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Beyond Vinyl: Collectors get stuck on music pins

by Stephen M.H. Braitman — People have been sticking little signs and messages on their shirts for a long time. The origins of pins and pin-backs are lost in the beginnings of the early Industrial Revolution, but by the 19th century, politicians and supporters were actively campaigning all over their bodies.

by Stephen M.H. Braitman

People have been sticking little signs and messages on their shirts for a long time. The origins of pins and pin-backs are lost in the beginnings of the early Industrial Revolution, but by the 19th century, politicians and supporters were actively campaigning all over their bodies.

Pin collectors are vast in number, as are the pins themselves, which probably number in the millions produced over the past 150 years or more. There is probably no style or genre that is not actively collected, with sports, Disney, transportation, and commercial brands and products are the biggest categories. The Hard Rock Café has actively promoted enamel-pin collecting by issuing dozens of different pins from each of their locations for almost every holiday and theme event. They’ve even got their own Pin Collectors Club, with Pin Master Specialists!

You’ll know you’re in an alternate universe when you sit between two Hard Rock collectors discussing pin variations such as gold lettering or raised silver letters on white or free-standing letters or backed letters or … the devil, and the fun, is in the details.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about. There actually are two main types of these things we’re talking about. Ron Toth Jr. of the Time Passages Nostalgia Company says that most collectors consider the classic celluloid-covered pin with a round or straight locking pin on the back a pin-back button. The “tie tack” pin can be metal or plastic or enamel, but generally has a straight pin on the back that is covered up with a separate nub or stopper. Ken McClure the Groovy Dude simply says “pins” refer to lapel pins, and “pin back” refers to buttons.

A third type, made of tin or some other thin metal, is a one-piece construction, with a painted or printed design and a fold-over part. It’s called a tin-tab button. McClure says you rarely see these much anymore. Avis Rent-A-Car distributed thousands of these imprinted with the phrase “We Try Harder.” United Artists Records produced one of these in the early 1970s to promote The Move.

So let’s get down to music pins and pin-backs. “Pins go well beyond just artists and bands,” says Toth. “There are pins for every musical instrument, many nightclubs, bars, music venues, radio stations, television shows, and more.” There is just so much out there it would be impossible to try to collect everything. Like trying to be a stamp collector of all world-wide stamp issues. Most try to focus on a band or a style or an era. Because this is a veritable Wild West, there are no guides to know what you are looking for. Almost all finds are discoveries. (Except The Beatles. Always except The Beatles, who’ve been indexed and catalogued to near infinity.)

There were three rich eras of intense music-pin activity. (We’ll leave out composer pins from the 1800s that Toth has discovered.) In the 1950s, bobby soxers and teen dreams sported as many television stars as they did rock ’n’ rollers on their pin-backs. Elvis, of course, as well as Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett and Dick Clark were worn on lapels, shirts and blouses.

In the 1960s, pins played a part in the counterculture. Buttons were the public face of the hip underground, sporting drug and hippy icons and slogans like “Take A Trip,” “Jesus Wore Long Hair,” “Fly Trans Love Airways,” “Don’t Sit On The Grass” and the eternally optimistic “Peace.” Bands from San Francisco got into the act, and an original “Jefferson Airplane Loves You” pin-back can fetch a much prettier penny these days than the pure love it took to obtain one in 1967.

The punk bomb of the late ’70s burst with all kinds of new shapes and sizes, not just with gimmick record packaging but with pins of all sorts. Everyone wore buttons, expressing their individual choices among the explosion of new bands and sounds. Epic Records sent out teeny-tiny Elvis Costello pin-backs, while Devo expensively produced big vibrating 3-D badges of nerdness. The plastic-spike-and-stick pin of The Clash was a classic. Sire was less creative with The Ramones, making up several buttons for them with common images drawn from their album covers. Shapes were guitars (Dire Straits), the United States (Talking Heads) and even a bikini-clad blonde (Missing Persons).

In parallel with the pins produced by record companies and bands to promote their records and tours, a large commercial industry grew to satisfy the needs of fans collecting everything related to their favorite group. There are Web sites and eBay postings now, today, where you can buy 10, 50, 100 different buttons at once of Michael Jackson or Duran Duran or Madonna. Generally, the more popular the artist, the more plentiful the merchandise.

That means the more obscure or cult artist may actually bring higher prices from collectors. The Misfits, one of the more collectible goth-punk bands around, have probably produced the most expensive pin-back of the modern era. Their JFK assassination pin from 1978, for “Bullet” from Plan 9 Records, always seems to bring $100 to $200 or more when it comes up for auction. Ken McClure reports $300 paid for a pin-back of the Atlanta International Pop Festival from 1970, which featured the Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix. Two identical Hard Rock Café pins in the shape of a guitar with the designer’s name on the back went for $500 at auction, according to Ron Toth, Jr.

It takes some detective work to separate the common from the rare in collecting music pins. Knowing which Beatles buttons were actual Capitol or Apple promotional items instead of licensed (or unlicensed) products is important, because the promos are much rarer. The same applies to more recent acts. “Blondie Is A Group” was a slogan on a button by Private Stock in 1976, but when the band became popular, the original was reprinted commercially. Warner Brothers gave out the 3-D Devo buttons in 1978, but later the band started selling them through their fan club and Web site.

Of course, it all comes down to collecting what turns you on. With pins and buttons, there’s more than enough to keep you hunting for years. Prices are generally low because button collecting itself is so low-profile. That probably won’t last, so now is a good time to start that collection.

Here are some of the higher prices paid for notable music pins in the few couple years:
• Queen crown pin-back (’80s): $40
• The Rolling Stones “Voodoo Lounge” 1994 enamel pin: $50
• Dire Straits guitar pin (1978): $50
• The Beatles B Brooch pin-back (1964): $80
• Dick Clark fan club button (’50s): $73
• Ultravox “Rage In Eden” tie pin tour badge (1981) $120

Additional Resources:
Gasoline Alley Antiques

Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music appraiser (,
writer, collector, and fan.


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