Concert poster market is alive and kicking

By Greg Bates

There are concert posters and then are Jimi Hendrix concert posters.

The “flying eyeball” is arguably Hendrix’s most eye-appealing piece. The iconic poster designed by Rick Griffin features a bloodshot eyeball with wings and a rattlesnake tail emerging from a ring of fire while holding a skull in one of its clawed hands.

Hendrix Concert Posters Rock ‘n’ Rule

It’s a simple and effective design that does more than just promote upcoming shows headlined by the Jimi Hendrix Experience at The Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland in San Francisco in 1968.

This 14” by 21.5” masterpiece isn’t considered the holy grail in the concert posters collecting world since there are quite a few examples on the market, but it’s a piece that shows the powerful nature of art used by musical groups and individuals, especially in the 1960s.

“Some of the best art was devoted to Jimi Hendrix,” said Scott Mussell, an Americana specialist at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles. “His essence and everything was so powerful it got through to these guys that made posters. Whether it’s BG-105 from the Bill Graham series, like the Rick Griffin flying eyeball.

“That’s like iconic, not just of rock poster art, but in general. That really defines the whole genre of the ’60s psychedelic poster.”

Vintage Concert Posters Represent

The concert poster hobby right now is strong thanks in large part to important rock ’n roll pieces such as Hendrix’s “flying eyeball” design. According to Mussell, Hendrix is the most collected artist for concert posters as he hits the 50-year anniversary of his first U.S. tour. Since Hendrix toured often during the height of his short about phenomenal career, there are a lot of posters floating around. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. Hendrix posters can hit the five-figure range depending on condition and rarity.

The concert poster prices are cyclical like so many other collectibles. They are trending right now just like the booming vintage baseball card market, noted Pete Howard, a longtime concert poster collector who runs postercentral.com.

“The very best stuff continues to go up in price, whereas what’s been hurt by the Great Recession (2008) is all the low level and even the medium range stuff,” said Howard, who is 64. “Some things are holding their value, but some are not. But if you have something in the top one percent of any hobby, the financial gods are good to you because there’s always investors out there who want to diversify a little bit from the stock market and be a little kid and spend money on a favorite Beatles concert poster or something.”

Profiling Modern Music Legends

Andy Vastagh knows first-hand how hot concert posters are these days. He’s an artist and designer based in Nashville who has worked on over 300 posters for well-known bands to up-and-coming artists.

“I would definitely say they are alive and kicking, my work schedule would say so at least,” said Vastagh about the industry. “I think with the new era of social media and the internet and being able to sort of share and spread out the impact of a poster has an even bigger reach now with the dawn of the technology.”

Bill Graham, who was a master concert promoter in San Francisco in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, ushered in a new wave of concerts and thus made magnificent posters for all his shows. Along with the fabulous Hendrix pieces, Graham presented great acts such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Van Morrison and The Doors.

“In a lot of peoples’ opinion, it is the height of the art of rock ’n roll posters right there in the heart of ’60s, from about 1966 into the early ’70s,” Mussell said. “He (Graham) had many artists and that’s what defines the medium as far as the artist medium is concerned.”

Scarcity Lends to Value of Early Posters

In the early 1970s, the music business industry became very business-orientated and mature. Up until that point, however, collecting concert posters wasn’t a very sophisticated hobby.

“As a result, most things weren’t saved, so everything from the early ’70s on back is going to be scarce,” Howard said. “That’s why I specialize in that area, because I love rarity. It’s one of my big priorities for collecting.”

Like everything in the collecting world, concert posters have changed over the years.

“It changes with society’s taste, I guess you could say,” Mussell said. “For a long time, Big Band posters were very valuable and as time has gone on and the people who were really into Big Band music have left us, those posters have come down in value. While at the same time, this ’60s rock ’n roll stuff has skyrocketed since there are lot of people around that experienced that. A lot of it is nostalgia-based in that way. And then some things just transcend that – a Little Richard poster, that’s always going to be cool.”

Buzz from Big Bands to The Beatles

The British Invasion brought big-name musical groups to America and created buzz with concerts around major cities every night. The Beatles stole the show. Of course, it’s no surprise that Beatles concert posters are always valuable commodities.

Mussell recently viewed on eBay a handbill from 1961 that briefly mentioned The Beatles by name. It was a very plain design, but it nabbed about $3,500. It’s an early and historic piece, something collectors salivate over. It’s especially prime because it predates the band’s trip across the pond. In July of this year, a Beatles poster from a March 1963 concert sold for £5,500 ($6,496) at an auction in North Yorkshire, England. What perhaps is the greatest Beatles concert poster comes from the band’s era-defining performance at Shea Stadium in 1965. A pretty prestige example of that poster has changed hands with collectors for about $150,000, noted Mussell.

