Concert posters are unique in the world of collectibles. They have a history that goes back to the 1950’s and have evolved in some way during nearly every decade since then. Part of what makes concert posters so unique is the fact that there is collectible art from nearly every era, and that collecting is not limited to vintage pieces. Here we’ll explore the differences in posters designed as advertisements versus those designed as merchandise.
Posters As Advertisements
Posters, as we know them, were created as ads. They were meant to promote shows by being stapled to telephone poles, hung by bus stops, or placed in shop and venue windows in the cities the shows took place in. They were meant to serve this specific purpose.
No one cared that they’d sit in the rain and get damaged or have pinholes in them. They were merely used as a tool to get crowds to attend live music events. This is very clear when you look at the original letterpress posters from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
50s and 60s
For the most part, these posters contain simple lettering and a headshot of the featured artist. This style is often referred to as “boxing style”, as it resembles the style of posters that were made to advertise boxing matches. They contained elements of color, but not anything too bright or bold. There wasn’t much variation in these pieces because of their intended use.
The Psychedelic Era
In the psychedelic era of the 1960s and ’70s, poster design changed drastically. During this time, the true art form of the concert poster began to develop. This new style came largely out of San Francisco, where artists began to create posters for the budding music scene that the decade brought in. Most of these were created for shows promoted by Bill Graham and The Family Dog.
The intention behind the design remained the same as it had been: to bring people to shows. Advertising tactics varied slightly from the ones employed in earlier posters. While the posters from the earlier era took a straightforward approach to delivering information, psychedelic poster artists devised a new method of gaining attention.
A New Look
Beginning with Wes Wilson, these artists began to work new fonts into their pieces. These fonts featured melting, dripping, nearly illegible letters. These were, in part, inspired by the prevalent use of LSD among the hippie community. The use of this font caused anyone observing the poster to take a moment to decipher what was being promoted, which meant that more passersby interacted with each piece for a longer period of time.
In addition to the font, psychedelic concert posters made use of vibrant colors and beautiful imagery that was unique to every individual piece. This led to some people taking up poster collecting as a hobby. In 1967, Jack Jackson with The Family Dog created the first-ever collectibles market for concert posters. A mailing list that he created for people interested in obtaining posters to collect led to some of the first reprints of various posters, which is something that is important to the poster market today. Original printings will always be more valuable than reprints. Though this initial venture did not last long, it certainly paved the way for individuals to start up their poster collections.
Punk and New Wave
In the late 1970s, concert art began to evolve yet again. In this era, punk and New Wave music began to emerge and gain popularity across the United States with the rise of venues such as CBGB in New York and Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. These new genres brought a new form of show advertising with them, and DIY flyers became prevalent around cities in which shows were being held.
Punk communities thrived on the concept of doing something yourself, and concert art was no exception. They essentially rejected everything that had been created during the psychedelic era. Most punk flyers were designed using a pen and paper, an x-acto knife, and a Xerox machine. Many were designed by band members or friends of the band. They were not created to be works of fine art, but to demand the attention of anyone who saw them.
To those who understood their message, flyers served almost as an invitation to an exclusive, new community. To those who didn’t, the flyers were often perceived as offensive or unattractive. Punk flyers were often taken off of the streets for this reason. They became a true form of street art, and those who recognized this saved various flyers that they found.
Posters As Merchandise
As advertisements moved away from the streets and became more prevalent on digital platforms, the evolution of concert posters continued. Make no mistake, flyers advertising shows and festivals still line telephone poles across cities and make appearances taped to port-o-potties at music festivals. These are not the ones that are usually collected today.
Most often these flyers are created digitally and quickly and not designed to be saved. Modern collectible concert art is created for a different purpose. Rather than being designed primarily as a promotional tool, posters have become a form of concert merchandise. Today, artists will design a poster that may be specific to a tour date, an entire tour, or a festival. Often a limited number of copies will be printed. Sometimes there will be variants of the poster, such as foil prints, that are created in even smaller quantities and thus hold more value.
Where’s the Value?
Value in older posters is mostly tied to the condition of the piece. It is extremely rare to find vintage concert posters that survived being posted as advertisements. This is because they were not originally intended to become collectors’ items. Value in posters today comes from the number of original prints produced. That’s as well as the popularity of the poster artist and band that the piece was created by and for. It may be possible to quickly find relatively inexpensive copies of posters for your favorite band or those designed by your favorite artist. However, these are likely not original printings.
If you’re looking to collect valuable modern prints, make sure that the pieces you purchase are original printings. Additionally, though these posters have been around a shorter time than some vintage posters, condition is still important! A poster with pinholes, tape marks, or tears will not hold up in value the same way that a pristine piece will. Make sure when you make your purchases that you’re buying from a source that will carefully and reliably ship your poster. If you buy a piece at a show, make sure to take care of it.
There is value in all types of concert posters, whether they were designed as advertisements or as merchandise. As time goes on, your poster will only increase in value. So, go ahead and add some posters to your collection from various eras that were created for different purposes to have a well-rounded collection.