Concert Posters: Exposing the Niche Art

by Cassaundra Thomas

Concert posters are relatively inexpensive compared to other collectibles. While some posters sell for large sums of money, a far greater percentage are not going to break the bank.  Being printed in generally small runs of 200 – 2,500 copies has made their survival rates low. In turn, the value of these rare commodities has increased. Concert posters come in different shapes and sizes, but we will focus on three distinct formats: posters (11″ X 17″), flyers (8″ X 11″), and handbills (postcard to business card size).

The Rise of an Artform- 1800s

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Alphonse Mucha, 1896

Posters emerged in the late 1800s as lithography made it cheap and fast to print images on cardboard. They were used to help promote anything from products to live theater or music. The format was popularized in France with posters designed by artists like Toulouse Lautrec, Jules Cheret, and their peers, many of whom are now considered to be fine artists.  At the turn of the century French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, achieved celebrity status thanks in no small part to eye-catching posters by illustrator Alphonse Mucha. This publicity campaign helped make posters the preferred form of low-cost advertisement. It is, of course, still popular today.

1900-1960

From the 1900s to the mid-1960s, most posters used to promote live performances were in a format referred to as “boxing style posters.” Typically, these were rectangular pieces of board with simple photos or illustrations of a performer or group and basic information about the date, time, location, and admission price. The name pays homage to the boxing matches this particular style of poster represented in the 1920s.  While there were exceptions, this style of poster was simple, direct, and commonplace. Boxing posters were used in the late 1940s and early 1950s to bring awareness to various performances from multiple artists. They would go on later to advertise all genres of music that we know today.

The Start of a Movement

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Concert posters would play a crucial role in the spread of the rock ‘n roll movement.  Some of the posters from this time, although not pleasing to the eye, have become iconic. This is mainly due to their connection to a historic event or milestone performance. Posters, much like many other collectibles, were deemed disposable pieces. Their singular purpose was to advertise. Similar to Golden Age comic books, concert posters from the early days of rock ‘n roll are rare. They are occasionally crude, and difficult to find in decent condition.

Posters that feature the famous performers of the era, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course the legendary Elvis Presley, are among some of the most valuable and sought-after pieces around. However, lesser-known groundbreaking artists like Eddie Cochran, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Fats Domino’s posters are also desirable thanks to the artists’ dedicated fan bases. Then there are also the concert posters that demarcate a historic event. For example, the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper commonly referred to as “the Day the Music Died.” Posters from this tour are incredibly rare and sell for impressive amounts at auction.

When the Beatles appeared on the scene, the boxing style poster was still popular. As one can guess, any memorabilia connected to the Fab Four is in great demand. The fervor for the band has remained consistently strong more than five decades after the group split up. Beatles concert posters were the last hurrah for the boxing design, as the band stopped touring just before the next big step forward in the concert poster’s evolution. The psychedelic movement would change the landscape of concert posters forever. 

The Psychedelic Concert Poster

In the mid-1960s, the counterculture movement started to take hold. Rock music was at the forefront of the antiwar messaging of the era. The combination of revolutionary upheaval, civil rights activism and, a flood of illicit substances such as marijuana and LSD would create a groundswell of new, experimental music styles. In turn, this would greatly affect the design and consciousness of the artists making concert posters. 

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(c) Wes Wilson

Posters from the psychedelic era are easily the most well-documented and collected artifacts in the history of the hobby. Bright, eye-catching, and, at times, intentionally difficult to decipher designs were traits that all marked psychedelic posters. Bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane took flight from the rock scene in the gritty Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham moved toward the psychedelic posters. He hired artists like Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.  The posters of this period are now considered to be highly-collectible fine art. Many of the artists who designed these masterpieces are recognized as important figures in the art world. This style of concert poster would become king throughout the 60s. The psychedelic culture overflowed into the mainstream, affecting advertisement and mass media with its powerful imagery.

1970s

The poster culture of the 60s would spill over into the 1970s. As rock bands of the period outgrew the clubs and began to fill stadiums and arenas, the need to raise awareness of performances would start to dwindle. As the bands of the 60s became bloated overblown versions of their earlier selves, a new musical genre would begin to rise up as an answer to the mega-stardom and expensive excess of the 60s. The next big movement in concert posters would be the D.I.Y. (do it yourself) flyers of the punk and new wave movements of the 70s and 80s.

The Punk Revolution

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(C) Gary Leonard

In the 1970s, punk rock would rise up from the gutters of New York and London as an answer to the self-indulgence of the 60s.  Punk rock rebelled against groups like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, whose thirty-minute guitar solos and intricate stage shows began to turn off a segment of the rock community. These people longed for the simpler days of the stripped-down energy of the 50s. With rougher edges and a desire to make social commentary, though. Punk rock was the end result of the longing for something more accessible and attainable. Punk was for fans who felt that their icons had transformed into untouchable godlike celestial beings with whom they shared nothing in common.