One of Howard’s favorite posters he owns is from a Beatles concert in December 1961. The group played at a ballroom in Aldershot, England, and it’s well-documented that only 18 patrons attended the show. Yes, 18. Howard, who has been collecting concert posters for 25 years, found the historic poster during the early days of eBay.

Evolution of Concert Posters

“A couple smaller concert posters turned up and I was just elated to find one,” Howard said. “That one is certainly a favorite.”

The Rolling Stones are another British Invasion band where prices have spiked.

“There were cardboard posters made for both of their first two tours that are very rare and desirable,” Mussell said. “After that, the next time they come back they’re these huge superstars, so there was really no need to make posters. So, when you think of the Stones and their artistic peak is in the early ’70s – Let It Bleed and so on – there’s nothing for that stuff. There are no concert posters, because they didn’t need any help selling tickets.”

Well-known music festivals have produced some collectible items, including Woodstock in 1969. The most famous poster image from that three-day lineup is the simple bird on a guitar sketch, which can sell in the range of $1,500, Mussell said. However, the most valuable Woodstock pieces are cardboard advertisements that were plastered on sides of buses.

Historic Music Moments Prime for Posters

Iconic events are also popular with concert poster collectors. A Bill Haley and His Comets concert poster sold in July for $17,785. The group is credited with recording the first rock anthem, “Rock Around the Clock.”

Concert posters that mark the eve or day of when a famous artist dies also catch high figures. A few examples include the show Hank Williams was going to in Canton, Ohio, when he died in a limousine crash. Mussell said there are only two or three known posters still around from that show. Another example is the poster for the concert Otis Redding was supposed to perform in Madison, Wis., for which he never arrived due to his plane crashing three miles before the runway. That poster can fetch $3,000 to $4,000, Mussell stated. However, the biggest roll ’n rock tragedy happened when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed in Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959. “The day the music died” lives in infamy, and so do the concert memorabilia promoting the show that never happened.

“That’s highly-coveted stuff,” Mussell said. “I don’t know if there is a poster from the Clear Lake, Iowa, show. But there are posters from that tour, and those are some of the most coveted – again, talking $50,000-plus very easily.”

Simple and Sensational Poster Design

Prior to the big wave of the concert posters boom of the 1960s, boxing-style posters were popular. They were generally printed on cardboard and resembled how they used to advertise boxing matches. Block lettering and a simple photo of the band was the norm.

“They’re rare because they were made in small quantities, they’re completely ephemeral,” Mussell said. “They were designed to go up on telephone poles, outside of venues and things like that in the rain. They didn’t have a life expectancy beyond about three weeks. The fact that any of them survived is really amazing.”

That being said, condition of concert posters really matters. That’s especially true with Bill Graham series pieces, because so many posters were produced.

“It’s really important on those posters,” Mussell said. “In general, on anything it’s important. But some of these things are so rare, it doesn’t matter. It could be torn in half and could be a really exciting find. Let’s say there was a Buddy Holly poster from the Clear Lake show – it’s possible they had them and just none survived. But if one were to surface, even if it were ripped in half, it would be a monumental offering. I don’t know how you could even put a price on that, it’s such an important historical poster.”

Adjusting for Expected Wear

Howard, who has over 300 concert posters in his collection and specializes in boxing-style posters dating up to the 1960s, isn’t fixated on acquiring mint condition pieces. He realizes that after holding onto an item for 60 or 70 years, creases, corner nicks and water stains are bound to happen.

“I am much less condition-sensitive than your typical psychedelic concert collector where condition has become as important as it has to baseball card collectors,” Howard said.

Howard keeps all his concert posters in acid-free, high-quality art holders. They are freestanding and not in a portfolio design.

“I like to flip through my posters, they’re two-sided,” Howard said. “There’s two posters in each holder. I can just flip through them and set them up anywhere I want to. … They’re very displayable and showable to my friends.”

Piqued by Popularity

Another factor that determines the desirability and price of a band’s concert posters is the band’s popularity. But there can be a few caveats.

“Let’s say like a Billie Holiday from the ’40s, it’s very rare to find any of hers, so it’s very valuable most of the time,” Mussell said. “But she really combines two things: one, she was extremely talented and kind of a tragic story; and she had the best mix of keeping her artist ability mixed with the commercial success. Often, there’s great commercial success and their posters really aren’t that valuable.”

One example pinpointed by Mussell is The Monkees. They are a popular band, but that doesn’t translate into value of their concert posters.

