Most of what I remember about being 14 involves wanting stuff: I wanted straighter hair. I wanted to seem like a grown-up (or at least like a 16-year-old). And I really, really wanted to go to Warped Tour.
It was the summer of 2004, and pop-punk was ascendant. In Canada, where I grew up, this meant listening to a steady stream of Sum 41, Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, and Billy Talent — all homegrown acts that got regular radio play thanks in part to Canadian content laws. With that as our gateway, my friends and I began our foray into skate-punk lite, memorizing Taking Back Sunday lyrics, trying (poorly) to land an ollie, and developing extremely unrequited crushes on any boy who bore a passing resemblance to Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge.
To us, Warped Tour — the traveling “misfit summer camp” that merged punk, ska, rock, and emo with extreme sports and a healthy array of corporate sponsors — was the pinnacle of cool. Unfortunately, I never got to attend, on account of being at actual summer camp.
This summer, Warped Tour celebrates its 25th birthday, making it far older than the teenagers it has courted for two and a half decades. Last year was the tour’s final cross-country run — it featured hundreds of bands over the course of 38 stops for which nearly 550,000 tickets were sold, but this impressive turnout was buoyed by the announcement that it was the event’s last hurrah. Attendance the prior year, in 2017, had been down significantly, particularly among the 14- to 17-year-old demographic that had historically been Warped’s lifeblood. The audience was getting older, production costs were rising, and bands weren’t sticking around year after year like they used to. Plus, according to founder and producer Kevin Lyman, he was just getting tired.
But in the era of reboots and remakes, it’s not surprising that organizers would want to honor the tour’s silver anniversary just one year after it shut down. The result is a three-city affair: a single-day event in Cleveland celebrating the opening of a retrospective exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and weekend shows in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Mountain View, California. While not strictly a nostalgia play — there are up-and-coming bands booked alongside veterans, and plenty of fans are first-time Warped attendees — this year, the average age of concertgoers appears to be more than a decade older than it was at the tour’s height (15 or 16, as of 2006), and plenty of the once-wayward youth now have kids of their own in tow, keeping them a safe distance from the mosh pit.
This is how, on a Saturday in late June, I find myself on a crowded Jersey beach sandwiched between Caesars Casino and the Atlantic Ocean, belting out Simple Plan’s “I’m Just a Kid” with nearly 30,000 other people — many of whom, like me, were in fact kids when the song came out in 2002. High school may be a distant memory, but at least now I’ve finally made it to Warped Tour.
”Oh, my god, I am 12 years old again,” says the sunburnt guy in checkerboard Vans beside me as the crowd whines along with singer Pierre Bouvier: “Nobody cares, ’cause I’m alone and the world is having more fun than me tonight.”
The lyrics don’t exactly fit the setting — no one here is alone and everyone seems to be having fun — but the feeling’s still there. For a little while, we’re all our angsty teen selves again. Likewise, there’s a twinge of irony when Good Charlotte tear into their breakout single “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” a middle finger to celebrity culture written long before Joel and Benji Madden (the band’s lead singer and guitarist) married Hollywood it-girls (Nicole Richie and Cameron Diaz, respectively).
Warped Tour itself is a contradiction — it’s a punk rock festival that’s also a prodigious marketing machine, sponsored from top to bottom by brands hoping to win over fans in between shows. This isn’t a knock on the tour, really: if it weren’t able to bridge that gap, it probably wouldn’t exist.
The idea for Warped began germinating while Kevin Lyman was working as a stage manager for the alt-rock-focused Lollapalooza in the early ’90s — back when that, too, was a touring festival. He had been immersed in SoCal’s hardcore and ska scenes growing up and wanted to bring some of his favorite bands to audiences around the country with a back-to-basics tour that did away with the music industry’s hierarchies and out-of-control egos: no headliners, no arenas — just a few thousand fans in a parking lot and an average ticket price of less than $30.
