Anyone who has paid attention to the music-collecting field over the past few years knows that posters and other event-oriented paper are the hottest things going.
Other than the well-known Fillmore, Avalon and Grande Ballroom series of the 1960s, the field is wide open, a true Wild West of excitement, opportunity and danger.
What is strange about collecting music posters is that there are two vibrant streams operating in parallel universes. First and foremost, there are the truly ephemeral posters and handbills. These are the ones that have been printed in advance of a specific concert event; afterwards, they are discarded, forgotten or kept by those who attended as souvenirs.
Almost all posters and handbills not part of the famous series belong in this category. This includes various regional venues from the 1960s, such as The Matrix in San Francisco, Pinnacle and Shrine in Los Angeles, The Edge in Rhode Island, Midtown Ballroom in Portland, The Bold Knight in San Jose, Vulcan Gas Company in Austin, The Boston Tea Party and many more.
The punk era, rising in collector esteem, has its own celebrated venues, including CBGB’s in New York, Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, Scorgies in Rochester, Madam Wong’s in Hollywood, Raul’s in Austin and Zak’s in Milwaukee. There are also innumerable one-shots from all eras, veterans halls, fairgrounds, high-school gymnasiums, bars and hotel lounges, where music was presented with rare, one-of-a-kind posters and handbills.
The category also includes all the “boxing style” thicker cardboard posters used from the 1940s through the 1960s for many blues, soul and early rock ’n’ roll shows.
The second stream represents overt marketing of poster “art” to fans and collectors. This commercialization has a few sub-categories, which started in the 1960s when the first wave of popularity for psychedelic posters caused promoters to sell reprints through the ubiquitous poster and head shops of the era. Almost every dorm room had its psychedelic posters hanging on the wall. In fact, the retail sale of music posters was almost completely dominated by San Francisco psychedelic reprints until the 1990s, when in the wake of grunge and Nirvana, a whole new slew of poster artists appeared.
The art was cartoony, edgier, vivid and in-your-face. Artists like Emek, Mark Arminski, Kaz and Frank Kozik produced hundreds of posters specifically designed for sale, capturing the next wave of visual consciousness for the musical subculture. Rarely, if ever, were these often silk-screened and finely produced works ever stapled to walls or taped to poles on the street. Many hippie poster shops jumped over to the new aesthetic, and strollers along Haight and Melrose and Bleeker streets tend to see them while window shopping.
Mortgage Payment Posters
Whether the interest in posters-for-sale has peaked is subject to debate. What is not in question is that “real” event posters have never been more desirable.
Prices being realized for rare posters for rock and blues performers are constantly reaching new highs in practically every auction. San Francisco Rock Posters (www.rockposters.com) concluded an auction in May where the surprising high point was a $12,705 bid for the first numbered Grande Ballroom poster created by Gary Grimshaw. This October 1966 event featured the MC5 and The Chosen Few. The famous “eyeball” poster by Rick Griffin for the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Fillmore reached an eye-popping $3,346 at the June auction event at Heritage Auction Galleries (www.ha.com) in Dallas.
Of course, anything by The Beatles continues to be the gold standard. Prices for original-era Beatles concert posters and handbills and promotional items, such as in-store displays and press kits, will be at least in four-digit range and often more.
Even toney fine-art auction houses like Bonham’s and Christies are getting in on the action. Last month, Christies Pop Culture Auction provided a watershed moment in the viability of punk and grunge as collectible investments. This was the first high-level national auction to include major items from The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, The Ramones, Television, Blondie and other significant ’70s punk and new wave artists. It also contained many Nirvana and Pearl Jam items. The results were very interesting.
A flyer with the Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks appearing together at an Aug. 26, 1976 date claimed a final strike price of $2,125, well above the $1,500 high estimate. A Joy Division poster of an appearance at the Factory in 1979 brought $2,500. Nirvana and Mudhoney together on a bill in New Mexico brought $2,750 for an 8 ½ x 11 flyer. Debbie Harry and Blondie still proved their worth with $4,750 for a signed photograph that also included the hand-written lyrics to “Call Me.”
History and provenance were important in this auction. Less impact was made by generic posters that were pre-printed before a tour started, with information added for specific concerts. A Ramones and Talking Heads tour poster, imprinted with a U.K. appearance on May 22, 1977, fell far short of expectations. With an estimate of $1,500-$2,000, it ended up at $250.
Similarly, a Clash tour poster used for an Oct. 29, 1977 date at the Manchester Apollo (with Richard Hell & The Voidoids) reached $1,500. Nice but a little short of the $2,000-$3,000 estimate. An iconic promotional poster for “God Save the Queen” nearly but not quite reached the low estimate with a sale price of $2,750. Also in the bargain territory were lots of punk flyers, such as 19 items with bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Fear, bringing in only $250, a thousand dollars under estimate.
None of these final prices are anything to sniff at, but it does show that expectations are still being adjusted to fit the actualities of the marketplace. Whether a handbill sells for $200 or $2,000 is significant at either price right now for the punk genre. Awareness, and the deluge, is only starting.