Posters for the People

Much like the musical posture that punk assumed—dirty, fast, and simplistic- the next wave of concert posters was also a new breed. They’d be mainly printed on xerox machines or mimeographs, and designed by amateur artists. The look and feel of punk posters were jagged and unruly, combining the font style of ransom notes, repurposed imagery or hand-drawn designs, and the smaller size of the 8” x 11” flyer. The surviving punk adverts are also popular items that are traded by a cultishly devoted fanbase. Bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and The Clash popularized a genre that has sustained itself through the decades, thanks to devotees of the punk lifestyle.

Punk would transform into hardcore during the 80s while continuing with a similar style of flyer design. These used an even more “no-frills” approach that would mirror the tougher sound of the music they promoted. Both punk and hardcore concert posters are very rare in good condition. Fans of these collectibles are currently aging into the demographic of collectors, much like the Baby Boomers that came before them that drove the interest in psychedelic poster art. Punks are now at that age where they want to recapture the memories of their youth. 

New Music Movements Emerge

Pieces from the Punk era were commonly printed on paper, not board. This made survival rates lower, and, as most collectors are aware, rarity often equates to value. While punk was making waves, another musical subculture was birthed on the streets of New York City. The unique graffiti art of rap music was beginning to appear on handbills that were circulating in clubs and discotheques around the urban sprawl of the outer boroughs of New York. Rap promotional flyers and handbills are a very desirable niche offshoot of the concert poster world. Now that rap has basically usurped rock as the popular music of choice, the roots of the form are quickly becoming a ripe ground for memorabilia collectors.

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(C) Brian Thompson

1980s

Moving on into the 80s, new wave would once again remake the concert poster aesthetic. It employed similar tools to the punk movement, but added its own unique spin on the concert poster. New wave art was commonly recognized for its simple and colorful imagery. While punk reveled in ugliness and offensiveness, new wave prided itself on artistic snobbery. Some bands like Devo leaned into their art school backgrounds to help define their iconography. Other bands would go for the darker look of goth or electronic music.

Needless to say, the 80s were a period of intense creativity, and diversity, creating a canvas for the “anything goes” look of new wave concert posters. Although the technology had been available for years, the use of the silkscreen printing process would take hold in the 80s. It would spark the next big change in the concert poster world. The ability to add several layers of art on top of one another would allow for more colorful and intricate design possibilities. This would become the medium of choice in the 1990s. 

Grunge’s Greasy Emergence- 1990s

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(C) Frank Kozik

At the beginning of the 90s, rock music was once again overdue for a shot of adrenaline. The MTV Generation had grown bland on a diet of prepackaged saccharine pop hits, hair metal ballads, and artists from the 60s updating their sound to try and appeal to a new audience. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, something was brewing among the rain and trees. Bands who were influenced by hardcore punk and heavy metal movements of the 80s were throwing all their progenitors into a blender. The end result was an era that was termed grunge by music journalists.

Bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and of course, Nirvana, would serve to sweep the plate clean once again. They killed off the outdated hairstyles and fashions of the 80s and launched a new, melodic but heavy movement. Its penchant for flannel and ripped jeans would soon take over the popular culture. The gritty roots of grunge were patterned on the ideas of punk. The concert poster art that would arise from the grunge movement would take on its own unique identity. It employed some of the shock elements of punk, as well as psychedelic design ideas from the hippie era. 

Blast From the Past

The poster art of the 90s would once again turn its focus to the larger poster-sized pieces of the past, and a crop of incredible artists would rise from the scene. Names like Art Chantry, Mike King, and Jim Blanchard would pop up. Drawing influences from tattoo flash art and indy comics, the distinct style and flavor of the 90s concert poster melded perfectly with the music it promoted. They also ignited interest in a new segment of the concert poster collecting world, the direct sale poster. These were made to be sold directly to fans, and led to many high-quality pieces being preserved in impressive condition. As the 90s rolled into the new century, the internet and home printing tech would once again change the game in the 2000s. Flyer art became easily accessible to anyone who had a computer and rudimentary artistic skills.

A New Artist Appears

In the modern age, anyone and everyone who plays music could be their own concert poster production house. With tools like Photoshop, any laptop can be transformed into a creative studio. Some with more firepower than an entire advertising company. In the era of Mad Men, concert posters are legion. Even the most obscure act with a small base can create great art to promote their live shows, but few have mastered this new art form. This leads to an abundance of material out there. There are, however, few pieces worth noting from the vantage point of a collector. 

While most promotion is done online now, poster art remains a direct and low-cost way to let people know about an upcoming gig.  As such, the concert poster continues to be a form of expression as well as advertisement. The direct purchase poster business is still in full bloom. These collectibles are being generated for delivery to rabid fans. The concert poster has held its ground in the digital age, in a transformed state. To be honest, everything has had to reconfigure to survive since the advent of the internet. Who knows what the future holds for concert posters?

Money in Original Art

Another aspect of poster collecting to take into account is the original art created for the published posters. Many pieces were personally rendered by talented and, in some instances, famous artists. Other pieces were physical cut and paste jobs, where the original content was taken from another medium and reused for flyers. Respected artists as varied as Greg Irons, Robert Williams, Coop, Pushead, Raymond Pettibon, or Shepard Fairey have all contributed to the creative world of the concert poster. Acquiring their original art could be a grand investment, much like the original comic book art market.