A Collector’s Take on Music Posters

A Collector's Take on Music Posters

by Gary Sohmers

In the beginning, there was art.
Then music, performance, and finally, advertising.
So begins the growth of the cultural arts,
a path towards enlightenment,
amusement, and profitability.

Most early musical and theatrical performances were promoted in printed matter in the form of broadsides, handbills and leaflets. In the early 19th century, classical music, church, and Shakespearean-styled performances were promoted on black and white letterpress posters featuring mostly words, dates, and the occasional engraved image. Most of these stylized objects do not have great value unless the graphics are exceptionally unique.

The growth of touring theater, musical acts, and movie theaters in the early 20th century brought about the need for letterpress printers to more cost effectively produce posters, which were mostly attached to telephone poles now dotting the cityscape, and in store windows. Big bands were the first of the new popular musical styles to be featured prominently as advertising for events and recordings, as they toured the small towns and big cities and had hits on the new AM radio bands everyone was tuned into. There is a small demand and reasonable supply of most Big Band-era posters, and they typically sell for less than $50; however, posters from

Blues artists can sell for thousands. The two biggest providers of cardboard “boxing style” concert posters were the Globe Poster Company of Baltimore MD1 and Hatch Show Print of Nashville TN2.

After World War II, the music touring and recording industry grew by leaps and bounds as Big Band, Rhythm & Blues, Country and other popular music acts were playing ballrooms, theaters, high schools and nightclubs coast-to-coast. As a result there was an increased demand for advertising materials. Many posters featured pictures of the performers but the goal was to clearly state the date, place, and performers. Many of the posters from this era are valued based on the performers, with Blues and R&B touring shows and early rock and rollers realizing the most value.

While this form and style of posters was all well and good for promoting musical acts, bands and performers in the 1950s and early 1960s, by 1965 tastes in music and art were changing. Musicians were being influenced by Modern Art, comic books, film, Disney, Picasso, Dali, and other modern art movements, as well as by marijuana and LSD. Some musicians turned to the creative artists in their own circles to design and print their concert posters. In June of 1965, a folk rock group of San Francisco musicians called The Charlatans went off to Virginia City, Nevada to perform a series of concerts at the Red Dog Saloon involving LSD provided by Owlsley, and produced the first “psychedelic” concert posters, created by artist/musician George Hunter.

San Francisco became a prime point of reference for the merging of psychedelic music and art, each being part of the human experience related to the performance. The Acid Tests at Longshoreman’s Hall and at Golden Gate Park, along with the Fillmore, Avalon, and Carousel Ballrooms became the epicenter of the “psychedelic scene.”

A Collector's Take on Music PostersPosters from 1963 – 1966 promoting protest concerts that included poets, folk, bluegrass and spoken performances, reflected the voice of a new generation of outspoken critics of culture and consumerism, banding hippies and anti-establishment spokespeople around causes of freedom and against persecution. Concert performers used concert posters to attract their special audiences – separated from the “straight” audience – using psychedelic words merged with bizarre images to identify and define what was cool. Chet Helms of The Family Dog at the Avalon and Bill Graham of the Fillmore cooperatively competed to produce shows with the psychedelic and popular musical acts on the local scene, producing concert posters for each one of their shows. They numbered their individual poster series, distributed the posters to the fans at the venues, and distributed them to local book and record shops and college campuses. They also produced handbills and postcards using the same art and artists.

The most influential musical groups to come out of the San Francisco scene were The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin – all would play all of the local venues. Between 1966 and 1968 promoters typically secured up-and-coming young artists to produce the artwork for the posters that advertised their shows. Although there were up to 50 different artists involved in the San Francisco concert poster scene, the most popular, and the creators of many of the more iconic works to come out of that period, include Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Victor Moscoso. Besides doing concert posters, they were also involved in the underground comix art world.

The most desirable of the psychedelic concert posters involve the combination of the performers and the artists, with Jimi Hendrix at the top of the list and the Fillmore BG105 by Rick Griffin having the most demand and often exceeding $10,000 for a first print in mint condition. Other groups with large followings include The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, commanding in excess of $3,000 for rare mint examples by artists such as Wes Wilson, Lee Conklin, and Stanley Mouse.

