Be it through record sales, tour receipts, or merchandising, there’s always been an unavoidable commercial aspect to popular music. But the music industry’s profitization of popular music arguably reached its zenith in the ’90s, especially from a touring standpoint. Packaged touring existed long before the advent of Lollapalooza in 1991, but the alternative-rock monolith opened the floodgates for a host of similar but different summer festivals. There was Smokin’ Grooves, Lollapalooza’s hip-hop counterpart. The H.O.R.D.E. Festival zeroed in on fans of jam bands and roots rock. Elsewhere, the Lilith Fair put a feminist spin on the otherwise male-centric festival touring circuit. For the first half of the decade, that divide-and-conquer approach served the industry well. With everything in its right place, there was plenty of room for bands, promoters, and record labels to line their pockets with green.
But by the latter half of the ’90s, the well started to run dry. Lollapalooza’s first wave came to a close after a relatively lackluster bill in 1997, while the previously mentioned tours that sprung up behind it fell by the wayside by the decade’s end. But somewhere in the oversaturated sea of summer tours that cropped up in the ’90s, the Warped Tour survived the breaking of the bow, building itself over time into the most enduring enterprise of the summer tour boom. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why Warped kept a lower profile when positioned against other tours. Whereas Lolla, H.O.R.D.E., and others fought to scare up as much MTV and radio-ready talent as they could, Warped founder Kevin Lyman’s scope was much smaller. Lyman let Lolla take the Pearl Jams, Smashing Pumpkins, and Metallicas of the world, opting instead to cater to fans of punk rock, ska, and other music that correlated with skateboard culture, which, with his help, was on the verge of breaking through the mainstream. It was a risky move, for sure. The thought of going small while everyone around him successfully gathered the biggest names in music could have buried Lyman and the Warped Tour pretty fast. Instead, that reverse ideology has helped buoy the tour for 20 years running.
Warped Tour launched in 1995 as a curious anomaly to the super-successful summer tour template adhered to by its competitors. While Lollapalooza gathered the reputation as America’s alternative music festival, Warped was alternative in the truest sense of the world. Where others zigged, Lyman insisted upon zagging. Its competitors charged concertgoers the hefty ticket prices that the market demanded, but Warped Tour tickets barely broke the $25 barrier. Other festivals shorted the smaller bands on their bills in favor of giving headliners prime slots and more time to play. Warped Tour functioned more like an egalitarian punk-rock brotherhood, where bands played different set times every day and everyone was given 30 minutes on stage. Bands affectionately called the tour a punk-rock summer camp. During the day they’d hang out and play; at night they’d all come together and barbecue.
It was a tour devoid of status, probably because there were no real headliners to speak of, at least to start. Sublime and No Doubt were great scores in hindsight, but they had yet to make their indelible mark on pop music. The rest of the inaugural 1995 lineup was rounded out by The Deftones, Fluf, L7, CIV, Face To Face, Quicksand, and scores of other bands skirting the margins of the mainstream. But the festival’s outsider status was its biggest selling point. By digging just a layer or two beneath the surface, Lyman found a largely untapped audience that didn’t much care for the rock ’n’ roll A-list. Warped Tour audiences sought something different.
As alternative music became big business in the ’90s, so did alternative culture as a whole. Anything that gave off even the faintest hint of slacker indifference was looked at as an avenue for profit. That included skate and surf culture. Once the province of outsiders and misfits, ventures such as the X Games (which also launched in the summer of 1995) opened up skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding to a whole new audience. Warped Tour similarly brought skate culture into sharper focus, giving fans a forum to watch legends like Rick Thorne and Steve Caballero hit the ramps while The Descendents tore shit up 100 feet away. There was a physical energy to Warped Tour that other touring festivals lacked. It was the perfect marriage of music and sport, an old skateboarding VHS tape come to life.
Warped started to steadily grow its brand after Vans jumped on board as the festival’s sponsor in 1996. Year two featured underground heavyweights such as NOFX, Pennywise, Rocket From The Crypt, and Fishbone, building upon the earnest foundation that was laid the year before. By 1997, Social Distortion and a young Blink-182, fresh off the release of its major-label breakthrough Dude Ranch, brought Warped a bit closer into the mainstream. With its biggest commercial challenger in Lollapalooza lying dormant by 1998, Warped Tour continued to grow, bringing in the purebred mainstream acts that it used to work around into the fold. Hip-hop (Eminem, Cypress Hill, Ice-T) and even neo-swing (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) began to take their place alongside the festival’s cherished stable of Epitaph, Nitro, and Fat Wreck Chords-approved punk mainstays. But even as the festival broadened its scope, it didn’t feel as though Warped Tour was straying from its roots. Green Day might have held court in 2000, but it wasn’t uncommon for the pop-punk juggernauts to take an earlier slot than Millencolin or the Suicide Machines.
As the musical landscape fragmented and changed into the 2000s and beyond, so too did the tour’s musical identity. By 2005, the majority of the bands who made up the tour’s first 10 years phased out of the Warped framework. But what hasn’t changed is the festival’s innate feel for its audience. Twenty years later, Warped Tour fans are still those looking for something with one foot in the mainstream and one planted somewhere slightly left of center. The slots once filled by Rancid, Papa Roach, or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are now being taken by As I Lay Dying, From First To Last, and From Autumn To Ashes. The players have changed, but the spirit and attitude of the tour hasn’t shifted much since Lyman first started aligning stages with skate ramps. In today’s age of two- and three-day destination festivals, the Warped Tour is among the last-remaining relics of an otherwise non-existent touring archetype. Left to his own devices, Lyman continues to operate by his own code and set of rules. Some things have changed and others have stayed the same, but it doesn’t get more punk rock than that.