the door, and you are in.
Vans Warped continues to evolve, including you bringing down the number of bands performing. How many acts this year?
We are 60 to 70 a day. It got out of control eight or nine years ago. We had 100 bands a day. It was a sign of people wanting to be on Warped tour, and me learning how to say “no.” The hardest thing for me to learn has been to say “no.”
One change is that you are promoting the Vans Warped show in Phoenix, Arizona this year at Camelback Ranch on June 28th.
Yes, I am promoting my own show in Phoenix this year. I had to tell Live Nation that they lost a couple of shows this year. They gained a show in a market. AEG picked up some shows. They switched a couple of shows (between them). But in this one city I decided that there was no promoter that could really help me. So I am doing it myself.
Certainly, your affiliation with Live Nation a few years back took a lot of pressure off you.
It did, absolutely, and it still does in some ways. But we are out there on zero guarantees (working on a percentage of the door).
Of course, there are no guarantees for the sheds either.
Yeah, but they make the first money; and then we make the next money. It’s a good relationship (with Live Nation). It works. But the relationship has to be able to evolve. Overall, I am comfortable with my relationships. In September (2011), I had these hard calls and hard lunches with people; but I had to do it for my own survival. With Bob Roux (co-president of North America Concerts, Live Nation Entertainment), and the Live Nation folks; and then I had to have it with Adam Weiser (talent buyer at AEG Live) and those folks. Also, in Phoenix, I had to decide what to do. I didn’t want to give up on the market, but I can’t afford to keep dropping ticket sales there.
This is the way you want to do things due to the characteristics of your business.
Exactly. It works. And I have never taken a loan in my life to run this business.
Meanwhile, the live event business continues being transformed.
All we are, as a business, is being accountable as a business. When I speak at universities, I say that the interesting thing about music is that it is an emotional attachment. We used to be able to succeed on 90% failure. All that is being done now is that we are being held as accountable as any other business.
If you got in a car at a Toyota lot, and 9 out of 10 cars stalled going out of the lot, would Toyota still be in business? If Sprint phone calls dropped, they’d be out of business.
We are just being (held more) accountable. I used to be more mellow. I have had to get into it (business details) more because I have seven employees now. I am responsible for them. If I see an injustice being done, and I don’t do anything about it then I’m not doing them a service. Anybody working for me could make more money elsewhere.
Access to music is easier today, and that dictates how business will be done.
We are digesting more music than ever. The business has turned. I think that there’s enough kids (artists) out there who have grown up in that mind set of $1 a track; and are doing things themselves again. The DYI ethic is bigger than ever. I think that we have turned that corner where that $16.99 CD--to a majority of the young acts--is not a priority anymore. Or not even a thought.
It’s a vehicle within their career.
It’s the vehicle. It’s a dollar a track. It’s serving your public. It’s living in your means. More people are making a living in music at this point. Making a living is being able to raise a family. You can do that in Bloomington, Indiana a lot easier than in Los Angeles, California. We are figuring (the business) out, but it’s hard. Old systems are dying a lot slower than probably all of us thought or hoped. But there is more music out there that’s being digested, and kids are more aware of what’s going on. We spent $250 a market on the on sale of the Warped tour, okay? And we then sold 100,000 tickets.
A decade ago, you’d have had to spend thousands of dollars in advertising for the same results.
Exactly. And the change has resulted in those hard discussions that I am having with people. Print, I have had to cut back. I know my audience isn’t going there. I want to support certain print, like AP (Alternative Press) magazine which I think is really important. We have to figure out how to keep those core things around. But there were some of these print (outlets) where I have written checks for $4,000 or $5,000 checks each year; but I don’t think that they sell me a ticket. I had to say this year, “Guys, I can’t do it anymore. I have to go where I need to go to keep my ticket prices right.”
General arguments that food and beverages being too high at venues weren’t picked up by many promoters over the years. But you heard the complaints, and pushed for pricing changes.
It was really nice to see people like Bob Roux and Mark Campana come in (as co-presidents of North America Concerts at Live Nation) to be honest because they come from my world. They grew up around this. So when I went in there last year, my big thing was getting water prices down to $3 a bottle, and having free water stations. So we made that partnership with Klean Kanteen. And yes, as a tour, we put our money where our mouth is. We were willing to subsidize that. But it worked so well that we had 40% less medical cases last year.
