Lessons Learned from Vans Warped Tour Producer Kevin Lyman
A LENND interview by Chris Carver
What do you ask someone who has transformed an industry? In this case the Festival Industry. Think about that. If you were me, what would you want to know?
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
He started the Vans Warped Tour in 1995, which gets over 500,000 attendees a year. He’s produced multiple major festivals like Lolapallooza, worked with the Ramones, helped launch a number of brands, helped raise millions of dollars for different charities… You get the point… (here’s his Wikipedia Page if you need more).
What you’ll find, is that Kevin Lyman is a legend in the festival world. So what do you ask him?
Well… My goal for the interview was to find out what drives someone like Kevin Lyman to do what he did and to keep at it. To me that’s the interesting part.
SO HERE’S A FEW NUGGETS I PICKED UP:
FIRST: Like most entrepreneurs, he’s driven by fear. (Kevin you are not alone brother).
SECOND: He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty (from manning the grill to setting the lineup each day). He definitely sets the pace.
THIRD: He relies and trusts his team to get shit done (BTW… His staff: @StephMirsky and Julie Grant = #badass).
FOURTH: He has his finger on the pulse. There’s benefits to being in the trenches with the bus drivers, the artists, the interns and the fans.
Let’s just say there’s a whole world of CEO’s who can learn a ton from watching Kevin work.
Kevin and the crew: Photo Cred: @VansWarpedTour
LET’S SET THE SCENE
I met up with Kevin at the 4Fini offices in South Pasadena. The office is like stepping into the Music Festival Hall of Fame (Literally 30 years of music).
Buuut… One thing is for sure: Kevin and his crew spend very little time looking back.
The 4Fini crew. Photo Cred: Lisa Johnson
Kevin, thank you for doing this. You’re ready to jump in?
Of course. I love what you’re doing. I’m more than happy to help.
So, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Claremont, California. It was a nice little community. Mixture of hippies, musicians and artists… A lot of artists. Basically a bunch of defense contractors kids.
Big Family, Small Family
I was adopted, along with a brother & two sisters.
Growing up what was hanging on your wall?
Remember the old hippie black light posters? You remember those things?
Well, my whole room was black light posters.
So when did you start getting into music?
It’s weird, I didn’t really get turned on to music until my last year of high school, I met my first punk rock guy. He went by the name of Xerox Clone. Such a great Punk Rock Name. And it wasn’t until I went to college (Cal Poly Pamona) that I really fell in love with music. It was a unique time, LA’s music scene was blowing and all of our friends would pile into my van and go see shows together.
None of us really thought about getting into the music business, but we all went on to do some pretty cool stuff: Paul Tollett (Co-Founder Goldenvoice) & his brother Perry Tollett (The Glass Houses Brother) Ron Coleman and myself.
Paul and Perry Tollett: Kind of a big deal.
So how did you get your first job in music?
By the time we finished school, we had put on so many different shows that I got a job at Fenders Ballroom. I got the chance to do the production for Motorhead and ended up hitting it off with guys like Brian Mecklenburg and Gary Tolvar (Co-Founder Goldenvoice) and they started using me as their production guy.
And look at them now: Gary (Left) & Kevin (Right). Photo Cred: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
So, if your friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you?
Hah – it depends if we’re in Mexico or not 🙂
I think people would say “Hard worker”. I’ve been doing this a loooong time. I’m 54 years old now. So it’s great to look back and know that you had some positive influence on people. Although I also realize not everyone is going to like you in this business. I’m ok with that. This is a tricky business, so not everyone is going to like you, but you know when I leave, I will leave with the majority of my integrity intact. So I think a lot of people would say I did something cool for people.
Kevin on tour circa 2005.
If you’re a little tipsy, what are you drinking?
Usually the wine gets me little tipsy. I was a partner with St. Archer’s Brewery and was drinking more beer, but my belly was starting to show so I had to cut back on that a bit.
What’s your spirit animal?
Oh wow. That’s a tricky question. I guess it would have to be a raccoon. A raccoon kinda figures its way out of things. They can always figure stuff out. You also never see a raccoon just chillin’. They’re always into something. Yeah a raccoon. Hah!
Although… my wife would say a shark. She says if I ever stop… I am going to die.
