Warped World: The Reoccurring Problem on Vans Warped Tour
If you're a former wannabe emo kid like myself, a former actual emo kid, or if you've ever dipped your toes into the scene of punk rock music and all things related whatsoever, you've most likely heard of Vans Warped Tour.
Dubbed as "punk rock summer camp,” Warped Tour is the longest running touring music festival in North America, and it's essentially a giant playground for those who love punk anything. Every summer since 1995 the festival has hit the road featuring 60+ bands, primarily of genres such as punk rock, pop punk, hard rock, metalcore, etc., but studded with acts of all different genres in more recent years. Big names like Blink-182 in their early days started out on the Warped circuit and Paramore has been on the lineup a couple of times; even Katy Perry was featured on the 2008 tour at the start of her fame, just after releasing her breakthrough album One of the Boys. In the last half-decade alone, Warped has featured more diversity in its lineup, adding more pop groups, rappers, EDM artists, indie/alternative acts, and famous YouTubers all while keeping the rock vibes as the main focus.
Attendance is seemingly unwavering - veterans to the scene as well as newbies flock to the traveling festival every year and brave the summer temperatures to gather in general appreciation for the music every year. It's no doubt that founder and owner Kevin Lyman likes to give new artists a shot at fame by adding them to the lineup alongside longtime favorites of many in the scene. For me, Warped Tour is nostalgic - I attended for the first time as a sophomore in high school and almost every year following that. It felt like a sort of safe place for me. A place where a skinny blonde girl from the suburbs - whose parents never even let her leave the house wearing too much black for fear of looking too "goth" - could lace up her favorite pair of leopard-print Vans and simultaneously headbang/fangirl for Pierce the Veil or Sleeping With Sirens while trying to avoid getting kicked in the face by crowd surfers or more aggressive attendees. (A few years ago I was punched in the face during The Story So Far's set and received a brutal nosebleed, which made me feel like a total bad ass. It was glorious.)
But in light of last week's arrest of YouTuber/musician Austin Jones, who was featured on the Warped 2015 lineup, a sort of uneasiness settled over me when I was reminded of a very similar situation involving another Warped artist not too long ago. After doing a little research, it didn't take much to uncover a short history of founder Kevin Lyman and Warped Tour turning a cheek to a slew of allegations against musicians involving sexual harassment and assault of young fans far below the age of consent.
Rewind back to 2010; Blood On the Dance Floor - abbreviated to BOTDF by fans - a popular electronica duo, played Warped Tour in its entirety that summer despite a flood of allegations against Dahvie Vanity (founder of the group) for sexual harassment and misconduct with minors. In fact, in October of 2009 Vanity was arrested for first-degree sexual assault of a fifteen-year-old girl. The charges in that case were dropped, however the list of allegations against Vanity seemed to be never ending. Jeffree Star, who had collaborated with the group in the past but had a supposed falling out with them, tweeted later on that he'd seen Vanity bringing underage fans back to hotel rooms with sexual intentions. Unfortunately, the tweets have since been deleted.
On top of this, Ashley Costello (the lead singer for the band New Years Day) who had toured with BODTF in the past called Vanity a "bully.” Costello said she had "seen girls cry because they have been taken advantage of [by Vanity]", as well as heard Vanity make derogatory sexual comments to young fans on numerous occasions. A merch table worker later came out with a telling blog post on Tumblr regarding the time spent with BODTF and New Years Day on tour, which features chilling details about harassment on Costello herself from no other than Vanity. Regardless of this, BODTF spent summer of 2010 on Warped Tour. While no backlash occurred on tour, the internet reacted harshly as more girls came forward with accusations against Vanity. BODTF has not been on the Warped lineup since then, and rumor has it that they’ve been banned from the tour. But neither Lyman nor the social media managers for Warped ever made a statement confirming this.
