Investigating Concert Poster Formats

by Cassaundra Thomas

Handbill-192x300 Investigating Concert Poster FormatsConcert poster art comes in several different formats that mainly differ in size, material, and printing medium. Every collectible market has its nomenclature. In the poster world, there are certainly differing opinions on what is considered a poster, a flyer, a handbill, or a postcard. However, it is widely recognized that these are the main formats that concert posters come in. They generally represent the size of the piece as well as the way it was used as an advertisement tool. Now, sit yourself down, get comfy, and let’s dive into some concert poster formats.

Handbills and Postcards

Handbills and postcards are the smallest-sized form of art under the concert poster spectrum. As a pair, they make the smallest of the common concert poster formats. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a consensus among collectors that they are in fact two different mediums. Handbills got their name due to the way they are distributed; they were literally handed out as a form of promotion. They could be handed out to passersby on the street, or left in spaces such as cafes and record stores.

Handbills were generally meant to be taken, rather than observed like a poster. This distinguishes them from posters, as posters were “posted” rather than handed out. Occasionally, handbills were also mailed out, and some are double-sided, with one side featuring artwork and the other containing a calendar of events or mailing information. Though these pieces are often referred to as handbills, they are more often thought of by collectors to be postcards.

In terms of size and dimension, handbills are often considered by experts and collectors to be anything that is smaller than 11″ x 17”, which is the smallest size a piece can be to be considered a poster. Traditionally, handbills are often between 3″ x 5” and 8.5″ x 11” in size, and printed on thinner paper than posters. 

A Brief History

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(c) Wes Wilson

The existence of handbills dates back as far as that of concert posters. In the early-to-mid 1950s when posters were primarily created using letterpress printing, handbills were often created as well to accompany posters, such as those for disc-jockey Alan Freed’s rock shows. However, the most sought after handbills are those that came out of the psychedelic era in the 1960s. Perhaps some of the rarest of handbills came from the early years of The Family Dog in San Francisco.

When The Family Dog first began to produce rock dances, artist Alton Kelley created handbills to advertise the events. Only a few hundred of these handbills were ever produced. Very few still exist today. When The Family Dog began producing shows at the Avalon Ballroom and their numbered series of posters commenced, handbills were produced at first as well. Posters 1-41 in the series were accompanied by handbills. These were simply presented as a smaller version of the poster, and featured artwork from artists. These artists included Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Rick Griffin.

And Then Came Postcards

After poster number 41 in the series, handbills were replaced with postcards. The first 10 handbills in the numbered series were 5″x 7”, and featured several color variants. The rest of the series of handbills range in size from 5.5″ x 8.5”, 8″ x 11”, and 8.5″ x 11”. Many of these also featured colors that varied from the original poster. They were all printed on thin paper. As a result, they are difficult to find in good condition today. The postcards that accompanied the posters in the series after number 41 feature multiple variations. They also often had a spot to place a stamp on the back.

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(c) Bill Graham Archives

The Bill Graham numbered series also featured handbills to accompany its posters. The first 50 or so posters in the series were also printed as handbills, but after that, the accompanying pieces are widely considered to be postcards rather than handbills. The first 24 handbills in the series were printed in black and white on thin paper similar to typing paper, with 5″ x 7” dimensions, and are the rarest and most valuable today. Numbers 25-45 in the series featured full-color artwork, and some were printed on cardstock. By number 53 in the series, all handbills were being printed in a format similar to postcards. All of the previously printed handbills were reprinted in the new format. These postcard-style pieces often either featured a calendar of upcoming Bill Graham shows on the back or had spaces to put stamps and were designed to be mailed. 

Handbill Art

Handbill art also served as a means to promote various ethnic music to audiences who frequented rock events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Handbills were essentially a part of the streets in areas such as Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Since they were relatively inexpensive to produce and were highly effective as a form of advertisement, they proved useful in advertising shows for artists outside of the typical rock music scope, such as Toots and the Maytals and Sunnyland Slim. Promoters ensured that these handbills were distributed by the thousands before each show. Ideally, they lined every possible space on the street that they could. 

So What is the Difference to Collectors?

Though there is a clear overlap between handbills and postcards, there are distinctions made between the two for the sake of collecting. In general, handbills are pieces with blank reverses that are printed almost exclusively on thin paper, though in some rare cases card stock was used. Because of the thin paper stock, handbills could not be mailed.

Postcards, on the other hand, are often smaller in size, no larger than 5″ x 7”, printed on card stock (generally at least 80lb stock), and have a postcard reverse. This means that there is often either a bulk mail permit or a “place stamp here” marker on the back of the card, or a calendar of events. 


Punk-Flyers-Primary-thumb-630x971-76754-195x300 Investigating Concert Poster FormatsThough the terms “flyer” and “handbill” are also occasionally used interchangeably, what are commonly considered to be flyers are rock art pieces associated with the punk and new wave scene of the 1970s. Artists from this era rejected the typical style of poster art. They instead chose to embrace a DIY approach that reflected the music they were advertising.

These pieces frequently utilized collage work as a design. Often, they were created by band members rather than by artists who were commissioned. Punk and new wave flyers were most often created using xerox machines or other types of office copier machines in local print shops. They were printed in black and white on 8.5″ x 11” paper. And were generally slightly larger than what would be considered a handbill.

