For 24 years, the Vans Warped Tour provided a US launchpad for dozens of rising UK rock acts. But as the travelling festival ended for good last week, the UK biz was desperately seeking alternatives for next summer.
“Vans Warped has been a really big part of the deal for our acts over the years,” Craig Jennings of Raw Power Management told Music Week. “If you get a moment there, and there have definitely been a couple over the years, it’s the best gauge of where your band is. When it’s kicking off, you’re seeing the audience reaction and the merch numbers at the end of the day and you go, ‘Wow, this is really happening’.”
Raw Power has had more than 20 acts on the tour over its 24-year run, and credits it with securing significant Stateside breakthroughs for the likes of Bring Me The Horizon (2008, 2010, 2013) and Funeral For A Friend (2005, 2007). Its management client Don Broco spent summer 2018 on the tour, with Jennings saying the band “pulled massive crowds – it’s a sign that there’s a spark there”.
“Warped doesn’t necessarily open major doors into the big media,” said Jennings. “But what you get more out of Warped than anything is connection with your fanbase. It builds your fan community and for a lot of those bands that’s where they’re coming from.”
Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman said there were multiple reasons for its demise, although he conceded the 2017 run’s ticket sales had been “diminished”. Lyman picked UK act Yungblud as one of the breakout hits of this year’s tour, saying: “He connected amazingly with the shows he was on. He’s going to be a star.”
And Geffen-signed Yungblud – real name Dominic Harrison – said the tour had given him access to a fanbase that would have been much harder to reach under his own steam.
“It’s not just, ‘Alright, we’ll do New York, Chicago, Seattle and LA’,” said Harrison. “There’s so many kids in the middle – there’s thousands of young people out there listening to rock music. And the best thing about [Warped] is, you can meet fans all day; I was out there for two hours meeting people.”
Josh Franceschi, frontman of hit UK rock band You Me At Six, who played the tour in 2009, 2010 and 2012, said Warped was also important for building connections that pay off further down the line.
“Doing Warped put us on the radar of lots of other US bands,” he said. “So we were in their consciousness and they thought, ‘Maybe we’ll take them out on tour’ and then we’d go out with them in England. If you utilised it in the best way possible and were willing to work hard, you really could break an act through it.”
Franceschi and Jennings both cite Warped’s famously low merchandise fees – with bands being charged a flat rate rather than a 20-25% commission – as helping bands on the tour make money, even on the smaller stages where appearance fees are low. Franceschi said You Me At Six once sold $32,000 worth of merch in a single day.
And Ian Harrison, GM of punk rock label Hopeless Records, whose signings Neck Deep were the breakout hit of Warped Tour 2014 and 2015, said the tour could even boost UK acts back home.
“That was one of the main ways we were able to get the UK press to pay attention to the band,” Harrison told Music Week. “At that point there really weren’t a lot of bands in that style in the UK, so the story was about Warped Tour at first: this band you haven’t been paying attention to is breaking on Warped.”
Harrison credits Warped as “crucial” to Neck Deep’s US success, with last year’s The Peace And The Panic album charting at No.4 Stateside.
“I’m sure the guys would have found success through some other avenue,” he said. “But, if we hadn’t had that summer, I don’t necessarily know where they would be. It really anchored the breakout in a way that a regular tour could not have. Even getting them on tour with, say, Blink-182 would not facilitate things in the same way.”
With Lyman adamant the tour will not return apart from one or two 25th anniversary celebrations next summer, the absence of Vans Warped will impact on everything from album releases – often geared around the tour – to touring schedules. But, despite Warped selling well over 500,000 tickets in its final summer, there was no sign of anyone putting together a substitute tour.
Harrison expects artists to do “supertours where many big bands team up to create a ‘one plus one equals three’ situation” while Jennings thinks regional festivals could expand to plug some of the gap.
“For a band like [RPM clients] Shvpes, Warped would have been an absolute shoo-in for next year and it would have been our gateway to America,” said Jennings. “Now we’ve got to think, ‘What are the touring opportunities going to be earlier in the year, how can we set ourselves up slightly differently?’ It’s going to leave a vacuum, for sure.”