As a teen, I’d presume like most teens, my bedroom walls were covered by posters. Blue-tacked images of my sporting, musical and motion picture heroes festooned my sleeping quarters, long before I had any understanding of art as decoration. They were badges, rather than aesthetic tokens – a display of my favour for certain cultural markers. As an adult, I’ve gained an appreciation for an art form that could adorn the home of both my adolescent and mature self: the gig poster.
The playbill isn’t a new concept by any means. Think of the Victorian printed sheets, with lists of acts in varying type and sizes depending on their prominence in the running order. By the punk rock era, home-made posters appeared that reflected the pathos of the movement. Out of necessity, they were cheaply made, utilizing newly available methods like Letraset, to promote smaller gigs, rather than large, professional concerts.
Today, there is a rich, growing community of artists, carving their own niche in the world as gig poster designers. Posters, as a creative endeavour, have advanced to a point where they no longer only fulfil their original role as entirely promotional material, but are now desirable works of art in their own right. Although not quite at the level of T-shirts or hoodies as gig merchandise, increasingly, well designed, limited edition prints have become collectable. “I think people are becoming more aware of the art form,” Drew Millward, a prominent gig poster figure, told us.
Glyn Smyth, professionally known as Scrawled, agrees it is emerging from its underground roots, but not quite yet in the wider public consciousness, in the UK at least. “It’s still very much a niche concern,” he said, “and still only of passing interest to the average music fan. I think it’s still more of a Stateside thing.”
At this point, I must confess a degree of self interest. For those that don’t know me or haven’t read the blurb, I am an experienced graphic designer who, in the course of his career, has created the occasional gig poster. Let me be clear, I’m in no way putting myself on the same pedestal as some of the other artists I here mention, because apart from being great art what sells a poster is the name. I could spend hours name dropping recognized bands, but suffice to say from Beck to The Beastie Boys, and from Sonic Youth to Scissor Sisters, which might give you some idea of their cultural significance. My success so far has been limited to the smaller end of the scale, although I count a few recognizable names, such as Grandaddy front man Jason Lytle and emerging British band Pulled Apart By Horses.
What inspired this article was a browse around a trendy Edinburgh clothes shop – the type that also sells over priced sweets and coffee table books. On display were copies of Gigposters Volume 2 – an A3 collection of prints and artist profiles, gathered from the best talent on gigposters.com. I am a member of the site, and although my work does not feature in this book or its predecessor many artists of my acquaintance do. I stood in slight awe and marvelled that this was the level it had reached.
This attractive tome aside, at their peak, venues like Madison Square Garden may commission a beautiful, not merely functional piece of poster design, but its roots are firmly planted in local pubs, bars and clubs. “Putting on shows got me into poster design,” said Drew. “We needed posters, so I doodled some. They sucked, but it got me interested in drawing.” This home-made approach is a nod back to the DIY origins of the movement, and it’s how most established poster artists started. From small acorns, as they say. In Drew’s career he has worked for the likes of The Black Keys and Flight of the Conchords. Great oaks indeed.
The community is large and widespread, with literally thousands of artists on gigposters alone. But thousands of gigs occur every week, and the promotion for most is merely functional. The number that utilize this art form is tiny. There are certain venues and certainly a number of bands who encourage gig poster artists. American artist Rob Jones famously created a series of posters for the White Stripes, accompanying their Under Great White Northern Lights box set, for which he received a Grammy Award for best packaging design. He has also worked extensively for singer Jack White’s other band, The Raconteurs. Satisfied customers always come back.
Partially this close relationship is out of practical considerations – the band need to promote their gig – but a large part is due to a real appreciation for the art form: that’s the explanation as to why many of the same band names crop up often. “Some bands will commission them because they are passionate about art,” said Drew. ‘They strive to have a visual identity to the music they create; others will do it as a way of getting some extra merchandise and subsidising their dwindling income from record sales.’
For the artist it is also a means to an end, although, as most would agree, by no means a cash cow. “More than seeing them as particularly lucrative themselves,” Glyn summarized, ‘I see gig posters as oversized business cards.” As Drew Millward more directly put it “When people question you for selling a hand drawn, hand printed, limited edition, screen printed poster for £10, you know it’s not something that has fully seeped into the public consciousness just yet.”
They’re a beautiful, collectable piece of advertising, for both the band and the artist. The culture hasn’t yet reached a stage where a decent living can be made by aspiring designers. It is just another tool at their disposal.
Aside from the prestige, promotion and minor financial reasons, many artists create merely for the love of it, and to be part of a supportive and sympathetic collective. In addition to Gigposters, Flatstock – a regular international expo of poster work – and Poster Roast for example, offer a structure to their exploits. With this kind of networking, and their continuing emergence, it can’t be long before the art form is regarded as highly as the music it accompanies.