Beyond Vinyl: Promo swag makes quirky collectibles

by Stephen M.H. Braitman

Back in the day, some things were special. The thing was, you had to be special to get these special things. If you got a special thing, you knew you were special. This special thing created a bond between you and the giver, never spoken of — a special insider feeling.

So, with this special feeling, what did you do? Chances are, if you were a disc jockey or music reviewer or record store manager, you gave special consideration to the band whose name was on that special thing.

Yes, the world of music promotional items, or swag, has a long and special history. When the music industry started swinging as a commercial force, marketers and publicists took their cue from titans like Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Company. The object, of course, was to spread the brand, make the name known, and sell product.

Ohio printer Jasper Meeks kick-started the whole gewgaw industry when he printed the name of a local shoe store on book bags that he supplied for free to local schools. Now, the annual sales of promo items — most given away for free — is an $18+ billion industry.

A large percentage of that comes from the record industry. Record companies and the people who promote for them stubbornly believe that just the right imprinted keychain, flashing hockey puck or custom lunchbox will have the magic to get their band some decent press or airplay.

A promotional item is some-thing that is freely give to promote something. Strictly speaking, promotional items are irregular, odd, singular, often humorous, sometimes outrageously over-the-top, ranging from cheap to expensive (often depends on how special you are). They are not made for sale to the public, like Beatles bobble-head dolls or “limited edition” picture discs.

For many years, almost every music writer received a Christmas postcard from Elvis Presley. Only 50 people received a U2 “How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb” LCD clock. Probably fewer than 10 Mothers Of Invention “Freak Out” jigsaw puzzles were ever made. The one that sold for $5,000 at Rockaway Records in Los Angeles was probably the last in existence.

Bob Emmer, now COO of Shout! Factory, remembers when, as a college rep for A&M Records, he was given a Procol Harum hand towel and bar of soap as a promotion for their Grand Hotel album. “Now, that may not sound like much to you,” he remembers, “but I thought, my god, I’ve arrived.” Through his major career moves through Rhino and Atlantic, Emmer has seen his share of swag, or, as he puts it, “s**t we all get.” He also created some memorable artifacts of promotional excess.

In 1978, the iconic Hollywood sign in the hills above Hollywood Blvd. was going to be dismantled. “I came up with a publicity stunt,” he says, during the time he was managing Alice Cooper. “Why don‘t we buy the letters to the old sign, and with the money they can construct a new sign?” Emmer managed to convince the powers that be to sell the letters at $35,000 each. He had Cooper buy a letter “O” in honor of Groucho Marx. What did they do with it? “We stamped out miniature Os from the sheet metal, put them in Plexiglas and made a paperweight out them, with the inscription: “1923-1978 Alice Cooper.”

Not coming to eBay anytime soon!

What does come to eBay these days is usually of relatively recent vintage. The U2 clock fetched $850. A sturdy “Stop The Clocks” dartboard with Oasis-inscribed darts reached $733. Oasis promo memorabilia, in fact, seems to be a whole subgenre by itself. For the launch of their 1995 album Morning Glory, they distributed a few special sugar jars filled with what looks like sugar beads, with a little man figure inside. Problem is, these rare items now turn up quite often, and there is a pervasive feeling that a fraud is being perpetrated.

Yes, counterfeiting has hit the music promo-item market, so beware of anything that promises too much without effective provenance or documentation. Of course, it’s generally just major artists who are subject to this caution. Chances are that no one is going to take the trouble to duplicate a Roy Wood Grow-Your-Own-Beard card or a Sparks “Big Beat” sparkler or a Dead Milkmen “Bucky Fellini” Moo Cow. But if it’s from a fan-favorite Brit Beat band, beware.

As with anything, the collectibility of the artist drives the collectibility of the swag. There are very cool items manufactured for bands and artists that nobody cares about anymore. This doesn’t make them less cool, just less valuable. Maybe that means there are plenty of bargains still to be had in this relatively under-researched area of collecting. There is no definitive guide to music promotional items.

Someone very aware of the market is Wayne Johnson of Rockaway. He’s specialized in finding these rare oddities and finding buyers for them, too. Located in Los Angeles, music-industry central, he sees a lot of swag come through the door. The Rockaway Web site (www.rockaway.com) features many museum-quality items.

Johnson recognizes that something like the Mothers jigsaw puzzle is in a different category. By the mid-’70s, the music industry was so big that spending on promo items became not the exception but the rule. “I’m constantly seeing things from 20, 30 years ago,” he says. But from the ’60s and earlier? Those kinds of items were truly special.

Auction notes

Julien’s Auctions held a glittery summer sale and auction at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in June. Expectations were high, given the show’s many unique and personal items owned (and worn) by Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. The opening party was held Thurs., July 25, and the unexpected death of Michael Jackson gave a very different tone to the proceedings than was expected.

At the preview, a leather belt owned by Jackson was in a glass case along with other memorabilia, almost as an extra. The opening bid was expected to be $300 to $400. That leather belt sold for $5,937.50. A fully signed Jackson Five album sold for $34,560. Obviously, emotions ran high during the two-day event. Oh, the King? An Elvis necklace brought $117,000. You can see all the results at www.juliensauctions.com/auctions/2009/summer-sale/results.html.


Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music appraiser (www.MusicAppraisals.com), writer, collector, and fan.

Click here to check out the latest price guides from Goldmine

One thought on “Beyond Vinyl: Promo swag makes quirky collectibles

Leave a Reply