New wave of concert posters

After a lull in the 1970s and ’80s, there was a resurgence of concert posters in the ’90s with the rise of grunge. Designer Frank Kozik came up with some excellent posters for artists such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. But it’s another Seattle band that has the most prized concert pieces: Nirvana.

Mussell is big into collecting Nirvana items. The band had its first shows in 1987, the album “Nevermind” was released in ’91 and the band went off the charts from that point on.

“I’m not really interested in anything after that, they didn’t really have to make anything,” said the 32-year-old Mussell. “And the level of the art went way down, because all they had to do was say, ‘Hey, we’re selling Nirvana tickets at 9 a.m. tomorrow,’ and all the people would line up and buy the tickets. So, there’s really not that much interesting stuff later on, plus it all started to get saved.”

Appeal of Design

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain actually used to draw the band’s fliers and posters in the early days. Those rare pieces from Nirvana concerts in the late ’80s bring a nice chunk of change. Mussell has only seen one original Nirvana poster that was drawn by Cobain. If he ever stumbles upon one again, he’s willing to pay $4,000 to $5,000.

“There’s all these fake ones popping up,” Mussell said. “Some guy in Italy is making them and they come through on eBay and they sell for $400 to $500. People are getting taken all the time.”

Andy Vastagh, who owns Boss Construction and is a one-man design and illustration artist, got into designing concert poster professionally 14 years ago. He is someone who appreciates his successors in the music business and wants to continue to the convey messages about music via his sketches.

“The posters that got me into it are sort of these classic, legendary, icon posters whether it’s old Saul Bass movie posters or whatever that when you see them they have an immediate connection where you can say, ‘I remember the first time I saw that,’” Vastagh said. “I like the idea of them living beyond the show and sort of living and growing with people.”

Modern Music Appreciating Posters

Vastagh — who is also the president of the American Poster Institute [americanposterinstitute.com], which is an umbrella for artists and concert poster collectors — doesn’t focus on any certain styles of music for his poster designs.

He’s open to whichever bands or venues are looking for an artist.

“It’s sort of all over the place, big bands, small bands,” Vastagh said. “I try to spread out my time evenly to keep things fresh. It’s from the little guy to the big guy, and the little guy on the way to being the big guy.”

Venues often contact Vastagh to have a poster made to commemorate the band playing there or to have a poster to present to the band as a thank you. That’s becoming the new norm, Vastagh said.

About More Than Promotion

Vastagh has designed concert posters for big tours featuring Muse as well as Luke Bryan. Earlier this year, he finished a poster for Queen with Adam Lambert, and is currently working on a design for the Foo Fighters. Vastagh also just wrapped up a tour poster for the band A War on Drugs, because it’s expanding its tour from the U.S. to Europe, so the poster needed to be redone.

So, what happens after a band or venue contacts Vastagh to have a poster designed?

“A band will come to me and say, ‘OK, this is sort of the idea.’ Or, ‘This is the
name of the tour’ – and just go off of that,” Vastagh said. “Sometimes, they sort of give me a general idea and then I come up with something that sort of fits that theme whether it’s the actual verbiage of the tour name or just whatever sort of references they give me.”

Vastagh researches the band, even if he’s worked for them in the past, and sees what kind of posters have already been done.

“I try to add to the sort of amount of work that’s been done for them, but also put my own spin on things,” Vastagh said. “I’ll start to sort of brainstorm and go back to albums that I know or listen to new albums and try to listen to lyrics or song titles or the sort of vibe I get from the music and start from there.”

Honoring the Past With Posters of the Present

He’ll pencil sketch some ideas, which could take up to a couple weeks, and then pitch the direction of the poster to the venue representatives. They will then pass it along to the band for its thoughts. When Vastagh is given the go, he’ll hammer out the design. It usually takes about a month to six weeks from when Vastagh is approached for an idea to when the final design goes to the printer.

Knowing how valuable concert posters have become, sometimes it seeps into the mind of Vastagh when he’s designing posters that his work could be collectible 50 years down the line.

“I try to make the posters as non-disposable as possible,” Vastagh said. “I think in the beginning the nature of the concert poster was as a disposable thing that got pasted up on the walls or stapled to the telephone poles. It was up to advertise for the show and then maybe it was ripped off and take down before or after the show or just weather and the elements just took it down for you.

“I like the idea of something I’ve made or one of my colleagues have made that sort of holds a special part in someone’s history and in someone’s memories.”

“GregAbout our contributor:  Greg Bates is a national freelance journalist. He writes mostly about sports, but dabbles in antiques and is fascinated by the Civil War. His work frequently appears in Sports Collectors Digest, and he’s also written for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, The Associated Press, TeamUSA.org and USAHockey.com. He can be reached at gregabates@gmail.com.
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