What Happened to Emo?
Pop-punk's forebearers says it's over, but Paramore and Warped Tour are succeeding, so who's right?
 Paramore

Photo courtesy of Paramore

On April 1, PunkNews.org published the headline, “WARPED TOUR ANNOUNCES FINAL TREK.” According to the story, the annual traveling emo/pop punk fest’s founder Kevin Lyman had broken the news that morning that, after 18 years, he and fellow organizers would shutter the institution because its major sponsors, notably Vans, had decided to yank their support.

“2013 will be the last [year] we share blood, sweat, tears, and moshing together,” Lyman’s statement read. “I’m deeply saddened to relay this news, but I gotta thanks the fans, the bands and the sponsors for making this happen. Let’s go out with a bang.”

It was an April Fool’s joke, of course. Lyman didn’t even know the story had run; he’s been too busy preparing for his behemoth caravan’s 19th year on the road, which is far from its last. Warped Tour 2012 attracted 556,000 fest-goers, its third-best attendance ever, and this year organizers expect the same turnout, if not more. There’s also the mounting success of Warped Tour UK and Warped Tour Australia to contend with.

However, as with all good pranks, for a joke like this to succeed, there has to exist a grain of truth in the lie. And the truth here was that, for the millions of wayward Warped Tour faithfuls who have swarmed blacktops and fairgrounds over the past two decades, the idea that their summer mecca had shuttered due to a lack of faith in its future didn’t seem far-fetched. For the majority of its fiercest champions – the fans, bands, and industry entrepreneurs who supercharged the genre into the mainstream – the era they knew and loved is over.

 Dashboard Confessional

Dashboard Confessional plays MTV Unplugged in 2002. Photo Scott Gries/Getty Images.

“The last time I checked in with the scene, it had morphed into something completely different [from] anything we were associated with,” says Rich Egan, founder of Vagrant Records. Vagrant, the original home of acts like Dashboard Confessional and the Get Up Kids, is regularly attributed as being one of the most influential labels in the mainstreaming of emo and pop punk. “It looked more like Mötley Crüe circa-1982 than it did anything that we had anything to do with. I really have no idea what Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional have in common with Black Veil Brides.”

Egan is right in many respects; the times really have changed. Since 1999 — the year genre pioneers like blink-182 and the Get Up Kids released some of the scene’s most influential records (Enema of the State and Something to Write Home About) — music sales have dropped off by over 50 percent, with last year’s 0.3% boost being the first uptick the industry has seen in 13 years. And though music has been selling less, it’s getting consumed more frequently: there are more bands and more platforms to find out about those bands than ever before, which makes it harder for any underdog to become a smash hit.

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Which is to say nothing of what’s happened to Egan’s world itself. Years of outsider disdain has certainly taken its toll on the scene’s popularity and reputation; in 2008, reports from Mexico even surfaced about violence against “emos,” with young attackers battering fans of the genre in public squares. Last month, My Chemical Romance, one of the scene’s most successful acts, announced their official breakup, a move that followed years of frequent scene-trashing in interviews. (While many pop punk fans adamantly deny any assocation between their favorite acts and those labeled “emo,” crossover bands who melded the two have gradually put both genres in the same scene-boat.) In the press, the only magazines that feature Warped Tour-scene bands these days are niche publications like Alternate Press (AP) and the occasional teen magazine (Nylon’s recent cover featured “Paramore’s Hayley Williams,” not “Paramore”); in February, one of those, emo/punk magazine AMP, closed its doors for good. Pop punk and emo bands don’t headline Coachella or Bonnaroo; they rarely, if ever, are even billed on mainstream festival stages. Hot Topics everywhere now better resemble a tween’s Tumblr dashboard than a merch table.

These facts, coupled with the rise of dance music and other decidedly youth-driven genres over the past decade, have made it easy to say things like “pop punk is dead.” But is it?

