Vans on the feet of a crowd surfer. NYT pixs

Medea Giordano

R.I.P. Warped Tour. At least we still have Vans

THE Vans Warped Tour — the music festival that has crossed the United States 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 cachet it once had.

“The die-hard Warped fan was still coming, but the ones for the future seemed to drop off,” Kevin Lyman, the festival’s founder and longtime producer, said 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 embraces individuality, and Warped Tour is very much the same.”

Vans representatives said that the Warped Tour — which the company has a 75 per cent 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,” Palladini said. “It’s just the right time to put a bow on it and say thank you to all the bands and 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 Corp. — which owns JanSport, Timberland and the North Face — it was making about US$325 million (RM1,346) in sales a year. This year, Palladini said, Vans is on track to surpass US$3 billion.

The first Vans store, which was known at the time as the Van Doren Rubber Co. and opened its doors in Anaheim, California, 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 immortalised 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 Lyman met Steve Van Doren.

A former Lollapalooza stage manager, 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 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 US and the world. He met with 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, 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.

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 US$500, or close to US$1,000 for a VIP ticket. The Warped Tour, by comparison, costs about US$45, and there is no hierarchy to the ticketing system. Even the bigger bands are never given special treatment, Van Doren said. The whole point is accessibility: There are no extra fees to meet artistes, and fans can visit bands at their tents or run into them in the crowd during another performance.

“When you monetise a handshake, it changes the whole relationship,” Lyman said.

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 Corp.'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, 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 US$60 to US$100.) The company’s prevailing wisdom, 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.” NYT

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