Fast forward two years. In summer of 2012, alt-rock group Lostprophets were featured on the Warped Tour lineup. In November of 2013, lead vocalist Ian Watkins was arrested, charged, and pleaded guilty to: attempted rape & sexual assault of a child under 13, conspiring to rape a child, 3 counts of sexual assault involving young children, 7 counts of possession of child pornography, and filming himself on two separate occasions having sex with 16 year old girls. This was all brought to light by perhaps the worse charge of all - attempted rape of an 11-month-old baby, which was also filmed. He was sentenced to 29 years in prison. On a phone call to a fan from prison the day after his plea deal was accepted, Watkins referred to this sickening crime as a "mega lolz" - a slogan used on much of the band's merchandise - and said he "didn't know what everyone was so freaked out about." Disturbingly enough, an ex-girlfriend of Watkins' stated that she had attempted to "raise the alarm" about Watkins several times to law enforcement since 2008, but no investigations were made and shows/festivals - like Vans Warped Tour - never looked into his background enough to consider him a sexual predator.
The first time Kevin Lyman ever made a statement regarding accusations against an artist on Warped Tour came in 2015 regarding 24-year-old Jake McElfresh, an acoustic/indie artist who goes by the stage moniker Front Porch Step who was well-known in the scene for being a soulful and brilliant lyricist. In 2014 and 2015, girls as young as 14 and 15 came forward with claims and screenshotted evidence that McElfresh had solicited inappropriate photos from them as well as sent several explicit photos of himself. McElfresh even asked to stay the night at the houses of young fans during Warped Tour - and terrifyingly enough it seemed he followed through with those plans on at least one occasion (see photos below). Following these accusations, McElfresh posted several statements expressing discontent with being referred to as a pedophile and denied any wrongdoing on his behalf despite the evidence.
Nevertheless, McElfresh was on the Warped 2014 AND 2015 lineup; however, the tour dropped him in 2015 when a change.org petition to have him removed received over 13,000 signatures. Despite this, McElfresh showed up at the Nashville Warped tour date and performed an acoustic set, at which he was booed, heckled and called a "pervert." Afterwards, Lyman told Billboard that he allowed McElfresh to perform because he had "no charges, no court appearance, no restraining orders, nothing, it was a 'stupidity of the road' kind of thing." He also stated he felt McElfresh deserved "a second chance in life" and thought allowing McElfresh to perform would "help him get back on track with his life [and was] under a supervised situation."
Which brings us around full circle to the Austin Jones controversy. Last week, the YouTube star was arrested on charges of creating and possessing child pornography after young fans came forward with evidence that he had pressured them into sending sexually explicit videos of themselves - many of the messages on Jones' behalf are graphic, as detailed in the court documents that can be found with a quick Google search and are making the rounds on the Internet. Jones is a 24-year-old YouTuber well-known for making covers of popular "emo" songs. In 2015, he came under fire on social media when screenshots of him asking young fans aged 14 or younger to send him "twerking" videos because he thought it would be "funny." Back then, he used the same manipulative tactics present in many of the recent messages that were presented in the court case document - pressuring the girls, telling them if they didn't do as he asked then they could not be "his biggest fan,” and asking why they didn't want to "make him happy." Fellow YouTuber Damon Fizzy publicly roasted Jones for the twerking controversy as well as posting a video provided to him by a former Jones fan, in which Jones states he is "horny all the time" and implies he wants the fan to send him videos. Fizzy received an unbelievable amount of backlash, including being removed from Warped Tour 2015, which he details on his twitter page (@deefizzy).It appeared many fans of Jones didn't want to believe it or felt his actions didn't warrant punishment - including no other than Kevin Lyman.
As stated above, Warped Tour in recent years began adding popular YouTubers to its annual summer lineup. In 2015 (the same year Jake McElfresh was removed), Jones was featured to be on Warped Tour. When the twerking video controversy stirred up, Lyman first reacted by announcing he would be removing YouTubers from Warped Tour - then retracted his statement, saying he would be "investigating" before making a decision about Jones appearing on the tour. The statements he made regarding Jones' actions fall just short of disturbing; as he implied he felt the allegations were either not true or brutally blown out of proportion. Lyman stated in the interview with Alternative Press in 2015, "The word pedophile is a strong, strong term. While the world can be screwed-up at times, there is a criteria for things. In the court of the internet, people's lives are being dragged out in front of the world with no due process... It leaves a trail of destruction in other people's lives.... Are we going to go back to this Salem witch hunt mentality? Communication needs to happen. I am actively encouraging that if women and girls feel they are being victimized, tell your parents, go to the police, talk to counselors." This in itself is not a well thought-out response - many argue that a 14 year old girl who desperately wants the attention of her favorite singer does not immediately realize she is being victimized, and is often too embarrassed to approach an adult about the situation.