[Through Lyman’s lobbying, bottled water at 2011 Warped shows cost $3 at Live Nation sheds, down from $4-$4.50 the previous year. Fans were also able to pre-pay $8.50 for a cheeseburger, fries and soda, a meal that cost several dollars more in 2010. This pricing set-up is in place for the 2012 tour.]
For many years promoters and venue operators said, “These are the prices, kid. If you don’t like it, don’t buy food at our shows.”
Absolutely. But on the Warped tour, that show is nine hours. And we have to get into that mind of a teenager. Five years ago, before the economic recession, kids would come with debit cards. They had no problem pulling money out of the machines. Those cards are not there anymore with the majority of the kids. They now come with a fixed amount of money to a show. So they make choices. As we know with young teens, as well as with young adults, sometimes they don’t make the best choices in life. You are a teenager. You are indestructible. You don’t need water. You don’t need food. If I have $20 in my pocket for the day, am I going to eat or am I going to buy another A Day To Remember T-shirt?
The kids were not taking care of themselves. We had to take care of them. Water was a huge thing. There’s Klean Kanteen for the free water now. And a lot of the promoters worked with me on pre-paid food packages where the parent can buy a lunch for the kid; pre-paid for $8.50; where the kid has a voucher and they bring it to one of the stands, and they get their hamburger or pizza and fries and a beverage. It is cheaper than buying it piecemeal.
And $8.50 is not a bad price for lunch these days. By them coming with the voucher, their parents gave them the opportunity to eat. Someone said, “Well, what happens if the kid sells their voucher?” I said, “Where does that responsibility begin and end?” We are trying. Yeah, maybe, the kid is going to sell it for $5, and buy another CD. But we are trying to take care of the fans. I think that it worked out well for everybody last year. This year we’ve increased the food packages and they are selling very well.
The food package concept is a win/win for both fans and venues. Of course, it’s also a pre-sale.
Exactly. The sheds were very co-operative on this. I’m sure that some of them (the vouchers) weren’t redeemed last year. But I think what we are doing is looking at each property in its own way. Warped tour, I can’t worry about anybody else. I have to look out for those kids in a certain way.
Mayhem, we look after that fan, but that fan is treated a little differently. They need a bit of a different set-up. They are a little older.
In country (with Country Throwdown), I think that at one point, we bombarded fans with too much. The first year (2010) we opened the doors too early. We are more back to that “weekend warrior” set-up where the tours are going Fridays through Sundays, and (the artists are going) back to Nashville the majority of the time. We believe in that (country) brand by going out with someone like Garry Allan this year; and last year, we were with Willie Nelson (headlining). It was a little difficult to market (Country Throwdown) to the Willie fan.
He attracts an older fan who isn’t coming for a long show.
Exactly. We saw that. His fans see three o’clock on the ticket, and they are excited because they want to be at supper by 7 o’clock. They don’t care who else is on the bill.
Country fans aren’t used to so many acts being on a bill.
Yes. (They are used to) a 15 minute opener; a semi name with a few hits. The up-and-comer, and then it’s the stars. But we are out there. We are trying. I’m seeing cities like Gilford, New Hampshire again. This was the third year that we were there. Fans are starting to embrace (Country Throwdown) like it’s a real cool place. They want to see the bands on the side stage because in the past two years, they have seen some of the biggest new names in country put on those stages; and they can stand right in front of the stages and watch them.
Larry Frank, and his brother Fred of Frank Productions in Madison, Wisconsin realized years ago that there is money to be made in secondary and tertiary markets.
Yeah, I know. And they (the Franks) have been able to make a living for a long time. (With Country Throwdown) I’ve been to Gulfport, Mississippi, and Lampe, Missouri. I have had to pop out the atlas to see what cities I’m going to because they are new to me.
After a 13-year absence, Vans Warped returns to the UK this year.
We announced the (Nov. 10, 2012) show, and it went up very strong. It’s trying to pull these new acts, and show the big festivals like we did back in ’96 through to ’99 when we brought Blink-182, and Bad Religion and others to Europe. To show the big promoters like Reading and Leeds that these bands are important. That they should want them as part of their festivals.
We are just going in there as an intro show with a capacity of 10,000. We were over 4,000 tickets in the first week (of sales).We are looking at nine shows in Europe by the end of next spring.
