The Vans Warped Tour — the music festival that has crossed the country each year since 1995, and is frequently called a “punk rock summer camp” — is on its last run.
For 24 years, the Warped Tour created spaces for metal, punk and ska fans to meet their idols and mosh together under the hot sun: Each summer, about 70 bands and artists would play in some 40 locations, welcoming hundreds of thousands of tattooed concertgoers clad in band tees and Vans checkered slip-ons. Many musical acts that helped define the late 1990s and early 2000s graced Warped Tour’s stages, including Blink-182, Reel Big Fish and Eminem.
But recently, the show’s popularity has declined, among both bands and attendees. Some music festivals are bigger than ever — Coachella drew more than 200,000 people to the California desert for two days in April — but the Warped Tour doesn’t have the same cultural cache it once had.
“The die-hard Warped fan was still coming, but the ones for the future seemed to drop off,” said the festival’s founder and longtime producer Kevin Lyman in an email.
He said there is the possibility for other Warped Tour events down the line — including for the 25th anniversary next summer — but 2018 will be the final cross-country blowout. “I’ve done everything I can in this format,” he said. “I’m just tired. It’s time for someone else to continue or start something new.”
The final tour not only marks the end of an era in music, but of a particularly intimate brand collaboration. Vans has sponsored the Warped Tour since its second year and credits the festival with burnishing its countercultural image.
“Until we got involved with the Warped Tour, we didn’t have a national footprint to talk about who we are,” said Doug Palladini, the skate apparel company’s global brand president. “Vans is a brand that really embraces individuality, and Warped Tour is very much the same.”
Vans representatives said that the Warped Tour — which the company has a 75 percent stake in — isn’t ending because of a decline in ticket sales, and that its retirement shouldn’t be seen as divestment in music or skater culture. House of Vans, an indoor skate park and music venue with locations in Brooklyn, Chicago and London, and pop-ups around the world, will continue to host famous musicians and local, unsigned performers, and admission is free.
But the collaboration between Vans and the Warped Tour has run its course.
“We’re going to make this a part of Vans history and always hold it up as a really, really important part of who we are,” Mr. Palladini said. “It’s just the right time to put a bow on it and say thank you to all the bands and all the fans that made Warped Tour was it is.”
“One Big Family”
Vans was already synonymous with southern California skateboard culture in the 1990s when the Warped Tour started, thanks to the sneakers’ sticky soles. (They have good grip.) But the tour’s national popularity helped establish Vans as a punk brand, and that image has made the company incredibly appealing, especially to shoppers ages 16 to 34.
In 2004, when Vans was acquired by VF Corporation — which owns JanSport, Timberland and the North Face — it was making about $325 million in sales a year. This year, Mr. Palladini said, Vans is on track to surpass $3 billion.
The first Vans store, which was known at the time as the Van Doren Rubber Company and opened its doors in Anaheim, Calif., in March 1966, was a much humbler affair. It was founded by Paul and Jim Van Doren, brothers who would take custom orders and manufacture shoes on site. Eventually the shoes’ waffle soles attracted skateboarders, and in 1976, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta — pro-skaters who were immortalized by Victor Rasuk and John Robinson in the 2005 film “Lords of Dogtown” — designed the Era, a low-top sneaker that became a Vans classic.
There were other moments in which Vans shoes were in the countercultural spotlight, including a 1982 cameo courtesy of Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli character in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But the company’s punk identity wasn’t forged until Mr. Lyman met Steve Van Doren.
A former Lollapalooza stage manager, Mr. Lyman had put together the first Warped Tour in 1995, with bands like Sublime and No Doubt on the original lineup. But he needed financial support to keep it going and was seeking sponsorship.
Steve Van Doren, the son of the Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren, was on a different mission. Separately, he was searching for someone to help him plan an amateur skate contest that would tour across the U.S. and the world. He met with Mr. Lyman, who said Vans would draw more people to skate events if live music were on the lineup.
In “Vans: Off the Wall,” a book about the company, Mr. Van Doren said that a deal was forged between the two men within 15 minutes of their meeting. Thus, the Vans Warped Tour was born.
“Steve Van Doren. He always got it and was the driving force early in this relationship,” Mr. Lyman said. “After our first year with Vans, Airwalk approached me and offered a bunch of money to leave and go with them. I said hell no, and it was all because of Steve. Steve Van Doren continues to be the soul of Vans in my mind.”
“The Vans Warped Tour is one big family,” Mr. Van Doren said in an interview. He recalled his first summer, in which he drove from stop to stop on the tour in a van with his daughter. Though he opted to take the relatively cushy bus after that, he said he went to every Warped Tour show for 15 years.
The People’s Music Festival
Today’s popular music festivals often charge a steep price for big-name performers. A three-day general admission pass to Coachella, for example, can run $500, or close to $1,000 for a V.I.P. ticket. The Warped Tour, by comparison, costs about $45, and there is no hierarchy to the ticketing system. Even the bigger bands are never given special treatment, Mr. Van Doren said. The whole point is accessibility: There are no extra fees to meet artists, and fans can visit bands at their tents or run into them in the crowd during another performance.
“When you monetize a handshake, it changes the whole relationship,” Mr. Lyman said.
The Warped founder guessed that, of all the tour’s performers, Andrew W.K. probably spent the most time with fans. He would “sign for six hours and then go outside and sign some more. I would have to ask him to move since we needed to load the trucks to get to the next city,” Mr. Lyman said.
“Warped is a festival for the music and for the organizations that travel with it,” said Victoria Hudgins, a 23-year-old Warped Tour fan who has attended twice before. “I feel as though the younger crowd these days are more interested in putting their picture from Coachella on Instagram than they are actually going to and enjoying the festival itself. You don’t go to Warped for an Instagram picture, you go to Warped to be a part of something so big and so crazy.”
Ms. Hudgins had planned to buy tickets for two stops on the Warped Tour this summer — one in her home state of Michigan and the tour’s final show in Florida — before she got the opportunity to work on the tour full-time. (She is working for Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work, which sets up a tent at each city the tour visits, after volunteering for the organization last year.)
“To me this is going to be a summer where I feel like I’m going to fit in everywhere I am,” she said. “This is going to be a summer meeting an entire country of people. I can be a part of something so much bigger than just myself.”
Loyalty, Loyalty, Loyalty
While the Warped Tour has declined in popularity, Vans has become a global phenomenon. Between 2010 and 2014, it saw double-digit growth every year, and in 2017, the company surpassed the North Face as the VF Corporation’s top-selling brand. The shoes are just as visible in high fashion as they are in the skate park, and they have gotten musical shout-outs from young artists like Travis Mills and Ty Dolla $ign. (In 2011, the actress Kristen Stewart literally cemented the shoes into pop culture history when she wore a pair to her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony.)
“All of a sudden, everywhere I looked, it was Vans,” said Samantha Brown, a stylist and video director who has worked with Nylon magazine, Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta. “They kind of make everything look cooler.”
But just as the Warped Tour kept its ticket prices down out of loyalty to its fan base — and even let parents in for free — Vans has no plans to charge more for their increasingly popular apparel. (Shoes run from about $60 to $100.) The company’s prevailing wisdom, Mr. Palladini said, is around inclusivity. “And a part of inclusivity is accessible price points.”
For Steve Van Doren, who is now the vice president of events and promotions, it’s important that the company not forget its roots. “Skaters in the mid ’70s adopted us, and I thank them still four decades later because they gave us meaning,” he said. “They gave us purpose.”
Warped Tour memories