“We don’t give a shit,” says Taking Back Sunday drummer Mark O’Connell. He and his band are talking about the scene that’s led them here, backstage at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. It’s November and they’re in the thick of a tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their highly successful 2002 debut, Tell All Your Friends. This is the band’s second year back with its original lineup; on the road again, now in their 30s, they’ve got wives and small children along for the ride. So, when asked about how things have evolved in their genre, O’Connell and his bandmates are frank.

 Taking Back Sunday

Taking Back Sunday in 2006. Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images

“As long as people are enjoying what we’re doing, we’re just gonna keep doing it because we’re having fun doing it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, your band broke up? Sorry. You’re still together? Good. Maybe we should tour together if you’re still together. If not, then I guess not.’”

Though undoubtedly the highest-profile anniversary tour of its kind in 2012, the Tell All Your Friends trek was far from the only celebration. Blink-182 celebrated twenty years as a band by taking a Euro-North American trek in the spring. A few months later, in the fall, “second-wavers” New Found Glory, the Starting Line, and Sum 41 hit the road to ring in the 10-year birthdays of Sticks and Stones, Say it Like You Mean It, and Does This Look Infected?, respectively.

“Once essentially child stars, their members are now adult musicians hoping to move beyond the teen trappings that gave them careers.”

And of course, those successes followed in the footsteps of the pop punk and emo anniversary tours that have come before: Dashboard Confessional’s Swiss Army Romance 10th anniversary tour and Something Corporate’s reunion tour in 2010, Sunny Day Real Estate‘s reunion tour and Weezer‘s Memories tour and the 10th anniversary tours for Jimmy Eat World‘s Clarity and the Get Up Kids’ Something to Write Home About in 2009: all (mildly hasty) nostalgic turnarounds that might’ve seemed risky in decades past, but in actuality sold as well as — or better than, in some cases — the first time around. But that doesn’t mean the bands doing them don’t have mixed feelings about them.

“I don’t think backwards, you know?” says Chris Carrabba, frontman of Dashboard Confessional and, save a decade-long hiatus that ended in 2010, Further Seems Forever. “That’s why I was kind of resistant to doing an anniversary tour in the first place. Music goes forward. The culture moves forward. But my audience made my career, not a record label or a radio single. They own it, so I think they have a pride in it.”

“Anniversary tours have been something that fans have been talking about, and asking about, pretty much right from the beginning,” says Taking Back Sunday singer Adam Lazzara. “You’ll see people that, you can tell they haven’t been to a show in awhile, or that it’s not really their thing anymore … I’ve also talked to younger kids, whose older brother or older sister showed ‘em the album that they grew up on, and now they’re in the front row singing every word.”

“It’s been exciting, but we’re dealing with a whole different set of issues now than we were when we were 18…As far as the young bands that are coming up, we’ve kind of been disconnected from that scene for a while now. I don’t really know what’s going on, I mean, we all have our specific tastes and they don’t really lie with that scene [anymore].”

 Dashboard Confessional

Dashboard Confessional plays Conan O’Brien in 2009. Photo courtesy of NBC.

The scene has kind of been disconnected from the bands, too, it would seem, at least as far as album sales are concerned. Taking Back Sunday’s eponymous last record, released in 2011, sold just 27,000 copies its first week, a sixth of the first-week sales of their 2006 No. 2 album Louder Now. New Found Glory’s 2011 record Radiosurgery did about 10,500 copies, a far cry from Sticks and Stones’ 91,000-unit first week in 2002. Dashboard Confessional’s best first week was the 164,000 units Dusk and Summer sold in 2006, while its worst week came with their most recent record, 2009′s Alter the Ending, which moved just 30,000 copies. (Further Seems Forever had its best first week with last year’s Penny Black, but it peaked at a low No. 62 on the Billboard 200 and hasn’t charted since.)

Regardless, many of these bands, like Taking Back Sunday, have checked out of the scene because they don’t need it anymore — or if they do, they don’t necessarily want it. Once essentially child stars, their members are now adult musicians hoping to move beyond the teen trappings that gave them careers (and make a decent living doing so).