[Heading up the bill for Vans Warped at North London’s Alexandra Palace on Nov. 10, 2012 are Welsh rockers Lostprophets, and Bring Me The Horizon. Also performing will be New Found Glory, Less Than Jake, Man Overboard, The Story So Far, 3OH!3, the Acacia Strain, and Blood On The Dance Floor.]
Will Vans Warped ever return to Australia?
I don’t know. They are doing such a good job with (the annual punk/metal festival) Soundwave right now which sucks a lot out of that market. It’s sort of an ode to us. AJ (promoter AJ Maddah) followed the Warped tour around. He would pop up in weird places like Las Cruz, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas. He would just be in town (for Vans Warped). He was researching festivals. He was also involved with Warped tour when we were down there in ’96 and ’97.
You aren’t a fan of VIP packages or other premiums that give greater value to well-heeled fans for a price.
With Warped, I do nothing. No VIP packages or anything. We do on Mayhem. They aren’t overpriced VIP packages. They are $100 over face value, and we give the person $60 worth of stuff. But you can see that there’s that fan, just like I see at Coachella, that’s 19 to 24. If they can afford to go after 24, they don’t want to be in the middle of the crowd. They want a bit of a special experience. So we created this.
Still, you believe that the perception of favoritism hinders the live event business today?
I think so. I think that while we are still tied in with our sponsors like Rock Star (energy drink) or Jägermeister, most of the bands (at Vans Warped) will still be out in the crowds signing for the fans. I was the hardest guy to sell for the VIP package (for Rockstar Mayhem). But we’ve done some really cool things. We have given them a video camera that looks like a film-cam knock off that was branded. So we were able to do that. But every year, we have a debate. Do we raise the price of this or that? No. We’ve built something really cool for these loyal fans.
Fans trying to buy tickets online two minutes after sales are announced often can’t get a good seat.
As an independent, I have had to fight that. I had to fight for getting tickets back into skate shops. I feel that I am still selling to the same fan as the new electronica promoters. I am reaching the same audience that the Electric Daisy is. The same demographic.
Audiences are used to be serviced in three ways. I picked up on that at the Billboard Touring Conference last year. Everybody wanted to talk about three things. Ticketing, social media, and electronica music. The more I talked to people I had this epiphany. One is that the electronica guys, they are who we were---(Coachella festival organizer) Goldenvoice, Paul Tollett, and Kevin Lyman----back in the early ‘80s.
Social media is the same thing that we used to be by having our ear to the street. Word-of-mouth; flyers in the right places; and the right kids knowing about our shows.
And then there’s ticketing, I felt that I was being restricted with Ticketmaster by some antiquated (selling) practices. Not being able to get tickets out to the public. (We should be) putting tickets in skate shops. Putting them in the environment where the kid comes into the Tilly's or the Van stores and sees the posters and gets excited and asks, “Do you have a ticket available?” Just like the old record stores used to. You would walk into the record store, and they would be playing the music of the artist and you would go, “I have to go and see that show.”
So I went into Live Nation, and talked to them. Bob Roux got it. But one of the big things that came back to me (about this) was, “If we let you do it, other people will want to do it, and other people don’t have as honorable intentions as you.”
A fair comment.
Which was a fair comment. But I had to fight and say, “I don’t want to be treated like other people because I will be put out of business because I am being locked into antiquated systems.”
The argument being that your business has characteristics other businesses don’t. That it’s not the same as someone promoting a Rod Stewart concert.
Exactly. And they (Live Nation) got it. We have tickets in over 100 Van stores this year.
Tickets selling out for big shows within minutes ticks off fans.
That needs to be fixed but my world is different. In my world, we don’t have restrictions on sales. We also always reward for early buying. I don’t believe in the hawking (of tickets), and the discounting later on. I was big vocal ‘anti that.’ I felt that we were just dumbing-down our audience. We weren’t paying respect to the early buyer. You aren’t seeing as much of that anymore.
Live Nation was smart to change that policy.
It was probably three summers ago that I would be making late night calls to Jason Garner (then head of Live Nation’s Global Music division). I would be emailing him about the (ticket) craziness and adding photos of the hawkers and sending them out to people. I was losing my mind because I knew that we were setting our business back years. The summer of 2009, I think, that is when (the discounting) started; and in 2010, it was an expected thing that tickets were going to be discounted.