Kevin “The Raccoon” Lyman manning the barbecue, but never just chillin.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give your 21 or 22 year old self?
Don’t be intimidated. I think some of these people in this business try to intimidate you. It took me a long time to feel like I was equal to people in the industry. But we’re just people. We’re not brain surgeons. We’re not curing AIDS. We’re just putting on shows for people. We’re not perfect.
Where do you think your entrepreneurial spirit comes from?
I don’t know, I just work out of fear and death. I just don’t think I could work for anyone, so that’s my motivation. To be honest, I could not go and just get a job.
When you look back on the history of Warped Tour, what do you think you’ll be most proud of?
I think the opportunities. The tour has given so many amazing opportunities to people and artists. For many artists we give them the ability to develop their chops on stage. And It is so cool to see artists on a bigger stage now and know they got their start at Warped Tour.
Katy Perry on stage at Warped Tour 2008. Photo Cred: Lisa Johnson
We also really pride ourselves in giving people a chance. Even non-profits.
Photo Cred: Invisible Children
What advice do you have for other events when working with brands?
With Brands. It’s very simple: DO…. WHAT… YOU… PROMISE.
So many people take people’s money and they don’t know how to fulfill. And then if you do make mistakes. Sometimes there are going to be problems. You also have to fess up to problems. Take the high road.
How has sponsor relations changed over the years?
Well… it used to be about just putting up your banner. I used to say, “If your banner wasn’t stolen in 5 minutes after being put up, your the wrong brand for our audience”. Ya know?
But now, it’s evolved so much more. So much more sophistication. The advertisers have to show results now. It’s all about ROI. The deals are much more complex and seem to get done a lot later. Everyone is looking for content and unique things that haven’t been done. It’s getting harder and harder to find things that haven’t been done.
Photo Cred: @VansWarpedTour
How many shows have you missed in 21 years?
I go on every date I can. But, I think I have missed two or three. Now it’s nice, because I have both my daughters spend the summer working with me. Both are really hard workers. I just really look forward to seeing them everyday. I mean, how many dads can say their daughters want to spend their summers with them.
Photo Cred: The Lyman Family Album
But… do I want to spend the rest of my life in parking lots every summer? Probably not… but I still really enjoy it.
There he is, just manning the barbecue again.
When you’re on the road, do you have any particular routines to start your day?
For me it’s all about being up first of the bus. I still get up first. I like to get off the bus and watch the sunrise. I love to hang out with all of the drivers. Look at the weather and start to get the tempo of the day.
I then get with my production manager Kerry Nicholson (we go way back). We talk about the heat, storms, weather, etc… and then I sit down and write the schedule for the day. I like to have all of that done by 9AM.
Wait! You choose the lineup every morning?
Yeah – no one knows what time they are playing. I get reports on who’s broken down, who’s coming in late and I write the schedule.
But the BIGGEST part of my day is getting the kids in the venue. If we can get the kids in as quickly as possible and they don’t miss the bands they want to see, then it’s a good day.
Just another day on tour. Photo Cred: @VansWarpedTour
So by 1 o’clock, I’ve already put in about 8 hours, so I am prettttty burnt. Then I try and chill, take a tiny nap, watch some bands from 4-7 and then it’s about closing out, settlements, wrap of the office and start winding down. I’m trying to be in bed no later than 10:30.
I am definitely not partying or up late anymore. I’m 54 years old! How many parties in the parking lot can you have in your life? It’s a brutal schedule, so it’s all about staying healthy on the road.
At what moment in the evolution of the Warped Tour did you just know this was going to be a success?
I still don’t. It’s year to year. I honestly don’t know. That’s the crazy thing. I mean that second year when NOFX and Pennywise came out. That was great. That kinda put the stamp of approval on things.
Looking back on the first few years of Warped Tour, is there anything you would have done differently?
Hah. Maybe not done 27 cities the first year. I was closer and closer to bankruptcy after every show. But we made it.
95′-98′ Tour Posters (for a full-set check this out)
If you were to retire, what type of person would you want to hand off the Tour to?
Probably won’t hand it off to anyone. It would probably just go away… to be honest. It’s part of my inner soul. You see 90% of what we do at Warped Tour is not about making money, (10% is), but 90% is about building a culture and a community.
So, what do you think the community does when you are done?