Even for the biggest acts, that DIY spirit shone through. “You feel more like a carnie on Warped Tour than you do on any other tour or at any other festival,” says Adam Lazzara, the lead singer of Taking Back Sunday, who are currently in the midst of a 20th-anniversary tour, “just because you’re literally there setting up and breaking down into the next town.” Lyman also tapped a handful of pro skateboarders and BMX bikers to come along, recognizing the crossover between extreme sports fans and punk rock’s moshing masses, as well as the fact that both subcultures were becoming increasingly mainstream.
In 1995, the same year Warped made its debut run in the summer, ESPN aired the inaugural X Games (then called “Extreme Games”), with athletes competing in action sports such as barefoot water skiing, street luge, and skateboarding. The year prior, the Offspring and Green Day — both bands with roots in California’s underground punk scene — released best-selling albums that catapulted them into popular culture.
The time was ripe for something like Warped to exist, though in order to get it off the ground, Lyman needed to buck one of the central tenets of punk and get a few executives to break out their checkbooks. “I grew up with that whole ‘eff corporate America’ mentality,” he says. “And then, for me, I just started looking at corporate America, and no matter how punk rock we were or whatever, we were still supporting it in some way. We were buying their brands; we were using their products.” He looked at the Rolling Stones pulling in millions through sponsorships with Jovan fragrance and Budweiser, and thought: Maybe we can get some money too.
It didn’t go seamlessly at first. After the 1995 run — which featured an eclectic lineup that included the ska-reggae band Sublime, a Tragic Kingdom-era No Doubt, and the grunge pioneers L7 — the tour was in dire straits financially, as the small sponsorships Lyman had landed from brands like Converse and Spin weren’t enough to cover the significant production costs. To keep it going, he was desperate enough to consider brokering a deal with the decidedly not-punk Calvin Klein to become the title sponsor. “I don’t really think that would have worked,” he now says, matter-of-factly.
Fortuitously, the meeting with the fashion brand was delayed by the devastating East Coast blizzard of 1996, and before they could go any further with the arrangements, Lyman got a call from Vans CEO Walter Schoenfeld.
Founded in 1966 as the Van Doren Rubber Company, Vans had engendered strong ties to the skateboarding community, which was loyal to the brand’s sneakers thanks to their grippy soles. The $300,000 check the company wrote turned the Warped Tour into the Vans Warped Tour, giving Lyman some financial runway while securing the festival’s ties to corporate America. (At the time, Vans was owned by the venture banking firm McCown De Leeuw & Co., thanks to a $71 million 1988 leveraged buyout.)
The Warped partnership was led by Steven Van Doren, the company’s vice president of events and promotions and the son of Vans founder Paul Van Doren, who saw an opportunity to give the brand national exposure beyond the Sun Belt states that at the time accounted for most of its sales. He also introduced amateur skateboarding competitions to the tour, giving contestants the chance to win pro contracts with Vans. “Having Steve involved really solidified our partnership,” says Lyman, noting that he turned down bigger subsequent sponsorship offers from the shoe brand Airwalk because he felt Vans was in it for the long haul.
He was right: By 1999, Spin reported at the time, Vans owned a 15 percent stake in Warped and was paying $1 million per year “to strengthen [its] presence with ‘Generation Y’” (or, as we’d call them today, “millennials”). Two years later, it stepped up its investment, paying $5.2 million for a 70 percent controlling stake, according to Forbes.
Today, Vans is a $3 billion brand — current parent company VF Corp bought it for $396 million in 2004 — and a household name for most Americans, including those who have never set foot on a skateboard. Even as it has grown well beyond its fringier roots, though, the brand’s relationship with Warped has endured, and at the 25th-anniversary show, seemingly every other fan is wearing Vans sneakers: Sk8-Hi’s, Old Skools, the ubiquitous checkerboard slip-ons.
(Airwalk fizzled by the early 2000s and was reborn as a Payless brand; its current owners — the same company that recently acquired Sports Illustrated — are trying to stage a ’90s-nostalgia-fueled comeback.)
Even with the Vans investment, Lyman had to hustle to keep the tour afloat in the early years. “We had to raise nearly $4 million in sponsorships to make the ticket price what it was, to give you the show you wanted, to bring all those side stages that developed young artists,” he says.
