Warped Tour: The Festival for First-Timers

For kids in the boonies, the traveling fest can be Indie 101.

Warped Tour is the gateway drug of music festivals. For 16 years, teenagers have been popping their music-festival cherries at Warped, the vast majority of the 15-to-19-year-old attendees lured by top-40 radio stars like Katy Perry (2008), Kid Rock (1998), and Sum 41 (2001, '03, '08, '10).

While there's no denying that Warped Tour has hosted some of the shittiest bands to pollute the airwaves in the past two decades, it provides an introduction to independent music for teenagers in parts of the country who might not otherwise have access to it. In Seattle, kids attend Bumbershoot in diapers. But for kids in the sticks, Warped—a notoriously long tour that stops everywhere from Carson City, Calif., to Scranton, Pa.—often provides their first, if not only, opportunity to check out independent music.

Pat Thetic, one of the founding members of veteran Warped Tour band Anti-Flag (on this year's lineup), agrees that the Tour is to music what Mike's Hard Lemonade is to booze. "We make that joke that Warped Tour is the training wheels of punk rock, but let's look at what comes with the Warped Tour," he says. "Sure, you get a band like Good Charlotte...but you also get a band like the Casualties, or you get a band like NOFX, and you get bands that are coming with a different perspective on the world than you're going to get at your local high school or junior high."

Yes, insipid pop stars like Perry and Simple Plan have played Warped Tour, but so have Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Suicidal Tendencies, and L7. Maybe a lot of these kids come for the drivel, but there's also ample opportunity to check out first- and second-wave bands who (for better or worse) pioneered bona fide punk rock.

Warped Tour producer Kevin Lyman has a special place for these seminal artists: the "Legends" stage. Though some of those aging punks weren't keen on the Tour originally, Lyman, who worked with these bands in the pre-Warped years he spent booking clubs, says they've warmed to the idea of playing the festival. "Now I can reach the hand back and say, 'Come along and show these kids how awesome you were!' Some of them [, no longer active,] just come along for a long weekend with me, but others are still pumping out relevant music."

Warped Tour's continued survival is probably due less to its balancing act between big-money headliners and genuinely talented bands, and more to its role as a traveling independent-music primer for teenagers in remote parts of America. That's not to say that Warped is completely immune to America's economic woes. "Our attendance is down a bit," Lyman says, but adds that "it's not drastic, [and] it's not in danger of putting the tour out of business." It's a pretty good place to be at a time when festivals like Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza have scaled way back, shoring up to a single city (Lollapalooza) or canceling dates (as Lilith Fair did this year).

Still, that hasn't stopped detractors from ragging on the Tour. In the song "Rock for Sustainable Capitalism," Propagandhi, a leftist punk-rock band which has never played the Tour, calls Warped out by name for booking "shitty" bands. But Anti-Flag's Thetic also has an interesting take on Warped Tour's punk-rock credibility—or lack thereof. Anti-Flag got its first big break at Warped Tour, where the band met Fat Mike of Fat Wreck Chords; years later, the band signed with a major label, RCA. For a band with an unabashedly leftist, anti-corporate message, signing with a major might seem the ultimate act of hypocrisy—let alone playing a giant, corporate-sponsored tour with top-40 headliners.

Of course, things are rarely that simple. "The major-label experience for me, personally, was a disaster," Thetic says. "But for my professional life and my activist life, it was fucking amazing because...we went to the dragon's lair, stole his pot of gold, and handed it out to our friends. They gave us so much money to put into our activism and our expression of our ideas, it was ridiculous. It was incredible."

Now the band is on SideOneDummy along with Gogol Bordello, a respected gypsy-punk band that's also played a couple of Warped Tours. With wider exposure comes compromise, Thetic says, but "if the message is so tainted by the environment that it's in, then the message is diluted to nonexistence," he says. "But at the same time, a message shouted in the forest when nobody's around doesn't achieve anything, either."

In addition to being a traveling introduction to punk music and politics, Warped hosts extreme-sports expos and booths for organizations like Amnesty International and PETA. "Sure, I would want it to be Revolution Camp 101, but that's not going to happen," Thetic says. "But it does have some of the ideas of leftist activism, and it's taking that to middle America."

Furthermore, those who feel that Warped sold out punk would do well to remember that Warped was never strictly a punk tour in the first place—rappers Eminem, DMX, and Ice-T are all Warped vets. It's just that punk (OK, pop-punk) was popular when the tour began.

"When it started in the mid-'90s, it was very punk rock because that stuff was kind of, you know, what was big at the time," says Dan Andriano, bassist for Alkaline Trio, a band that's played Warped several times (including this year) and which benefited from that late-'90s pop-punk explosion. "Blink 182 was about to explode, and bands like NOFX and Pennywise and Rancid were doing really well. And so this tour...built up to something really special really quick because of those bands.

"But I think the tour is also willing and capable of changing with the times. Not to say that they're pandering to whatever's popular at the time, but it's inevitable that whatever people like is always going to be changing. The fact that the tour is not just stuck on trying to keep it punk rock is helping it."


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