Exposing the Niche Art of Concert Posters

by Andrea Williams

Concert posters are relatively inexpensive compared to other collectibles and while some posters sell for large sums of money, a far greater percentage are not going to break the bank. Printed in generally small runs of 200 – 2,500 copies, made their survival rates low and in turn increased the value of these rare commodities. 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

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Alphonse Mucha, 1896

Posters emerged in the late 1800s as lithography made it cheap and fast to print up images on cardboard to help promote anything from commercial products to live performances of theater or music. The format was popularized in France with posters designed by artists like Toulouse Lautrec, Jules Cheret, and their contemporaries, many of whom are now considered to be fine artists.  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, a publicity campaign that helped make posters the preferred form of inexpensive advertisement which is still popular today.

In the years between the 1900s to the mid-1960s, most posters used to promote live performances were in the format referred to as “boxing style posters,” typically a rectangular piece 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, and some of the posters from this time, although not aesthetically pleasing, have become iconic, 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, occasionally crude, and difficult to find in decent condition. Posters that feature the famous performers of the era, 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, but 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, such as 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, and as one can guess, any memorabilia connected to the Fab Four are in great demand, as 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, which would change the landscape of concert posters forever. 

The Psychedelic Concert Poster

In the mid-1960s, the counterculture movement started to take hold, and 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, and, in turn, 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 gravitated toward the psychedelic posters and commissioned them from artists like Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.  The posters of this period are now considered to be a highly collectible fine art and 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, as the psychedelic culture overflowed into the mainstream, affecting advertisement and mass media with its mind-bending and powerful imagery. The poster culture of the 60s would spill over into the 1970s, but 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 complacency and 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, who longed for the simpler days of the stripped-down energy of the 50s, but with rougher edges and a desire to make social commentary. Punk rock was the end result of the longing for something more accessible and attainable for fans who felt that their icons had transformed into untouchable godlike celestial beings that they shared nothing in common with. Much like the musical posture that punk assumed—dirty, fast, and simplistic, the next wave of concert posters was also a new breed. Mainly printed on xerox machines or mimeographs, and designed primarily 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 collectibles 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 lifelong devotees of the punk lifestyle. Punk would transform into hardcore during the 80s, while continuing with a similar style of flyer design, embodying an even more “no-frills” approach that would mirror the tougher sound of the music it promoted. Both punk and hardcore concert posters are incredibly rare in good condition, and the 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, making 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, and 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

Moving on into the 80s, new wave would once again reconfigure the concert poster aesthetic, employing similar tools to the punk movement, but adding their own unique spin on the concert poster. New wave art was commonly recognized for it’s simple, imaginative, and colorful imagery. While punk reveled in ugliness and offensiveness, new wave prided itself on artistic snobbery, and while 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, and spark the next big change in the concert poster world, as the ability to add several layers of art on top of one another would allow for more colorful and intricate design possibilities, which would become the medium of choice in the 1990s. 

Grunge’s Greasy Emergence

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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 amongst the rain and trees, bands who were equally influenced by hardcore punk and heavy metal movements of the 80s were throwing all their progenitors into a blender, and the end result was the movement 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, killing off the outdated hairstyles and fashions of the 80s and launching a new, melodic but heavy music movement whose 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, but the concert poster art that would arise from the grunge movement would take on its own unique identity, employing some of the shock elements of punk, as well as psychedelic design ideas from the hippie era, 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. Drawing influences from tattoo flash art and independent comics, the distinct style and flavor of the 90s concert poster melded perfectly with the music it promoted, and also ignited interest in a new segment of the concert poster collecting world, the direct sale poster, which was manufactured 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 technology would once again change the game in the 2000s, making flyer art easily accessible to anyone who had a computer and rudimentary artistic skills.

A New Artist Materializes

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 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 following can create visionary art to promote their live appearances, but few have mastered this new art form. This lead to an abundance of material out there, but few pieces of distinction from the vantage point of a collector. 

While most promotion is done online nowadays, poster art remains a direct and inexpensive way to let people know about an upcoming gig, so the concert poster continues to be a viable form of expression as well as advertisement. The direct purchase poster business is still in full bloom, with these affordable collectibles being generated for delivery to rabid fans, the concert poster has held its ground in the digital age, in a transformed state, but 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. 

Another aspect of concert 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, and other pieces were physical cut and paste jobs, where the original content was taken from another medium and repurposed for flyer use, either way, the unique original art created for concert posters is an interesting adjunct to the collecting of posters proper. Respected artists as varied as Greg Irons, Robert Williams, Coop, Pushead, Raymond Pettibon, or Shepard Fairey have all contributed to the creative endeavor of the concert poster, and acquiring their original art could be a lucrative investment, much like the original comic book art market.