Devil in the Details
In an environment of rapid value acceleration, there is danger.
Whether it be classic San Francisco posters or punk handbills, there is a lot of stuff out there that is plainly illegitimate. Knowing how to determine authentic poster printings, particularly for the rarest items of the 1960s, is a dense, arcane science. For the Fillmore and Avalons, not only are there official multiple versions of many posters, there are also grey market and wily counterfeits out there.
Eric King has spent more than 30 years ferreting out and describing the innumerable variations of all the famous numbered sets. An essential part of any poster collector’s library should be his “Collector’s Guide to Psychedelic Rock Concert Posters, Postcards and Handbills 1965-1973.” This self-published, spiral-bound treatise is an ever-evolving study in exactitude. The current 9th edition is almost 800 pages, and the amount of information is staggering. Each poster, handbill and ticket from the Fillmore, Avalon and Grande gets fully detailed treatment, with pages of description of paper stock, color variations, print edition markings and other essential minutia one needs to know if one really wants to KNOW (http://home.earthlink.net/~therose7/).
King is the sort of cataloger who recommends you own a micrometer to be able to exactly measure the width of a poster’s paper thickness. The difference between thin paper and very thin paper can often mean a lot. As he says, “Considering that some [poster] originals only distinguishable in this manner can cost $500 or $600, the $50 investment seems quite reasonable.” To read though this book is quite an education.
Not Quite Real
The problem of reproductions (declared or not) is currently a real issue with the burgeoning field of punk and new-wave handbills. The raw immediacy of classic punk imagery from 1976-1985 is partly due to one of its most common media: Photocopies.
Punk posters and handbills are rapidly rising in collector consciousness, particularly with The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and the other earliest punk rockers. But there is a natural hesitance to accept higher values for photocopies. The technology does not yet exist at the consumer level to discern an “original” photocopy from a photocopied photocopy. This situation warrants an industry discussion regarding the ethics of dealing in these types of material.
A particularly ethically challenged method of selling reproductions, seen mostly on Web auction sites, is to use the word “reprint” or, more insidiously, just the letters “re” as part of a long detailed description of a poster or handbill. They won’t appear in the headline of the item’s listing. The seller hopes, of course, that the potential buyer will fail to realize that they won’t be bidding on an original printing.
Condition, Condition, Condition!
Besides knowing the specific edition of a poster, the all-important factor of condition has the most bearing on collectibility.
Like records, the condition conundrum is due to the fact that there are no widely accepted standards to follow. Unlike records, physical condition of posters can be much more objectively described, since paper material is more visible than vinyl gloss imperfections and playback sound quality.
There are probably as many attempts to notate all the possible condition variations as there are poster dealers and collectors. Try to define “mint” condition, for example. Look up the dictionary definition of mint and try to say honestly that anything can ever truly be mint. Yet, mint is still often used to describe some posters.
Fortunately, posters have been collected for a longer time than “rock posters.” Art dealers have used a number of systems to accurately profile prints and posters from the heyday of 19th Century French advertising posters, while cinephiles have worked hard to normalize the descriptions of film posters since the silent era.
One of the most popular film poster condition guides is from Jon R. Warren, publisher of a definitive price guide. His I Collect Movie Posters Web site (www.icollectmovieposters.com) contains a section on poster grading that starts with a 10-level system, and characterizes them as Investment Quality, Collector Quality or Unsuitable. This is a good way to familiarize yourself with how detailed poster condition grading can get. Foxing, trims, bumps, chips and regular old pinholes and tape tears are all part of the nomenclature.
Also strangely named, the PosterGeist Web site (www.postergeist.com) has a more standard A-to-D scale that was originally created by Jacaeber Kastor, proprietor of the late lamented Psychedelic Solution Gallery (swallowed up by Wolfgang’s Vault, www.wolfgangsvault.com). This is a good one for rock posters because it speaks the language. For the C grade, he writes, “This is your average cheap decoration, been on the wall since the ’60s … it has a tack hole or minor scar from every apartment it ever resided in.”
Deservedly, poster rarity has engendered a demand far outstripping the supply. The joy of music posters, however, is that the field is huge and still mostly undiscovered.
Finding original blues and rock ’n’ roll posters of the 1940s and 1950s may be a museum-quality challenge. Buying Beatles and other ’60s icon items can be as expensive as buying a car or even a house. But there are many, many bargains out there from areas that are neglected.
Punk and new-wave posters and handbills, of course, are gathering steam, but there are still huge numbers available outside of collector circles. The market for colorful computer-generated, intricate die-cut rave cards from the 1980s and 1990s has deflated from overabundance, but one should definitely not unload their collections just yet. Many clubs issued unique concert announcements, such as the Kennel Club in San Francisco distributing dozens of 3 x 5 ½ colored cards with intricate distinctive designs for groups like The Flaming Lips, Superchunk, Thin White Rope, Jonathan Richman, The Meat Puppets, Pylon, Hunter S. Thompson, Dinosaur Jr. and D.O.A.