 Starting Line

Starting Line attend a label party in 2007. Photo: Marsaili McGrath/Getty Images

“With Blink-182 and Get Up Kids and Saves the Day and all that stuff, it’s like before your tastebuds have really [developed],” says former Starting Line frontman Kenny Vasoli, whose post-TSL project, Vacationer, is just as mellow (and un-pop punk) as the name implies. “Before you like eating mushrooms or broccoli, there’s this really sweet, instant-gratification stuff that gives you this really high-adrenaline energy rush as soon as you get it. I totally still have an appetite for that stuff, but it doesn’t make up my whole diet.”

And among the folks who made it famous, there’s not a whole lot of faith in the new things happening in that scene, either. “Right when [Say It Like You Mean It] came out, that scene was thriving,” says Vasoli’s former bandmate, guitarist Matt Watts. Since TSL went on hiatus, Watts has transitioned into management (clients including Vacationer) full-time. “Now I feel like the genre has been diluted in the fact that it’s kind of derivative. There’s a lot of great bands out there in the scene doing their own thing, which I definitely respect, but there’s a bunch of bands who just haven’t changed our sound from 2001, and I think the scene is suffering because of that.”

 New Found Glory

New Found Glory perform at the Warped Tour, 2006. Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images

It’s not as though this loss of faith is a new revelation. These laments from the “Warped Tour generation” — that is, the cadre that had its commercial moment sometime between 2001 and 2006 — are the same ones made by first-generation fans (the scene’s “true” fans, they’d claim) when Vagrant, Drive-Thru Records and their contemporaries first stood on the shoulders of ground-breaking underdog labels like Jade Tree and Dischord Records and delivered the scene to the mainstream. Only a few years ago, emo trailblazers were saying the same things about them.

“It’s a huge compliment, one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had in my life, saying that we are a huge part of creating a whole new genre,” Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk told MTV in 2006. “But I don’t buy into it. I don’t believe it. Some of the [new] bands don’t sound anything like what we were doing.”

 Jimmy Eat World

Jimmy Eat World play the MTV2 tour in 2002. Photo: Jimmy Wargo/Getty Images

Cyclicity aside, it’s not all breakups (farewell, My Chemical Romance) and reunions and rehashing the past. Fall Out Boy and Paramore, two bands who rocketed into the mainstream at the height (or perhaps at the tail end) of emo and pop punk’s second wave, have all but dominated the conversation around rock this spring. Though it could hardly be considered pop punk at this point, Paramore’s self-titled record, the band’s fourth, sold 106,000 albums its first week; their last record, Brand New Eyes, has sold over 762,000 copies to date. Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock and Roll, set to drop a week later, vaults the band out of a three-year hiatus-slash-quasi-breakup; while the now-streaming album barely, if at all, ties them to what’s going on in the Warped Tour scene of 2013, its and Paramore’s likely commercial success proves that era’s legacy, at least, is still very much alive.

“I don’t think Paramore or Fall Out Boy were really emo bands,” says John Janick, co-founder of Fueled by Ramen, the label largely responsible for the success of bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore, and current president and COO of Interscope Records. “I think they came out of that scene, but … thousands of bands that tried to be emo, that were what you’d expect to be emo, [came out of that scene] and weren’t very good. Bands like Paramore and Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were just great artists that had technique and really great music [and] a vision and a style and they did something interesting creatively. That’s why people still care about them on a much larger level today.”

But then what about the scene these bands defined, then left behind? Is it even there anymore? Certainly the world of emo and pop punk has changed, and its veterans know it.

“I’m not a peer to the tour anymore,” admits Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman. “All those bands were my friends; they’re the guys I hang out with now. As a business…we’ve had to adjust ourselves to the times. But I think Warped Tour is just the voice of the times. I’m not speaking for myself anymore. Now the kids are speaking to me and I’m curating a festival for them.”