Concert poster collecting can be complicated, as many of the original posters have been reprinted, authorized and not. A first printing is a poster printed and distributed before the concert to advertise the event. A second printing is after the concert and often times distributed to head shops and poster shops during the era. A third printing or “copy” would be a poster printed after the era.

The information to determine first printings was initially aggregated by poster collector Eric King who published a reference guide in the mid-1970s that included sizes of each print run along with the subtle differences that could identify a first from a later printing, including Union bugs, printing flaws, misprints and ink color variations. Some of that information is available online at www.therose7.com, but Eric’s reference guide remains the ultimate information source.

As the San Francisco concert scene evolved into a corporate concert environment, with shows moving away from ballrooms and into stadiums, the concert poster scene changed as well. Even though most of the same artists and performers were featured, posters were being printed in larger quantities and being distributed to poster and record stores across the country for resale.

“Punks” in NY, LA, and London were doing an alternative to “hippie” music and their art was not meant to be read by stoners and acid heads… the Punks used caustic black and white, shocking in-your-face attitude artwork and verbiage to reach their fan base. The Ramones, New York Dolls, Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols represented the rebellion of corporate music and art as a throw-away society. Posters and flyers from this era were printed in smaller quantities and many will grow in value as historical artifacts.

As the concert poster marketplace matured in the 1980s and 1990s, and with no Internet to gather information on quantities and values, a dedicated marketplace of dealers and poster shop owners grew the demand and prices of the key posters. Cardboard boxing style posters of the 1950s and 1960s – from touring acts such as the “Caravan of Stars,” Motown revues, and Chitlin circuit R&B shows, along with Alan Freed, Dick Clark, and Murray The K Rock n Roll Shows posters – began to attract prices over $10,000 when they came to the market. San Francisco psychedelic posters were selling at reasonably low prices for people looking to connect with the music of their youth, and demand for posters from the 1960s and 1970s for such acts as The Monkees, The Yardbirds, The Who and Bob Dylan grew.

Concert posters continued to be made to promote concerts, but another generation of musical acts was evolving supported by a new breed of concert poster artists – the fans. In the late 1980s through the mid-1990s as the post-punk Pop and then the Grunge movements of music evolved in the clubs from Washington D.C. to Boston to Seattle, fans of the musical performers began producing short run posters for gigs at their local venues. Many of these were silk screened, and all incorporated interesting, sometimes bizarre, modern art.

Led by Frank Kozik, the movement of Modern Rock concert posters as limited edition and signed art, in the same vein as Andy Warhol or Peter Max, was distributed through local art and music stores. Some of the artists who produced significant works of this era include Emek, Mark Arminski, Greg “Stainboy” Reinel, Lindsay Kuhn and Jermaine Rogers, whose works now command prices as high as some of the artists of the psychedelic era.

The next major reference book that added to the growth in the value and credibility of the concert poster art marketplace was The Art of Rock, published in 1999, which showed a museum quality aspect to these posters and contributed to the demand from investors from the art and fine print worlds. The Art of Modern Rock was published in 2004.

The strength of the concert poster marketplace is based on the continued popularity of the music, the performers, style of the art, the limited availability of the initial printings, and the universal appeal of the designs. The artists that originally created all of these different styles were making disposable art at the time, merely for advertising purposes or to convey their attitude about the music or scene. Most never thought their works of art would hold any other value than as a decorative object.

Each work represents a multiple of historic references of their times.

A Collector's Take on Music PostersVintage and modern concert posters can be acquired at credible auction sources such as WeissAuctions.com and ConcertPosterAuction.com. Several websites offer vintage and modern posters for sale including WolfgangsVault.com, dking-gallery.com and OddToes.com. ExpressoBeans.com is a website that has listings of thousands of posters and artists in order to get detailed information about print runs and recent sales info.

Author Gary Sohmers is well known in the concert poster and popular culture marketplaces, having been a musician, recording artist, concert promoter, concert poster artist, booking agent, producer, radio talk show host, host of talk radio program “Calling All Collectors” on WCAP radio every Tuesday, an expert appraiser for 13 seasons on PBS TV’s “Antiques Roadshow” and producer of the Northeast Comic Con and Collectibles Extravaganza. Gary is available for appraisals of concert posters, music memorabilia and pop culture collectibles for insurance, donation, tax or probate needs. Gary also buys and sells items on consignment. wexrex@aol.com; AllCollectors.com; NEComicCon.net

A Collector’s Take on Music Posters