Garry Shrum, consignment director for Heritage, is betting on tickets. Concert tickets are small and often just as colorful as full-size posters and handbills, particularly those of the Fillmore Auditorium. “Tickets were small and easy to keep,” Garry says. “People didn’t think of tacking them up in the wall. They went into a drawer.”
That accounts for so many surviving tickets being in excellent condition. Also, as a consequence of many concerts not selling out, there are many complete, unused tickets around.
PosterScene in Boulder (http://posterscene.com) has an unusual assortment of concert tickets and backstage passes from the 1970s and 1980s. Andy Gibb, anyone?
The prices for the San Francisco tickets are still reasonable, compared to the posters. A Fillmore Hendrix ticket may go for $30 or $40, says Shrum, while a Steve Miller Band goes for much less. Tickets from concerts all over the country may be beautiful, historic, with notable bands, and still be cheap. An unused ticket to see The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” however, will probably sell for over $10,000.
If you're going to get seriously into music posters, at some point you'll come into contact with the Rock Poster Society. This organization of artists, dealers, collectors, and fans has been actively promoting the art of music posters for years. They sponsor an annual convention in San Francisco that brings almost everyone in the field together for one long weekend of trading, selling, showing, and playing. They also organize exhibitions, such as a show of psychedelic posters in Denver that concluded in mid-July. See the calendar for their current show in San Francisco. Their Web site URL is very appropriate: www.trps.org.
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A new movie about the history of rock-poster art had its premiere last month. Look for "American Artifact" to play local theaters and festivals. The film features interviews with renown artists including Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Frank Kozik, Art Chantry, EMEK, Tara McPherson, Derek Hess, COOP, Jay Ryan, and more, as well as fans, collectors, and musicians. Info at: http://americanartifactmovie.com/
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For awhile, it looked like a collision of museum rock & roll in the San Francisco Bay Area. Two different museums are planning two separate exhibitions of rock history, and until last month they were planning them for the same time frame. Unfortunately for the Marin History Museum, the "Marin Rocks" project was delayed six months when its original location in downtown San Rafael had to be changed. This means that the San Francisco Museum of Performance & Design can go ahead with its September exhibition on San Francisco rock history, "Somethin's Happening Here: Bay Area Rock N Roll 1963-1973," co-curated by Alec Palao. Uh-oh, one more problem: Metallica has agreed to perform in a benefit for "Marin Rocks," at the same time as the San Francisco show!
BEYOND VINYL CALENDAR & DIRECTORY
- Continuing through Sept. 3 (weekly): Summer Showcase Concert Series, Buddy Holly Center
- July 15, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, San Francisco Performing Arts Library
- July 16-26, The Heart Of Rock & Roll Auction, San Francisco Rock Posters
- July 18, Celebration of Sun Records & Rock 'n Roll, Alabama Music Hall of Fame
- Aug. 6-8: 10th Annual Rockabilly Festival, International Rock-A-Billy Hall Of Fame Museum
- Sept. 10: Country Music Auction, Christie’s New York
- Opens Aug. 7, through June 2010: Brenda Lee: Dynamite; Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
- Opens Aug. 15, through Jan. 3, 2010: Spaced Out: The Final Frontier in Album Covers, Experience Music Project
- Through Aug. 31: Otis Redding: From Macon to Memphis, Stax Museum of American Soul Music
- Through Dec. 31: Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy, Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
- Through Dec. 31: Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum
- Through April 11, 2010: Jimi Hendrix: An Evolution of Sound, Experience Music Project
- Through Spring 2010: From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum
NOTE: Many of these museums have wonderful and fascinating permanent exhibits. Please check them out.
Alabama Music Hall Of Fame
P.O. Box 740405
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Museum
P.O. Box 216
Bristol, TN 37621
Buddy Holly Center
1801 Crickets Avenue
Lubbock, TX 79401
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
222 Fifth Ave. S.
Nashville, TN 37203
Delta Music Museum
218 Louisiana Ave.
Ferriday, LA 71334
Experience Music Project
330 Sixth Ave. N. Suite 100
Seattle, WA 98109
Hawaiian Music Hall Of Fame And Museum
P.O. Box 4717
Honolulu, HI 96812-4717
International Bluegrass Music Museum
117 Daviess Street
Owensboro, Kentucky 42303
International Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame and Museum
105 N. Church Street
Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
191 Beale Street, Suite 100
Memphis, TN 38103
Motown Historical Museum
2648 W. Grand Boulevard
Detroit, Michigan 48208
Museum of Performance & Design
401 Van Ness Avenue #402
San Francisco, CA 94102
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
One Key Plaza
Cleveland, Ohio 44114
San Francisco Performing Arts Library
Veterans Bldg., 4th Floor
401 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore Ave.
Memphis, TN 38106
Texas Music Museum
1009 E. 11th Street
Austin, TX 78702
NOTE: Most auction houses allow online bidding, and also offer public viewing at their gallery locations.
Bonhams & Butterfields
Christie’s New York
Gotta Have It Collectibles
San Francisco Rock Posters