In 1999, he signed a partnership with the brand new surf label Hurley and got up-and-comers Blink-182 — then still a year out from the explosively popular Enema of the State — to wear the brand’s clothes onstage in exchange for free seats on one of the Warped Tour’s buses, since the band couldn’t yet afford their own transportation. It was a turning point for both band and brand: Blink had just replaced its former drummer with Travis Barker, who’s still with the group today, and Hurley’s founder Bob Hurley had left a successful career with Billabong to start his namesake clothing line earlier that year. Four years later, Blink was selling out arenas and topping Billboard charts, and Hurley had grown into a $70 million business, which Nike acquired in 2002.
It wasn’t just hormone-addled fans going through an adolescence of sorts at Warped. “I always said Warped was a developmental spot, not only for bands but for crew people to learn how to tour and learn how to be good citizens in the music community, as well as brands,” says Lyman. “A lot of brands got their starts in those parking lots.”
One of those was Monster Energy, which has been a tour sponsor since it launched in 2003, back when it was made by a California soda company called Hansen’s Natural Co. The company set up a portable rock wall, became “the official energy drink of the Vans Warped Tour,” and embarked on a wildly successful rebrand that has seen its stock soar more than 72,000 percent since its public debut that same year. According to Lyman, Monster also came up with the idea of “Tour Water” — specially designed cans of water that make it look like bands and crew members are chugging energy drinks all day onstage without the risk of cardiac arrest; the concept is now an industry standard, and cans from early tours go for more than $75 on eBay.
Another was Jeffree Star Cosmetics. Before Star was a beauty mogul, he was a MySpace-famous scene kid who performed on the tour as a solo artist in 2008 and 2009. In the following years, he came back to host meet-and-greets with his YouTube fans and, when he launched his makeup empire in 2014, set up shop among the merch tents.
The Warped Tour also forced more corporate brands to loosen up a little: After the PlayStation team showed up in uniform polo shirts their first year on the tour, Lyman told them they’d have to change, citing a life motto of his: “Never trust a person in a golf shirt unless you’re at a golf course.” (They’re either a douchebag or they don’t know what they’re talking about, he says.)
When the tour created a “reverse day care” for parents on-site in 2001 — complete with air conditioning and noise-canceling headphones — Lyman convinced Target to put its bull’s-eye logo on top, sans brand name, citing the symbol’s history with ’70s mod bands like the Who and the Jam. He even dug out the Ramones’ tour rider to persuade the makers of Yoo-hoo that the chocolate drink was, in fact, kinda punk rock, and by the 1998 tour, fans were climbing a rock wall shaped like a giant Yoo-hoo bottle and competing for branded skateboard decks.
Walking around the grounds in Atlantic City, there’s a near-endless array of stuff to buy at Warped this year: limited-edition Vans, commemorative 25th anniversary bracelets, T-shirts reading “Mall Goth Trash” and “SadBoy Crew,” henna tattoos, water bottles, skate decks, and beer koozies (plus $14 Pacifico). There are also plenty of freebies: branded coupon wristbands from the teen retailer Journeys, which has been the tour’s presenting sponsor since 2014; T-shirts from Truth, the anti-smoking organization; stickers from PETA.
Among the panoply of shoppable teenage rebellion are booths with a cause, like Hope for the Day, a suicide prevention organization, and A Voice for the Innocent, a nonprofit that offers resources to survivors of rape and sexual abuse, which was brought on board in the wake of a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations involving artists who had performed on the tour.
”The Warped Tour is really interesting because it jumped early on the idea that crowds could be commodified,” says Gina Arnold, a former rock journalist and the author of Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella. “They were able to widen out the notion of the festival as a marketplace — not so much of ideas, but a marketplace of actual things.”
Today, the concept of festival-as-shopping-mall is well established — so much so that this year’s Coachella attendees could have Amazon orders delivered same-day to lockers on site — but in the ’90s, it was still a novel idea. Before then, it was all “bad food and band T-shirts,” as Arnold put it. (The exception: the parking lot of any Grateful Dead concert, long a thriving marketplace of tie-dye tees, beaded jewelry, DIY taco stands, and any drug you might fancy, collectively known as Shakedown Street.)