 Taking Back Sunday

Taking Back Sunday in 2012. Photo: C. Flanigan/Getty Images

Ask any of those half a million kids who descended upon arenas last year to see his festival just as much for fast-growing young bands as for scene veterans making the rounds, and they’ll jump down your throat for even hinting their scene isn’t alive and well. (Check out the eye-rolling comments on the PunkNews.org prank, for example.) They’re starting to raise their voices, too.

“It’s not as big as it used to be,” says Will Levy, guitarist of the Story So Far. His band is one of a handful of new acts that many consider at the forefront of the new scene; their sophomore record, What You Don’t See, sold 13,500 copies its first week and charted at No. 46 — exactly half the number seen by Taking Back Sunday’s eponymous fifth record in 2011, and a sight better chartwise than many more du jour indie acts. “It’s definitely smaller, scaled down, but it doesn’t discourage any of us; if anything, it just makes us more tight-knit, because everyone knows each other, and everyone’s touring together, and hanging out and becoming friends.”

Ask older bands like New Found Glory who are still invested in that scene, and that close-knit community doesn’t look so unlike the one they started in.

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“We’ve been playing [Warped Tour] off and on for the past ten years, but we hadn’t played it in five years until this past summer,” says NFG drummer Cyrus Bolooki. “You could [feel] that this genre is still around. Like, we champion that phrase, ‘pop punk’s not dead.’ [Ed. Note: They do.] It’s very true. You have your new, and you have your older, and they can coexist…But pop punk is definitely [still] a force to be reckoned with, and a lot of that has to do with the whole connected-with-fans, down-to-earth attitude of the genre.”

Besides, a return to grassroots form, the micro-operation style that yielded the results that caught the mainstream’s attention in the first place, is exactly what works in this industry now anyway.

“[Nobody] sells as many records anymore,” reasons Jake Round, founder of the Story So Far’s label, Pure Noise Records. “But that [fact] and a small overhead has given my label an opportunity to compete. When I put out my first split 7-inch [in 2009, a dual effort by similarly burgeoning bands Transit and Man Overboard]…the ceiling was so much lower then than it is now. I sold a thousand copies and my mind was blown. Now, the Story So Far opened up at 13,500 units in the first week. That puts them in the same category as more commercial bands at [bigger labels]. It’s still very new, but I think kids [are] ready for something new.”

Which is to say, maybe pop punk isn’t dead at all. It’s likely the scene’s initial, commercial bubble has long burst, but instead of dying, it’s been building itself back up into a self-sustainable community again. (After all, the rest of the industry has been slowly awakening from its own hibernation: 2012 saw the industry’s first increase in sales since 1999.)

 Fat Mike

Fat Mike with NOFX in 2012. Photo: Joey Foley/Getty Images

Round, who cut his industry teeth as an intern at Fat Wreck Chords, the San Francisco-based punk label started by NOFX frontman Fat Mike, now maintains a stable of about a dozen bands he says range in influences from straight punk-rock to the darker notes of Brand New and Sunny Day Real Estate. While his other artists haven’t seen the same success the Story So Far have, he says the “indie pop punk resurgence” is real, and it’s being fueled, like an adolescent phoenix from the ashes, by the same glut of screamo and glam-punk (see: Black Veil Brides) that has, over the past few years, signaled the scene’s death knell for people like Vagrant’s Egan.

 Black Veil Brides

Black Veil Brides play the Warped Tour in 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

“Bands like the Story So Far started their bands [because] they weren’t into anything that was contemporary in that scene,” Round says. “I don’t think they’re doing anything that reinvents the wheel, but what they do, they’re very, very good at it.”

And it looks like they’ll have a place to grow for a while to come. “The kids will tell me when they don’t want to come to my shows,” Lyman says. “They’ll stop buying tickets. But ’til then, I’m gonna keep doing this. If I can help this new movement of bands, I will.”

Still, the real test is farther off than simply the next summer’s lineup. Will bands like the Story So Far be able to sustain careers that’ll get them their own anniversary tours in 2023?

“Maybe,” says Round. “These fans are rabid; they’re emotionally invested in these bands. There aren’t a lot of casual fans in pop punk right now.”

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