Sean Mackin, Yellowcard vocalist and violinist, is standing outside of a Houston Waffle House, holding a coffee in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. It's raining. The day before the Vans Warped Tour is set to begin its 10th year in Houston, and there's nothing but thunderstorms in the forecast. Rehearsals have been cancelled, but Mackin assures that "the show must go on."
The Vans Warped Tour is the 800-pound gorilla of the summer concert tour circuit, especially with the demise of Lollapalooza. The reason for its success is its target marketer's dream lineup of seasoned and buzz-worthy punk, ska, emo and post-grunge bands performing alongside pro skateboarders, all surrounded by lifestyle-specific vendors and booths. When the traveling rock circus hits Las Vegas on July 4, fans will find it bigger than ever, with seven stages featuring the likes of Bad Religion, NOFX, Thursday, Guttermouth, Flogging Molly, and at least 40 other acts.
Many of the newer bands, especially those that have found mainstream success in the last few years, tend to blend together. Influenced in equal parts by punk energy and grunge melodrama, acts like Taking Back Sunday, Story of the Year and New Found Glory are practically interchangeable. Shout-along choruses, melodic lyrics and up-tempo beats are shared characteristics, with many bands lumped under the vague musical category of "emo."
Yellowcard is one of these. This pop-punk band with a violin twist released a record on indie label Lobster in 2001, and the quintet worked hard, on stage and off, to promote itself. Capitol Records signed them in 2003, and they quickly recorded Ocean Avenue. Fueled by heavy airplay, the CD has peaked in the top 25 on three different Billboard charts this year.
Movement this quick for a new band used to be rare. Just ask any of the old guard on the Warped bill: Bad Religion spent 11 years on its own label before temporarily signing with a major label in 1993. NOFX was around for six years before releasing its first full-length for Epitaph—ironically enough, Bad Religion's label—in 1989. The Vandals, formed in 1981, didn't begin recording anything significant until 10 years into its career.
By contrast, the younger Vans Warped bands are moving at light speed: New Found Glory formed in 1997 and signed to MCA just one year after recording their first album for hot indie label Drive-Thru. New York's Taking Back Sunday finalized its lineup in 2000, and has since put out two full-length discs for Victory Records, the label that spawned Thursday. Not too many people have heard of St. Louis's Big Blue Monkey, but when the band re-formed in Southern California as Story of the Year in 2002, it was quickly snapped up by Maverick Records.
"There are those bands that have done the up-and-coming stuff because of how Bad Religion and NOFX have turned the scene into what it is," Mackin says. "I do believe there are a lot of bands that are coming up really fast."
Vegas-based hard-core band Kid Deposit Triumph is performing on the Vegas tour date, sharing the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands stage with fellow locals Ill Figures, the Utmost and Bentvalve. KDT was formed out of the ashes of two dissolved bands earlier this year, but looking at their website, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the band is less than six months old. There is a live-performance video, professionally designed interface, and links for Management and a Street Team. The band has already spent weeks at Digital Insight recording their debut EP, in addition to working on a promotional DVD and their distinctive logo—a silhouette of a kid with a gun in one hand, teddy bear in the other—can be found all over town in a guerrilla marketing effort worthy of the most seasoned self-promoters.
Mike Otto, KDT's lead screamer, believes that being in a band in the 21st century means something different than the 1980s, when independent musicians worked hard for their money or recognition.
"When you form a band, a decision has to be made whether you want to play for fun or make it a career," Otto says. "If you want to make it a career, you need to have the proper tools to get the job done. Before you even play a show you need to be accessible to [artists and repertoire] and to potential fans."
This begs the question: Is the art of music being lost in the career drive? There used to be the music and the message, and those were the most important things. The message could have been juvenile nonsense, like the Vandal's satirical blasts. It could have been political and aggressive, like Bad Religion's nonstop assault on the establishment. But music, punk-rooted music in particular, should do something. It should mean something.
"Music is an art," admits Otto, "but it is also a business, and if you want to make it a career, you need to treat it like one."