[A day before it was scheduled to brief Wall Street analysts on its third-quarter 2010 earnings, Live Nation Entertainment disclosed that Jason Garner, head of the company's Global Music division, had left the company, effective Oct. 29, 2010.
He was replaced by a trio of executives, Mark Campana and Bob Roux as presidents for the South and North regions in North America, respectively; and Rick Franks who was elevated to president of North America for talent/touring.]
Obviously, there’s synergy between the rock tours and festival events you oversee. Does that extend now to Country Throwdown?
I think there’s more (than before). We’re trying to create that synergy with the country world. But they have operated in such a different way and mind set for so long. It was more of a natural thing when we did Warped into Taste of Chaos and into Mayhem. That’s a world that we have been involved in. Easing into this country world, I think that we jumped in. It’s been a learning process definitely.
An artist like Eric Church jumps over formats.
I’m proud that Eric Church was on the first tour (in 2010), and that Brantley Gilbert was on the second one (in 2011). Some of that new breed of country artist has been part of these early Throwdowns. I think that it has been a challenge similar to how Warped the first year had No Doubt and Sublime. We were out there six months early with them. We have had a pretty good selection of this new breed of country artist with fans that are a little more into social networking. These artists are sort of breaking out of the world that we are used to with the traditional ways (of marketing). You never know which direction the next country star is coming from right now.
What expectation do you have for the Mayhem Festival cruise that runs Dec. 7th through Dec. 11th?
I think that it is extending the brands. It’s a difficult time to start new projects. There’s the growing pains of making Throwdown a success, for example. We’re in our third year, and we are turning the corner with it. But Mayhem, it’s a good time to build on the brands that we have.
Also an acknowledgement that the Mayhem audience has that kind of coin for a Carnival boat trip to the Bahamas.
Yeah, and that is something we saw. There are 1,900 people that can go on the ship. I would like to have something potentially that would blow out on sales but everything I tend to do does take work; and we don’t know right until the end (what sales will be). But in the first two weeks of sales, we sold to 300 people.
I think that we are going to give them a great package. But it’s an education. We’re doing layaways and payment plans. John (partner John Reese) and I figured that if we did 10% (of sales) in the first week and we did 7 to 10 a day, it’s going to be fine. So we are right on track. The guy with the cruise ship was going, “What’s going on here?” I was like, “It’s the pattern of our buying. These are not New Kids On the Block fans. They are not so passionate that they have to buy early. Our fans are going to take their time, plan it out, put it together, make sure that they can get the time off work, and start buying." And we are seeing that.
We are looking at (attracting) 1,900 people out of the 300,000 that go to Mayhem each year. Our plan is to keep selling (based) on the percentage. During the Mayhem (tour) we are going to have video screens, and a way to present (the cruise) to fans out there. I bet that we will be okay. I think that we will end up getting a sold-out ship. It’s not until December.
How did agents and managers react to the Mayhem cruise?
It was the easiest thing that we have ever booked. People are paid well to be on the ship. When the bands heard that John and I and our team were behind it, they were (responsive). Metal used to be known for yelling and screaming and egos and everything. That isn’t completely gone. But (artists) have realized that we don’t react to that. We react to good shows. We react to professionalism, and we react to good vibe. The Warped tour has been that way for many years. Artists have the best time of their lives out on our tours.
The Mayhem artists like to work with John, and with Keri Lee (marketing dir. at 4Fini). They like working with the team of people that I have out there at the event every day. And they have a lot of fun. Egos shrink when you are having fun. As soon as we said that we are going to do this cruise, I think that they all said that the production is going to be good; it’s going to be run professionally; and it’s going to be a lot of fun. But we are going to get some business done at it as well. Artists know that we market very well. They are going to be high profile for the eight months that they are involved with us.
Four days of music.
Each artist is going to play to three sets. We are just doing down to the Bahamas. We went down to the ship, and laid out the production. We had some ideas. (Carnival Cruise) had a sister ship in Long Beach (California), and we went there and took a walk through. We are going to give fans a special experience.
Originally Warped was called The Bomb?
Yeah, The Bomb.