When asked if he thought having Jones on the lineup would affect turnout, Lyman stated, "If you're not going to go to Warped Tour because of some perceived mob-mentality injustice, you should maybe volunteer at a non-profit that day." Jones was ultimately removed from the lineup, however this only occurred after another change.org petition to boot him received almost 10,000 signatures.
Of course, we can't blame Kevin Lyman or Warped Tour for any of these incidents. Many other artists featured on Warped's lineup openly spoke out about their dissatisfaction with a musician using their platform to manipulate young fans, as well as with Warped for allowing McElfresh to perform at the Nashville show in 2015 (Paramore, a veteran of Warped, even tweeted about it - see below). And although McElfresh and Jones were both removed from the Warped lineup in 2015, it doesn't make up for Lyman's questionable statements about second chances and "mob mentalities", or the fact that Ian Watkins and Dahvie Vanity had both been accused previously of misconduct with minors but neither were looked into before their stints on Warped Tour - which allowed them to undoubtedly make more connections with underage fans. And the few I've mentioned here aren't even the whole lot of musicians featured on past Warped lineups with accusations and charges of misconduct with minors - Steve Klein from New Found Glory and Harry Corrigan from No Good News have also come face-to-face with similar situations in recent years.
So wherein does the problem lie? Certainly it doesn't lie completely with Lyman - although he cannot completely prevent these crimes from happening, it would behoove him in the future to take accusations, whether made on the Internet or not, more seriously and look into them further before placing the blame on young victims for not stepping forward. It could also prove beneficial to not ignore claims from several Warped staffers, roadies, and other bands that have reported at length seeing acts of lewd misconduct against young fans on the tour over the years (i.e. young girls being invited onto tour buses). Baby steps could potentially be productive as well - such as not allowing explicitly misogynistic merchandise to be sold and promoted by bands on the tour - like Emmure and Attila, whose merch table at Warped in the past has featured T-shirts bearing quotes like "Keep Calm and Ask Your Girl What My Dick Tastes Like" and "I Will Find Your Fucking Bitch and Fuck Her Right In Front of You."
In Lyman's defense, however, it seems he has taken certain precautions to make the safety of young fans a priority. In 2014, he announced moshing, "wall of death", and crowd surfing was no longer allowed during Warped sets - although many bands promote this while onstage anyway - to prevent fans from being in unpleasant situations, as well as making the environment more enjoyable for young fans who shy away from certain sets for fear of being hurt or even groped (one year I saw a girl's shirt get pulled off while she was crowd surfing). Unlike other festivals, Lyman also allows parents of young fans to attend for free, which significantly lessens the chance of a 14-year-old girl ending up alone on the tour bus of a sexual predator.
Overall, this scene could do better. While we may not be able to understand why this is such a recurring problem in emo/punk music, the higher-ups in the industry - Kevin Lyman, for example - should stand up and defend their young fans instead of questioning them. Rather than only removing them from the lineup when a change.org petition gets a little too out of hand, Lyman could take further measures to investigate accusations against featured musicians. Warped Tour in itself is marketed to and enjoyed by an overwhelmingly teenage audience, and if it wants to continue being safe for this demographic, it should revise its seemingly somewhat lax stance on situations involving sexual predators on tour. The people who love this scene, like myself, want to see these changes before we see the downfall of something as beloved as Warped Tour. Turning a cheek to accusations of something so serious could result in the destruction of a festival many people hold near and dear to their hearts, and people like Austin Jones only disprove what Lyman stated in 2015 - not everyone in this kind of industry deserves a second chance.