Band T-shirts still make up the bulk of the merch at Warped, just as they do at most concerts these days. As album sales have dropped off a cliff and services like Spotify have taken their place, paying a fraction of a penny per stream, merchandise has become an increasingly essential part of artists’ income. A superstar like Taylor Swift or Kanye West can gross $300,000 to $400,000 in merch during a single show, according to a Billboard interview with licensing exec Dell Furano. Warped artists aren’t coming close to that, but especially at the tour’s peak, they were pulling in a good amount of cash.
Taking Back Sunday made a reported $20,000 to $30,000 per show on merch on the 2004 tour; My Chemical Romance set the record the next year, selling $60,000 worth of black T-shirts, sinister-looking posters, and fingerless gloves at a single stop. 2005 was also the only year Warped made money on ticket sales, according to Lyman. Headliners Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were regulars on MTV’s TRL thanks to crossover hits “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” and “Helena.” Teens who hadn’t heard of most of the “authentic” punk bands the tour had booked in prior years were turning out in droves. By the end of the 48 dates, 700,000 fans had bought tickets, and the tour grossed an all-time high of $25 million.
”That was a pretty wild year, with all the bands exploding,” says Lisa Johnson, who’s been photographing Warped Tour since its first run. “I’m not gonna lie, it was a little frustrating in the photo pit because it was so jam-packed. And a little dangerous, because there were so many kids coming over the barricade constantly. But at the same time, how fantastic is that?”
Of course, not everyone agreed. From its inception, Warped provoked criticism from punk purists who argued — not without reason — that the corporate-sponsored festival was antithetical to the values of the genre. It also ruffled feathers with the bands it booked, particularly as the rise of “mall punk” and emo put bands like Good Charlotte, Blink-182, and My Chemical Romance alongside punk mainstays like Rancid, Pennywise, and Bad Religion.
”You go to the Warped Tour and walk around and you’ll hear 100 bands that try to sound like Green Day or NOFX. It’s just disgusting,” said Mike Avilez, a vocalist for the California punk band Oppressed Logic, in the book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day. “They’re missing the angst. To me, punk rock is supposed to be angry and pissed off.”
The tour has also caught flak from within over the years. In a 2004 Chicago Reader piece, “Punk Is Dead! Long Live Punk!” the music critic Jessica Hopper chronicled a clash between Lyman and a band called the Mean Reds: “It was only the sixth day of the tour, and they were already on ‘probation’ for running their mouths onstage about what a sold-out capitalist-pig enterprise Warped is, how it isn’t really punk, et cetera.”
Even Adweek, hardly a voice of the counterculture, said in 2005 that the influx of corporate cash “does somewhat undermine the legitimacy of the event, even as it introduces groups of men in tight pants to new audiences.”
Among those who’ve been along for the ride since Warped’s early days, though, ambivalence about the scene’s brushes with the mainstream is tempered by ideas both idealistic — that the tour provided a platform to bands that otherwise might not have made it, and a community for kids who didn’t always fit in elsewhere — and practical.
”There’s always going to be critics,” says Shira Yevin, who’s performed at Warped as Shiragirl since 2004, and for a decade produced a stage at the tour dedicated to promoting women-fronted bands. “But they’re the same ones bitching because they only got paid $100 for the gig and they don’t have enough money to get to the next state, you know?”
In 2019, the idea of “selling out” seems like a product of an earlier generation — one without climate change or student loans or school gun violence to worry about. And anyway, the purists may be getting their way for now, since even pop punk isn’t popular these days. Instead, the top 40 charts are ruled by Lil Nas X’s boundary-pushing country trap, genre-fluid acts like Billie Eilish, and mumble rappers like Post Malone. The loud, fast, guitar-driven sound that Warped is known for? “In top 40, it’s very rare,” says Nate Sloan, a musicologist and the co-host of Vox’s Switched on Pop podcast. “Even the bands that sort of assert that look and that style and may throw a guitar around their shoulder, the actual sound doesn’t necessarily have that.”
On the second day of the Atlantic City shows, in one of the festival’s seemingly endless meet-and-greet lines, I meet 20-year-old Sam and 14-year-old Tori, friends from Philadelphia who made the trip down for their first Warped Tour. Sam has rainbow hair and rainbow gauges in her ears; Tori’s wearing a Set It Off band tee. They met at the Hot Topic where Sam works, a store that itself has transformed from mall-goth central into a haven for geek fashion.
