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Fans attend the Vans Warped Tour at White River Amphitheatre on August 12, 2016 in Auburn, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Prat...

How the Warped Tour helped artists (and fans) find themselves

Musicians and fans alike are mourning the end of the Vans Warped Tour, whose founder announced last month that the traveling music festival would end in 2018 after 23 years.

Since 1995, the “punk rock summer camp” has been a rite of passage for many big-name artists.

Katy Perry has said she “got her bearings” on Warped in 2008. Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman tells a story that The Black Eyed Peas met lead singer Fergie at a barbecue during the festival. Eminem, G-Eazy, and Bebe Rexha all got a kick start from the tour, which attracts an average of 600,000 concertgoers each summer.

Announcing the end “felt like my funeral,” Lyman said. For artists and fans, the buildup to the last tour is a reason to reflect on how much it’s meant to them.

Alex Gaskarth of Baltimore-based pop punk band All Time Low, who played Warped Tour four times, tweeted that without Warped Tour, “I probably would not be where I am today.” Kevin McCallister, drummer for pop rockers Set it Off, wrote on Twitter that the tour was something he looked forward to every summer and was instrumental in shaping his love of music.

Neck Deep, a Welsh pop punk band that built up an American audience on Warped Tour, thanked Lyman for giving them the opportunity to play, tweeting that, “The Warped Tour was something we all grew up dreaming about … some of the best days of our lives.”

In the alternative rock scene, playing the Vans Warped Tour could make careers. Before they played sold-out arenas, Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Blink 182, No Doubt and Paramore joined Lyman’s lineup to perform for whomever showed up.

“To play the entire Warped Tour on a bus is very prestigious in the punk rock world,” said Shane Henderson, former frontman of pop punk band Valencia.

Henderson played Warped Tour five times with Valencia. The band slowly worked its way up from a week of dates in 2005 to eventually joining the tour for all of the 28-plus cities. He remembers walking around the festival playing his music through a set of headphones to drum up support. Later, he sold the band’s record for a dollar to get his music out there.

“Warped Tour makes you take a hard look at yourself and your performance. How can we be more entertaining? How can we make people come back and see us?” Henderson, 32, said. “There’s a lot of competition there.”

Warped Tour has no age limit and its core audience skews young — 15 to 25 years old. Lyman credits that to the kind of bands he booked. Seventy percent of his lineup were the bands popular with teens, like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, the All American Rejects and All Time Low. He remembers standing in the pit, watching bands like My Chemical Romance draw in hundreds of kids who couldn’t even drink yet, and immediately booking the band for another stint on the tour.

“[Warped Tour] had the ability, through access to popular bands and brands, to harness a style and sound kids loved,” said Stephen Thompson, writer for NPR Music. “Because the music tended to have a darker, outcast-y edge to it, Warped Tour could bring together lots of kids who felt alienated and frustrated.”

The tour averages 40 dates a summer, and 20,000-plus young fans attend each stop. To keep everyone safe, Lyman admits chaperones free of charge and sets up air-conditioned tents for them, known as “reverse daycare.”

Set times for specific bands are intentionally kept a secret from not only the fans, but from the musicians as well. Lyman said Warped helps musicians learn to tour, part of which means being ready to go at any time, and making an effort to draw an audience. “There’s no elitism on Warped Tour,” Lyman said. “You just have to be a great live performer.”

Caroline Shaw, 19, brought her 51-year-old father to one of the three Warped Tour shows she’s attended, dragging him into the pit so he could feel the energy that she loves so much. “Warped Tour is loud and chaotic,” Shaw said. “But it’s this tiny piece of chaos that makes sense to me.”

At Warped Tour, Shaw, then an engineering major at Iowa State University and hating it, decided to become a music journalist. Today, she’s the music writer for her college newspaper and uses that platform as a way to chase the feeling she first experienced at Warped Tour.

“I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to Warped,” Shaw said. “Warped Tour is, or was, this place where young people could be themselves and not be hidden.”

Warped Tour set itself apart by traveling to the cities that many arena or club tours often ignore. For 17-year-old Natalie Lindsey, seeing bands like Sleeping with Sirens or Pierce the Veil play her tiny Kansas hometown was a huge deal. She’s attended the tour three times now, and considers the festival “a relief” from the conservatism she’s grown up in.

“The bands on Warped Tour talk about things other bands don’t want to talk about, like addiction and mental health and confidence,” Lindsey said. “Warped Tour allows me to find friends who have gone through the same struggles I have. It’s a sense of family.”

Family values are what Lyman had in mind when he chose a sponsor for the tour in 1996. After declining to have Calvin Klein fund the tour, Lyman was approached by Steve Van Doren, whose family founded the California skate shoe company Vans in 1966.

“Music wasn’t my forte — I was a shoe guy,” Van Doren said. “But we had always seen bands with shoes and we wanted to get into that.”

Vans shoes became a quintessential punk rock staple, and Van Doren says it all started on Warped Tour.

The tour has also brought a philanthropic aim to its merchandising, holding blood drives, collecting canned goods and providing support services for substance abuse and mental health, in addition to working with groups devoted to animal rights advocacy and suicide awareness.

“Warped Tour is the kind of place that can change you as a person,” Lindsey said. “It really showed me that you’re more than just yourself, and inspired me to help other people.”

The final Vans Warped Tour will cross the country June 21 – Aug. 5, 2018. Fans have begged for Warped-Tour greats like Fall Out Boy, All Time Low and My Chemical Romance to play the final round. Henderson has offered to reunite Valencia just to play Warped one last time.

And what does the end of the tour mean for the music? “That’s going to be for the next generation to figure out,” Lyman said. “One of those kids out there has to step up and take the scene forward.”