I really hope someone will start something else. Maybe my daughters will take over. But, I definitely don’t want them going into this lifestyle.
Photo Cred: Fuze
So what advice would would you have if they wanted to?
Well… Be patient, start slow, build your relationships, but when you go for it, you better be willing to go ALL in. There is no part-way in. But that would be my advice for anything.
Clearly the tour has evolved over the years, what 2-3 things have helped Warped Tour stay relevant?
FIRST: you have to keep a big, broad picture of what’s going on out there.
And SECOND: you have to listen to people. People come in with ideas and want to execute them and then I try to give them the platform and the tools to let them run with it.
You’re constantly dealing with a workforce that is ever changing, what are 2-3 ways do you ensure everything stays in line?
FIRST: There is a big vetting process when it comes to hiring.
AND SECOND: It’s about spending time with the team and about mentoring them.
When you spend time with them, you quickly get a feeling for the type of kid that wants to work and those who just want to hang out with bands. Many just can’t handle the work.
What one prediction would you have about the festival industry in 10 years from now?
One day festivals. Three Day festivals are really hard, time consuming, expensive… but I think we’re going to start to see more one day festivals.
I understand teaching is a passion of yours. If you could teach any subject besides the music business, what would it be?
History. I love the history of the US. If we studied more history, I think we’d make a lot less mistakes. Like people taking some of these politicians seriously. It is absolutely ludicrous that people are taking some of these politicians seriously. Its one of the scariest things ever. Someone like Donald Trump. Absolutely, fucking ludicrous. Our whole political system is a fucking farce right now.
Professor Lyman in his element.
So, If you could interview any artist (living or dead), who would it be and what question would you ask them?
Hmm… I would love to talk to Elvis Presley and see if that was really him or if someone who was manipulating everything he did. Ya know…. I think he was probably one of the first artists that was completely manipulated by the forces around him. That would be an interesting conversation.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received in your career?
The best piece of advice I have ever received, came from Ice T. We were on the tour bus, late at night, driving to our next stop. I asked him his opinion on something and he said:
“Kevin, you think too much. Go with your gut. You have what it takes.”
And now I tell people that.
So, who do you think I should we interview next?
I think some of these young managers like Mike Kaminski or Randy Nichols, who are doing some really unique things with brands and artists would be great to speak with.
Mike Kaminski at Warped Tour, Seattle. Photo Cred: Michael Clinard Photography.
Right now we’re in a big state of evolution as an industry. Some of the old guard needs to step aside and let the new kids take over. But hopefully for me I was nice enough to them that they’ll let me hang out for a few years.
Thank you, Kevin.
No problem. My pleasure.
What’s fascinating about Kevin (actually there are a ton of things), what resonated with me, is that he has these critical leadership skills that I am not sure he knows he even has. Don’t get me wrong, he has proven to be one of the best brand and marketing pros of the last 20 years, especially when it comes to marketing to #TheYouths. There’s a reason Vans has stuck around for so long.
LESSON 1: He sees himself as a facilitator.
To do something as big as The Vans Warped Tour, you can’t control everything. He may know what is going on at all times, but when it comes to execution, he has a strong team that he trusts. And when it comes to certain new artists or hungry non-profits, he offers up the platform for them to thrive. I wonder if he does this because no one ever did that for him.
LESSON 2: Like most entrepreneurs, he’s driven by fear.
He said it (half jokingly), but I think it says a ton. Fear of what, I’m not sure. Maybe some psychiatrist could provide some insight, but fear can be a huge motivating factor in most people’s lives and decisions. I’m just glad Kevin harnessed his fear through live music and some craft beer.
LESSON 3: He puts in the work and loves to get his hands dirty.
This might be one of the most critical success factors I see in Kevin.
It’s nuts that in 20+ years, he’s only missed a handful of shows on tour. He’s on the buses, in the parking lots, talking to the artists, manning the barbecue, interacting with the fans and mentoring his staff. Yes, that might be the life of a typical production head, but for an executive at his level… it’s pretty rare. That work ethic and mentality, allows you to see and recognize problems and trends long before others. Especially before those behind a desk. Annnnd… When you combine that with a little fear that things could change at any point, you’re bound to jump on opportunities and take a few risks faster than most.
So to me, it’s no wonder the tour has thrived for so long. If you’re not moving, your dying. Kevin gets that.
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