”I basically live there,” says Tori.
”We vibed about the music we listen to,” says Sam.
”I don’t really have any other friends that listen to this kind of stuff,” explains Tori. “I almost kind of get made fun of, because it’s like, ‘Oh, emo music, what do you do, cry all day?’”
At Sam’s high school, most guys listened to trap or rap, while “angsty music” was mostly the domain of girls or “the guys who had a bad upbringing.”
”It was just divided,” she adds. “Like the way the country is right now.”
While genres may separate fans into factions in high school, Sloan says they’re not necessarily as diametrically opposed as they seem. “A lot of the sensibility of rock ’n’ roll has gone into the sound of SoundCloud rap and mumble rap,” he says. “This genre is sort of the spiritual heir to a lot of the acts that first kicked off the original Warped Tour. Sonically, it feels like a world apart in a lot of ways, but in terms of the intense emotional affect, it’s very clearly picking up the mantle.”
Part of the transformation may be technological. “Maybe 20, 30 years ago, if you were an angsty teenager, the easiest way to express yourself would have been by installing yourself and your friends in the garage with a couple of crappy guitars and a battered drum set,” says Sloan. “Today, the easiest way to express your angst would be through a pirated copy of [the music software] FruityLoops and a USB microphone.” This evolution may also help explain why punk’s communal, anti-commercial spirit seems to have fallen out of favor while themes like alienation and disaffection (which Gen Z artists like Eilish mine extensively) have endured.
Shifting musical tastes are just one factor contributing to Warped’s decline. Most people I talked to had similar theories about what’s behind the drop-off in teen attendance: It’s not just that today’s rock bands can’t compete with the colossal forces of hip-hop and pop; they’re also up against YouTube, Netflix, TikTok, esports, and social media, all of which are pouring billions into the race for young people’s attention. Plus, parents are warier about sending their kids to live shows because of tragedies like the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas and the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.
Lamenting the changing habits of teenagers has always been an adults’ game, though. For the current generation of fans and artists, the end of the tour is, inevitably, the beginning of whatever comes next. Not Ur Girlfrenz was the youngest touring act at Warped last year, and now at ages 13 (bassist Gigi Haynes) and 14 (lead singer and guitarist Liv Haynes and drummer Maren Alford), the trio is on the cusp of what was once the festival’s prime demographic. They also just released their first EP, the title track of which, “New Kids in America,” riffs off the Kim Wilde hit with bouncy pop-punk energy and lyrics like, “When did the trend of no one ever having fun / Spread throughout the land infecting everyone?”
Still, they’re more optimistic about the future of the kind of music they play. “Kids our age these days just aren’t really exposed to it anymore. It’s not exactly like they just don’t like it. They’re just not exposed to it,” says Maren. She’ll introduce her friends to a new band or tell them to stay and watch whoever Not Ur Girlfrenz has opened for, “And they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is my new favorite band!’”
Plus, with early-aughts nostalgia already trending heavily among Gen Z (so much so that this year’s VidCon — a conference for online video creators and their mostly teenage fans — featured a meeting room decked out in Lizzie McGuire posters and blow-up furniture), a musical comeback seems timely. “You hear the 1975 bringing back the ’80s sounds, so I think now’s the time to bring back the 2000s,” reasons Liv.
At their Sunday set, it’s easy to see why they’re hoping for another Warped Tour next year — even if Lyman insists that, for real this time, this is the last. Fans are yelling their names and singing their lyrics back at them from the crowd.
”I did the whole thing where, you know, someone points at you and you look behind you and then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, it’s me!’” Liv says with a laugh.
At a signing at their merch tent after the set, the screaming starts again. “We were like, ‘Is somebody famous here? Oh, my god, is it Blink-182?’” recalls Gigi.
”Yeah, we saw this huge group of people,” says Maren, “and we were like, ‘Ooh, someone important is giving a signing. I wonder who it is.’”
”Nah, it was just us. Psh,” Gigi sighs.