April 19, 1995, a bad day to announce the festival name. The same day as the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
A bad day. The day of the Oklahoma City bombing, yep. There were a few things that could have completely ended the tours very early on. Maybe, with this time and the shape of the economy, it wouldn’t have got a start in the first place. But back then it was The Bomb, and the Oklahoma City bombing. I couldn’t afford name searches. You couldn’t Google something like you can now. I had to pay a lawyer $300 or $400 every time that I wanted to search a name, and I was out of money. We were going to go with The Bomb. Then it became Warped because of a relationship that I had with Trans World (Media). I just called and said, “Can I borrow the name of your (WARP) magazine?” That’s how it became Warped.
How did you come up with the multi-band, day-long concept? Were you primarily taking advantage that there were young bands being ignored by the mainstream music industry?
I was then still working five nights in the clubs. We didn’t have that club culture that we had early in my career--back in the ‘80s--where bands slept on each other’s floor and where artists had to support each other. In ’95, bands were getting signed but there was no club culture. Kids would come into the clubs, and say, “You would have done better if Sublime was playing here.” Or No Doubt. But these bands didn’t know each other. There was this whole other culture (in the clubs). Door deals had gone away. Bands were getting guarantees for not selling tickets. So there was no community. I thought that, maybe, pulling this community together was something that I could do. Get them to meet each other and work together. That was really one of the reasons to want to do it.
There was still a band community in L.A.
Yeah within L.A. but there were all of these bands from all over the country. I thought that if, maybe, they pulled together that they could break out. I couldn’t understand why KROQ wasn’t playing those bands at that point. Maybe if they showed what they could do together.
The first few years of Warped, you weren’t making much money. You produced things like the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Tour.
For the first three years, I was still working 150 dates in clubs, and venues around town. It was crazy the first few years. It was the Wild West.
In year two of Warped, the Vans shoe company came onboard as a sponsor. But your wife had earlier hand-drawn a skate ramp that read, “Calvin Klein Warped Tour.” What happened?
I had gotten NOFX, and Pennywise to play on the tour that year; but we were broke. It was like, “How are we going to do this?” We were playing for nothing for the promoters. My partner Ray Woodbury and I then had the company called RK Diversified. He and a guy named Rob Tonkin, who does the Honda Civic Tour now, convinced me that they had this guy at Calvin Klein. So they flew across the country, and thank God they got stuck in the snow storm in New York. That blizzard of ’96 (that paralyzed the U.S. East Coast with up to 4 ft. of wind-driven snow from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8, 1996). We had no money. They were burning up the last of the company’s money at that point. Meanwhile, there was a tumultuous relationship with David Codikow (with Codikow, Carrol, Guido and Groffman) who was the lawyer of the tour at the beginning. But the one thing he did for me was that he helped ruin that meeting.
How did the affiliation with Vans, Inc. come about?
During that week I got a call to come down to Vans and meet with (Vans president) Walter Schoenfeld. He was trying to hire me for his national amateur skateboard program. This is where my confidence and cockiness sometimes comes through. I said, “You are never going to have a great skate program unless you attach it to my amazing music festival.” He didn’t know we were just holding onto the Warped tour on a shoe string. Within 15 minutes, he agreed to sponsor the Warped tour for $300,000. Then it became the Vans Warped tour. Right after that, he realized that I had sold the merch rights to Sony Signature for $100,000, and he gave me the money to buy the merch rights back. He told me, “Never sell your merch rights.” Good advice. We have never done that on any of our tours.
How did you get from college to being in Hawaii running a weight loss camp for girls?
Well, I had a recreational degree from Cal Poly Pomona (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona). I ran summer camps and youth programs all over Southern California.
What part of California are you from?
I grew up in Claremont. The hippie background in me allowed me to move into the punk world; allowed me infiltrate it with all my programs, and all of the non-profits that we are involved in.
While in high school, were you hanging around the clubs in Los Angeles?
There was a scene there. David Lindley (notable for his work with Jackson Browne, and Warren Zevon) lived out in Claremont. So we kind of had that exposure to David Lindley. There were a lot of guys who lived out there who made music. Ian McLagan (best known as a member of the Small Faces, and Faces), I made friends with out there. People like that. We were an hour from L.A. and the L.A. (club scene) was starting with the Go Gos, the Plimsouls and acts like that. We would go into town and see them. At Cal Poly, Ron Coleman ended up going to SST Records and then Epitaph. He was running the events program there; and we started bringing bands out like the Violent Femmes if they were playing L.A. He would pay them $100 to play a noon time concert. Back in the early ‘80s, $100 was your gas for a week out here.
