Since Elvis first shook his guitar, posters have announced upcoming shows and enticed audiences to rock along. Today, collecting rock posters is a popular pastime, and dedicated buyers may spend tens of thousands on a very rare piece. But there are enough affordable posters out there for new collectors and the trick is knowing what you are looking at and finding where to buy.
Rock Poster History
The earliest rock posters appeared in the late 1950s, with the advent of performers like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and The Beatles. Posters were printed to attract audiences; promoters would put up posters on telephone poles and in public spaces. The posters featured photos of the performers, listed some of their hit songs, and gave the show date. In addition to local shows, bands also played at venues like Shea Stadium and The Fillmore East in New York City, which printed their own show posters.
By the mid-1960s, rock and roll had headed west to California, where the psychedelic scene was in full swing and bands like Jefferson Airplane were taking off. The rock posters from that era reflected the colorful, eccentric hippie world of the Haight-Ashbury area, with bright colors, wild designs and even the ability to glow in the dark (if the right ink was used.)
There are two major areas of collection: boxing posters (which include promo posters) and psychedelic posters, and each area has its own rules for collecting, including condition, design, and provenance or origin.
Thousands of bands and performers crisscrossed the country and they were advertised by boxing posters. Also called concert posters, these posters resembled those printed up for boxing matches. They averaged in size about 14" x 22" and had bold, clear typography (lettering) which made them easy to read from a distance.
Photographs of the entertainers were included, along with the names of opening acts and sometimes the band's hit songs. Watch for these posters at flea markets, yard sales, paper and memorabilia shows, or you can purchase direct from dealers. You can find information about rock posters in a number of books, including The Art of Classic Rock or The Art of Rock Posters from Presley to Punk. Here's what to look for when buying boxing posters:
- Many of these posters were printed on lightweight cardboard. According to Pete Howard, a poster collector and historian, you will often find more posters for forgotten bands than posters for more famous performers, and you will pay a lot less for the item. Boxing posters can range in value from a few dollars to thousands for The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. The competition is fierce, so lesser-known bands offer you a chance to collect posters even if you don't have much buying power.
- Posters were displayed inside stores and outside on telephone poles, so they often show signs of wear including pin holes where they were tacked to a surface, watermarks from dampness or rain and dust or dirt marks. Many boxing poster collectors don't look for "mint" or perfect posters and instead enjoy the sense that the poster is an active link to rock and roll history.
- Do not purchase a poster which has been rebacked, or glued to another piece of paper or cardboard. The value drops with this kind of "repair," so buy only if you love the subject and don't care if you get your money back.
- Printers who specialized in posters included Globe Posters, Posters Inc. and Murray Poster Printing, so watch for those names on the posters.
- Autographed posters are always more valuable, but the final value depends upon whose autograph you have. For example, Buddy Holly's signature can add up to $2,000 to the value of your poster.
Record companies printed posters to promote their artists, and these "promo" posters have developed their own following. The posters announced an upcoming record or tape, and often showed the artist and/or the album cover. Dates and performance sites were not included. The early posters (1950s and 1960s) are difficult to find.
- Promo posters are generally printed on paper, glossy or plain. Some, like this example from 2001, are on card stock, and cost $25 and above.
- Collectors do not often search out promo posters which were enclosed with a record. The exception is the Milton Glaser poster for Bob Dylan; a recent example was listed at $645.
- Look for promo posters at paper and ephemera shows or online. Prices will increase with the time period (the older, the more expensive), condition and artist.
These bright, eye-popping works of art blended color, dense design, and Art Nouveau's flowing styles into a new art form. During the 1960s, rock and roll was king. Add in drugs, hippies and free love, and this was a time of experimentation in music and art.
Rock posters of this era reflected the new emphasis on freedom, and pushed the boundaries of convention which were made famous by Woodstock, and bands like Jim Morrison and The Doors.
Among the most famous rock impresarios was Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmore East and Fillmore West clubs. Graham commissioned posters to promote the shows and the quality of the poster designs began a collecting frenzy which is still going on. Graham posters were difficult to read because of the elaborate typefaces, but each was a piece of art. Graham hired artists who became famous for their poster art, including Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso.
Original psychedelic posters can vary in price from a few hundred dollars to $5000 or more if the poster is sold at an auction. Here are a few tips if you want to get into this collecting field:
- Take time to become familiar with psychedelic posters before you buy. Look for the artists and/or the musicians and bands you like.
- Some of the more popular psychedelic rock posters were re-issued after the concert. When purchasing a poster, make sure you know which edition you are buying, since value drops with each reprinting.
- Unlike the boxing posters, psychedelic posters should be as close to mint condition as possible. Tears, folds, trimmed edges and sometimes even the framing can all reduce the value of these posters.
- Find a dealer who specializes in these posters and can guarantee the authenticity of your purchase. Make sure he or she can tell you the provenance of a poster: who owned it, how they got it, where it's been.
Modern Rock Posters
Poster art is alive and well today with a huge fan base, and modern rock and rap posters are available with prices starting under $100. Some posters are silkscreened, others printed and the value varies with condition, artist and designer.
- At GIG Posters, you can meet online with poster collectors and find thousands of examples from bands and designers.
- One of the best introductions to modern rock posters is Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion.
Reproductions and Fakes
The difference between a reproduction and a fake is intent; a reproduction is not meant to deceive the buyer, while a fake does just that. Poster art has been reproduced so many times, it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an original, an early reprint, and a later reprint of the same poster. Here are some tips to help you avoid mistakes when buying.
- Some reproduction posters had numbers stamped on the back to indicate a reprint, so watch for those.
- Check to see if your poster has been trimmed at the top or bottom edge, where reprint information was stamped.
- A bad reprint will have blurry lines, or uneven registration (you'll see edges of color overlapping) or will be printed on cheap paper.
- Check websites which list information about poster artists and learn what they did, and didn't, design.
- Poster Central has information about reprints and fakes; this is a collector's site, not a sales site.
- Visit poster collections and poster shows whenever you can. The more you see and study an original, the easier it will become to recognize a fake.
Brick and mortar poster shops can be found around the country, but the best poster selection is available through online shops like those below. All of these sites offer detailed information about the posters for sale, including condition, history and style. Just remember, competition can be fierce for the classic posters!
- Rock Posters.com offers online auctions as well as regular sales. You can search by band, venue or even city. A Jimi Hendrix poster recently listed for $1600.
- Wolfgang's Vault is one of the biggest dealers in rock posters. These listings provide detailed information about the poster and its reprints. It's a great place to learn the stories behind famous posters and lesser-known examples. Prices here range from under $100 to whatever someone is willing to pay at auction.
- Classic Posters bills itself as the world's largest dealer in vintage posters. Browsing this website will give you lots of history about rock posters and great pictures. A recent listing for a Bill Graham Creedence Clearwater Revival poster was $225.
Whether for fun or for profit, collecting classic posters is challenging, fun and very cool. Get into the action and start rocking on.