This allowed for flyers to be more immediately available to use for advertisement, rather than using the long process of creating a poster. This also accounted for a lack of uniformity in the art form, which was something the artists welcomed. The posters that were created during this era for punk and new wave bands added color to the designs but mainly stayed the same size as the flyers. 

Punk Art: Designed to Shock

Punk art was always intended as street art and was often designed to shock passersby. They were often graphic, inappropriate, offensive, and intense. Because of this, punk flyers were often taken down off of the streets. By contrast, new wave flyers were a bit more sophisticated and witty in nature but still embraced a similar format. Most of the flyer art from this era was not designed with commercial success in mind, but merely as a form of attracting an audience.

A common tactic used by punk artists was to post flyers in specific neighborhoods where they would offend and scare off most individuals, but attract those that understood their message. Though punk and new wave flyers appeared in numerous cities and neighborhoods around the world, the Bay Area remained the epicenter for these forms of concert poster formats. Flyers advertised shows at important punk clubs in the area, including Mabuhay Gardens, Sound of Music, and Tool & Die among numerous others.

Still Worth Some Effort

While flyers from the punk and new wave era may not be collected as commonly as handbills and posters from the psychedelic era, they are still valuable and sought after. Pieces featuring bands such as Black Flag, The Germs, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Devo, Crime, Talking Heads, and many more are consistently collected by fans. 

Flyers are one of the few forms of poster art that remain a popular advertising tool today. Posters are more commonly bought and sold for collecting purposes and are rarely used simply for advertising. However, flyers are still consistently posted on the street and handed out at shows. Many flyers today maintain the DIY nature of the classic punk and new wave style. Though they are generally created digitally, they are still often created by the bands themselves and printed at office print shops or at home. They also generally maintain the standard 8.5″ x 11” dimensions, though many are also much smaller. It is impossible to go to a large concert or music festival today without encountering hundreds of flyers advertising other festivals and shows. Though they may not be collectibles or carefully designed, flyers are still extremely effective forms of concert art. 


FD-9-POwm-max-640-209x300 Investigating Concert Poster FormatsPosters are the most collected medium of concert art and remain the most popular form today. Since the 1950s, posters have been an essential piece of the concert experience. They got their name from the way in which they were distributed. They were originally posted on the streets or inside of music venues as a means to advertise upcoming shows.


Posters usually varied in size. Generally, they range from 11″ x 17” on the small end to 24″ x 36” on the larger end. Most of the posters associated with the Avalon Ballroom and the Family Dog measured 14″ x 20”. The posters associated with the Fillmore Auditorium and Bill Graham were generally slightly larger in size.

What Were They Made Of?

With many classic, collectible rock posters, there is also variance in the materials used for poster printing. Many of the early Bill Graham and Family Dog posters in the numbered series were printed on vellum. This is a soft paper that tore and stained easily. As a result, it is extremely difficult to find them in good condition today. Other classic posters were printed on a thick paper stock that is more sturdy in nature. Most posters printed in the psychedelic era from 1966 until 1968 were printed on non-coated paper.

From 1969 on, coated paper became more common. Much of the paper was made using optical brighteners. Most rock posters from the psychedelic era were printed using offset lithographic presses and using standard printing ink. Though many of these posters feature vibrant colors that may be associated with Day-Glo ink, it was rarely used in the psychedelic era. Day-Glo ink was used more commonly for “boxing style” posters in the 1950s. Especially in pieces done by Globe Poster in Baltimore, Maryland.

The first several Family Dog posters, such as FD 1, were printed in black and white and later colored in by hand. This hand coloring inspired the later use of full-color ink. As concert poster formats go, the standard poster is a good bet for collectors.

The Printing Process

lithography-159x300 Investigating Concert Poster FormatsEarly concert posters were mainly printed using either letterpress printing or offset lithography. Letterpress printing is the process of pressing paper onto an inked, raised surface, often made of wood or metal, to create copies. This style of printing is the legacy of Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tennessee.

The earliest concert posters were created using letterpress at firms including Hatch, Globe Poster, and Colby Poster in Los Angeles. Many of these first posters were designed for black artists of the era, such as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Offset lithography involves transferring inked images from a plate to a rubber blanket, onto the poster paper. This technique was used to create most of the psychedelic posters from the 1960s and ’70s. 

silk-225x300 Investigating Concert Poster FormatsBeginning in the 1980s in Texas, silkscreen prints began to gain popularity as a means of printing concert posters. Artist Frank Kozic is heavily credited with revamping the concert poster art form with his screenprints. Though screen printing had been used sparingly before this era, it wasn’t until this period that it began to become a prominent way of printing concert posters.

Today, screen printing is the most common way in which posters are printed. Occasionally, some posters will also be screen printed to foil. These posters printed on metallic paper are often released today as special variants of modern concert posters. However, they were occasionally created as far back as the 1960s as well. Sure, what is considered to be a concert poster in the classic sense is rarely used as an advertisement tool today. BUT, posters are still widely collected and created for a variety of events and continue to evolve as an art form. 


Concert posters have come a long way since the day of the boxing-style posters. Handbills, postcards, and posters are highly collectible across the various music genres and eras. Although not used as much for promotion, concert posters are now mainly sold as merchandise. Thanks for joining us for this talk on concert poster formats! Don’t be a stranger, now!

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