But yes, I was into the (L.A.) club scene. I met Fishbone, and I put on shows with them. I put on concerts out at my school. Then I started doing fundraisers. I would get Fishbone and the Unforgiven. I’d get Fishbone to play the Palm Springs High School Prom.
You began working for bands as well.
The Untouchables were my favorite band. They were a big band in L.A. back then. One day Glenn (Symmonds) their drummer said that they needed a drum tech. I said that I could do it. I had never touched a drum kit in my life. I actually walked into the Guitar Centre (in Hollywood) and I asked the guy if he had a book on how to set up drum kits. He looked at me like I was crazy. I said that I was starting with the Untouchables the next day.
For the rehearsal, I came in carrying each single cymbal. I was so nervous. Glenn looked and me, and said, “Dude you aren’t a drum tech.” He also said, “But you’re really cool. So why don’t you come with us? We will figure this out.” I went up to northern California with them. I’m a horrible night driver. I can’t drive at night. So I couldn’t drive the truck. They said, “Okay Kevin, you can do the merchandise.” Then they made me their road manager and they said, “You’re the road manager.” This all happened in one weekend. I finished this one little run and I became the road manager. I didn’t know what I was doing but I figured it out. I booked them a lot of shows. I used to book a lot of high schools.
You began working with independent promoter Goldenvoice handling acts like the Germs, the Ramones, Circle Jerks, Anthrax, Jane's Addiction, and the Go Gos.
We did west coast runs with them. I grew into those great relationships like I had with the Ramones. They liked me because I got chocolate Yoo-Hoos (drinks) for their dressing rooms. I was the only guy that got it for them on the west coast.
What have you learned from running a management company and being affiliated a label?
I’m not a good manager. My daughter grew out of diapers; my artists became more dependent on them. But I’m a good advisor. I give advice to a lot of bands. I don’t mind mentoring. I think I’m a good mentor in this business. I spend a lot of time talking to kids. I will sit down at conferences and talk with anyone. You support those young people when they are younger, and then when you get to be an older dude like myself, they are going to support me.
You have managed Less Than Jake, H2O, and Sloth. Are you doing any management now?
No. I’ve thought about it. Then I slap myself and I say “no.” With management, you can’t turn it on and off. While the summer gets crazy (with tours), for six months of the year I can have semblance of a regular life.
Of course, SideOneDummy Records continues to flourish.
SideOneDummy is doing great. It’s been awhile since I signed a band. I brought Gogol Bordello, and Bedouin Soundclash over there. The Gaslight Anthem has been on the label. We tend to get pretty good bands.
Any recent signings for the label?
Around Easter, this band was trying to get me to see them. I couldn’t get to see them. It was Easter, and there were my kids and family. Finally, I just said, “Can you show up in the parking lot of at SideOneDummy and we will figure this out. They said fine. So we bought a 12-pak and some chips and guacamole. The band set up in the parking lot and blew us all away. Within a week, we made a deal. The band is called Skinny Lister out of the UK. They absolutely blew my mind.
You are 51 and booking bands for fans in their teens and early 20s.
Some people don’t want to say they are 51, but I do, and the kids will tell me when it’s time for me to go. They tell every day that I haven’t booked a good band since ’96.
Invited to see band a local club that goes on stage at 11 PM, will you be there?
While in Canada for Canadian Music Week, a kid stood up at the festival panel and said, “Aren’t you all getting too old for festivals?” All I could say is that “Within a certain group, we are demographically desirable. You put me in a room with 50-year-olds; I can run it. With 20 year olds; not so good anymore.” Afterwards everyone ran up, and said, “My showcase is at 3 am.” I was like, “Not demographically desirable for me to be there.” In L.A. I have a family. I am very focused on them. I want to be home with them.
As you get older in this business, you have to keep a youthful mind set.
And you can only judge now. A band was here (at the office) recently, and everybody was telling them about the good old days of the Sunset Strip. I said, “Forget about all of that. This is your day.” Sure, I remember when I worked in the clubs, and we did the Ramones, and there’d be a thousand people in The Roxy and a billion people out in the street. People get struck in that frame of time. That it was a great time. And it was. But I told these kids, “This is your time, and your place.”
I understand that this isn’t my time or my place. This is my job too. I am lucky to be doing something that I love for so long. And, of course, I love music.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
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