The Warped Tour began in 1994 as antiestablishment-oriented punk rock's answer to the packaged tours of the Nineties, such as Lollapalooza, the Lilith Fair, and H.O.R.D.E. The first tour mixed miniscule successes and many disasters. Audience turnout was low, leaving little profit to sustain the musicians.
Picking up corporate support, well-known bands, and a brand-new name (courtesy of its title sponsor, a Southern California-based sneaker company), the Vans Warped Tour attracted huge crowds and MTV attention the following year. Thanks in part to lineups featuring mainstream acts including Blink 182, Eminem, and Limp Bizkit, it has since gained momentum while the other tours have virtually disappeared.
With success also came diminishing punk credibility. Ticket prices soared, more corporate sponsors came aboard, and fewer independent bands signed on, creating an overall shift in the tour's atmosphere from punk-rock fun to stadium-rock mayhem. If the current schedule of DIY (do-it-yourself) bands is any indication, the mood might change this summer. The independent bands seem somewhat displaced, but they appreciate the chance to adapt to arena settings and to be exposed to audiences that probably wouldn't attend a small hardcore show.
“I know how some really elite punks hate it when a band tries to broaden its audience. But our goal is to get people to listen,” says Tim Barry, singer for Avail. “[The Warped Tour] definitely reaches new people and exposes them to genres that they would have never heard.” Chuck Regan, singer and guitarist for Hot Water Music, agrees that Warped is not a compromise but an opportunity: “That's a massive amount of people who have never heard us. It's like starting all over again.”
Hot Water Music was invited to join this summer after meeting Warped founder Kevin Lyman. They say the experience has been great thus far but concede that it is difficult to adjust to a tour of this size. Accustomed to arriving at a venue just prior to playing, Hot Water Music must now adhere to strict schedules that insist that they arrive at the stadium the morning of the show. “It was pretty overwhelming 'cause we had never done anything like that,” Regan notes. “It was scary getting into it at first, but it was more exciting.”
Warped Tour's massive stage setup also has posed a problem for bands such as Avail that are used to playing intimate shows in the middle of the audience, encouraging the crowd to sing along. “It's completely different from the small club tours we do,” observes Barry. “It makes it more challenging to make it the same environment that we play in the clubs. We just jump right over that barricade and get in the audience's face.”
As punks, the bands lament the corporate aspect of the tour. Still they acknowledge such sponsorship is necessary to finance a huge venture. “We're not supporting those sponsors, they're supporting us,” Regan offers defiantly. “We'll play the Warped Tour or your living room, wherever you ask us. We just do it for the music.”