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Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, and the Fall of the American Touring Festival

on July 31, 2018, 1:45pm
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Lollapalooza wasn’t alone. By the summer of 1997, festival fatigue was in full swing. Strauss noted 11 festivals in the New York area alone that year and spent much of a later column, like other critics of the time, tracing the problems befalling festivals around the country; the most serious included financial mismanagement (“This summer, saying you run a touring rock festival has become like saying you enjoy burning money“), the proliferation of local radio station fests that came with the (alleged) willingness to offer increased airplay to bands who played at a discount, a lack of audience enthusiasm in the face of an oversaturated schedule, and a finite number of big-name bands that resulted in fests with too-narrow niches and not enough headliners to go around.

Faced with these headwinds, nearly all of the major touring festivals of the ’90s folded before the decade’s end, including H.O.R.D.E., Further, and Smokin’ Grooves in 1998 and Lilith Fair and the Guinness Fleadh in 1999. Only Ozzfest and Warped Tour thrived into the 21st century. Only one of those is still with us today … for a few more days at least.

Lilith Fair 1999

In one of his final 1997 summer festival pieces, Neil Strauss predicted that “if the festival circuit is truly in its death throes, a few tours will no doubt survive (because, like energy, pop culture never dies, it only converts into nostalgia).” He cited Lollapalooza (right, eventually, and in a different form) and H.O.R.D.E. (wrong, save for a one-night-only revival in 2015) as the two most likely candidates, but neither one can claim the same kind of longevity as Warped Tour.

After spilling some serious e-ink recounting all the reasons why most touring festivals failed, it’s equally important to consider how Warped Tour succeeded. That success shouldn’t be understated. When it stages its final touring appearance this Sunday in West Palm Beach, the Warped Tour will have spent 24 summers on the road. The final metrics contained within those years are impressive: 988 festival dates performed across 167 cities in 35 states and 10 countries, in world cities (London, New York City, Sydney, Berlin) and places where fests don’t usually go (Fargo, ND; Nampa, ID). No other festival can claim those numbers, either.

Since announcing the festival’s impending exit in November of last year, Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman has made the media rounds, shoring up his festival’s legacy and reminding everyone of the reasons why they liked it in the first place. Lyman’s as close as one can come to a festival lifer; before spending the last quarter-century as the head of Warped Tour, he worked on the first four editions of Lollapalooza.

During interviews, it becomes clear that, whether he intended to or not, Lyman modeled his own festival after both the best parts of those Lollapaloozas and the cautionary tales of the rest of the decade’s failed festivals. The festival never chased money; tickets were kept deliberately cheap, and, according to Lyman’s interview with Billboard’s Chris Payne, the festival only made money on tickets once, in 2005. “If we turn a profit, it’s going to be from sponsorships and merchandise,” Lyman said, before revealing that he’d also turned down offers to buy the fest from outside parties interested in keeping it afloat.

Warped Tour 1995 Poster

Neither did Warped Tour chase critical approval. Though the tour’s preferred subgenres experienced periods of widespread popularity throughout the festival’s run (especially the aforementioned 2005 edition, which, as Payne pointed out, featured “Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance […] on the main stage all summer, while simultaneously they were breaking on MTV and Top 40”), it never sought the kind of approval from musical gatekeepers that might inspire a hasty, ’96 Metallica-level booking error.

Most of all, though, for good and bad, Warped Tour may be remembered for its success in building, and often failing, its own community. One of the reasons Warped Tour retained its commitment to bring the festival to both full and sparse areas of America’s musical map was simply that Lyman’s audience was too young to travel very far anyway; Warped crowds routinely aged in their teens rather than twenties, and the festival’s willingness to keep itself available and on the road is a big part of what made it so durable and beloved. Many attendees of earlier festivals built the kind of indelible memories that happen so naturally in your youth at one of the festival’s stops, and many, such as NPR’s Ann Powers, have returned as chaperones for their own children in recent years. This kind of intergenerational baton-passing comes with both joy and, increasingly, anxiety.

“My mom nerves were based on personal experience,” said Powers, who covered Warped Tour for The New York Times in the late ’90s and ” watched a malignancy” of misogynistic and sexually exploitive behavior “sprout inside its rock and roll shenanigans.” What was “supposed to be an antidote to gnarlier festivals, creating a safe space where kids could grow up into healthy headbangers” often turned into a scene filled with toxic sexual aggression, from Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus “[suggesting] that female fans come up to the stage and sexually service his band mates” at a 1999 stop that Powers covered to the sexual assault of Candy Hearts’ Mariel Loveland revealed in a New York Times round table discussing the struggles faced by female performers on the tour to the “second chance” given to Front Porch Step’s Jake McElfresh in 2015 when the musician was allowed to play the tour’s Nashville stop despite facing charges of soliciting nude photos from a teenage fan.

Warped Tour is far from the only music festival to deal with toxic masculinity and acts of sexual violence, but it is one that’s been confronted with these issues most publicly. “I learned a lot [in 2015],” Lyman told the Los Angeles Times this June. “I wasn’t an expert on all this. But I took expert advice, and now I’m more educated. Even before #MeToo, Warped was run by women. But I realized it’s an issue that we can’t handle the way we used to.”

While both Powers and Loveland praised Lyman for his response (“We’ll do what we can to make you feel safe”), the issues that created the need for it remains; even last year, when Warped Tour booked War on Women and brought in singer Shawna Potter’s group Safer Scene to advocate for a more inclusive feminist counterbalance, the biggest headlines of the year revolved around Dickies’ frontman Leonard Graves Philips and the hate-filled onstage rant he loosed after being called out for “[making] jokes about things like how much he loves teen girls and how he would love to snort Viagra off your asses and fuck your daughters.”

There’s still time to nail it, though. Although Warped Tour will cease touring this year, and although this year’s festival lineup still lags behind those of Pitchfork, Iceland Airwaves, and the festivals that signed the Keychange pledge in support of gender-equal booking, Lyman has promised that he’ll mark the festival’s 25th anniversary next year with some kind of live celebration. Ann Powers has an idea for how that party could define not only Warped Tour’s past, but also the music world’s present: “[Lyman] could give it one more run, with women, LGBTQ, and gender non-binary folk in the headlining spots and behind the soundboards, managing the artists on any available seat on the bus. Let’s dream of a new lineup, a new paradigm, the true end of the boys’ club.”

If Lyman still has a sense of adventure, he’d do well to accept the challenge.

Warped Tour 2018 Lineup

Change comes to everything. Even music festivals. In the cases of two of America’s most enduring fests, that change has taken two forms, both of which create different, but no less distressing, feelings of uneasiness.

For Lollapalooza, change meant adapting to the times and seeing yourself morph from a ramshackle carnival with an edge of actual danger into a boutique destination festival that’s more about #brands and $4,200 platinum tickets than it is the actual music or protests or even friendships. For Warped Tour, it meant creating a singular scene by sticking to your principles and roots, only to have the world change around you into something you weren’t equipped to wrestle with.

Maybe we don’t need touring music festivals anymore. Maybe the Coachellas and Bonnaroos and Lollapalooza 2.0s of the world are enough. It’s possible, or even likely, that the internet rendered all of this “going outside” and “making friends in meatspace” obsolete 20 years ago, and we’re all just slow to realize.

For music fans who grew up wondering when these, and all those other, festivals might show up at some dot on a map just an easy drive away from their town, change means accepting that eras have to end and that something (maybe better but, in our nostalgia-addled brains, almost certainly worse) is always just about to step in and become the new, and temporary, inevitable.

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