Up to 11: Collecting vintage rock concert posters
March 21 marks the anniversary of an event that was termed ‘the Big Bang of Rock n Roll’: the first ever organised rock and roll concert, 1952’s Moondog Coronation Ball.
The Moondog concert was the brainchild of disc jockey Alan Freed, who is generally acknowledged to have initiated the term ‘Rock and Roll’ to describe this risqué and revolutionary genre of music.
Disastrously, more tickets were printed for the gig than the venue had capacity for, and a riot ensued. The concert was shut down after the end of the first song.
The anniversary of this important, if short-lived musical event got us thinking about the rarity of those original Moondog concert posters, which gleefully described the event as ‘the most terrible ball of them all’. How extraordinary it would be to own one! Do they number amongst the Holy Grails of rock concert posters?
An original Moondog Coronation Ball poster sold for $875 at Gotta Have Rock and Roll in March 2011. Remarkably, this is quite a reasonable price compared to the amount that some gig posters can fetch.
Wikicollecting takes a closer look at the most collectible vintage rock concert posters.
Rock concert posters were initially printed in small quantities for one specific purpose: to promote the concert. They were not meant to last. After the date of the gig passed, they were generally torn down, thrown away, or sometimes used as building insulation. Concert posters are a perfect example of ephemera that has become valuable because of its disposable nature, making survivors rare.
Posters only began to be methodically saved in the 1970s, when rock music collecting came into vogue.
In the 1960s, graphic design became strongly linked to the music scene, and numerous artists made a name for themselves producing promotional concert posters.
This era also saw the rise of the psychedelic movement in both art and music, and psychedelically themed posters hold many collectors in thrall.
Concert posters vary in size, shape, colour, style, rarity and condition. Some collectors focus on just one artist, style or era, others are happy to accumulate anything they like the look of.
Many collectors are particular about concert posters having been printed solely to sell tickets, and not as collector’s items. Some therefore collect only first printings, which were produced before the concert, and therefore intended only to promote the show.
Most poster collectors avoid reprints or knock offs. They are considered pretenders that lack the charm of rarity, not like original survivors, and as such have very little value. Reprints are fine for decoration, but not as a collectible.
It is a good idea for a new collector, and for those on a budget, to focus on the posters that do not number among the investment grade pieces. Many of the rarest and most famous posters are now attracting the attention of rich investors – which is somewhat anti-Rock n Roll! However, there are thousands of less sought-after posters that can be found at very reasonable prices. The great thing is that with delicate articles like posters, the items in your collection will only become rarer as time goes on.
Aside from a handful of die-hard collectors who want only the most pristine of examples in their collection, many poster collectors are not very fussy about condition. The posters were tacked up, torn down, creased, perhaps sun-faded, but the very fact of their survival is enough to satisfy many a collector.
Posters are also more likely to be authentic if they are weathered, although some crafty swindlers attempt to age reprints to pass them off as the genuine article. As with any area of collectibles with lots of fakes around, be wary, and learn your stuff.
Vintage rock concert posters can be found at swap meets, yard sales, flea markets. It is good to discover them at these places, so you can see the poster in the flesh. There are also many offered on internet auction sites like eBay. If you’re really lucky, you could discover a hoard in the walls of an old building, used as cheap 1960s insulation. If they’d only known.
Psychedelic posters borrowed from Surrealism, Pop Art, Expressionism and Art Nouveau to create an original body of art, which became associated directly with rock music. They were also suggestive of drug-induced states of mind that went hand-in-hand with a certain rock culture during the 1960s.
In England, the big name in psychedelic posters was Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, who produced the posters for the first wave of psychedelic concerts in Britain, as well as some abroad.
However, the movement was truly rooted in the venues of San Francisco, and a group of psychedelic artists that designed the posters for their concerts. These included Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, whose lettering defined the psychedelic style of the day, and Victor Moscoso. They produced posters for the Avalon Ballroom and the smaller Matrix Club, and notably, for Bill Graham’s concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
Bill Graham Fillmore posters
Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium became the focal point for the psychedelic rock scene in the 1960s.
The posters created by the aforementioned psychedelic artists of the San Francisco art scene are greatly coveted by collectors. They are however, comparably easy to find. Poster dealers tend to source at least some of the 289 posters in the Bill Graham series relatively easily for collectors.
At some point Graham began printing sets of additional posters to be sold as souvenirs, which breaks the collector’s rule of posters printed solely for promoting gigs and ticket sales. Some Graham posters had a first and second printing, both before the concert, so there is some disagreement as to whether these fit the bill. Only you as a collector can decide what constitutes a genuine promotional poster by your standards.
Boxing Style posters
The term ‘boxing style’ refers to any poster that doesn’t feature a psychedelic design. They generally possess straightforward readable print, not stylised like the psychedelic posters. In the early 1990s, very few collectors were interested in anything other than psychedelia. The boxing style posters were cheap as chips. A number of savvy collectors snapped them up, and are now sitting on a gold mine.
The companies that produced these posters include Globe of Baltimore, Posters Inc of Philadelphia, Colby of Los Angeles, Tilghman Press in Oakland and Murray Poster in New York. The most popular of them are colourful multi-act concert posters, with a particularly good line up of historic groups and stars listed.
Boston Tea Party posters
Some posters produced for Boston Tea Party concerts took on a notably non-psychedelic style, such as those produced for the Velvet Underground. The ‘Boston Tea Party’ design typically features blocks of solid colour, and formal looking type.
Popular poster bands
The Beatles are the most collected band of 20th century. Their concert posters regularly see the top auction prices for rock posters. For example, a poster for a 1962 Beatles appearance at Liverpool’s Cavern Club sold for £27,500 last year.
However, there is a catch with Beatles posters. For many collectors, only the very early ones are considered collectible. After 1963-4, the vast popularity of The Beatles meant that they had no need to use promotional posters to sell tickets – though posters were still produced. Therefore later posters are eschewed by those collectors who only want concert posters that were printed in order to sell tickets.
Of all the numerous psychedelic posters produced for bands from the 1960s onwards, those created for Grateful Dead are among the most sought-after. Grateful Dead were one of the most prolific touring bands, playing over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995, with a huge following across America. This means that there is a huge number of designs for their promotional posters, providing great scope for a collector.
Other popular poster bands
- Jefferson Airplane
- Sex Pistols
- Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Johnny Cash
- Buddy Holly
- The Rolling Stones
- Led Zeppelin
- Elvis Presley
For more information, there is an extremely useful article by Pete Howard about concert poster collecting at Poster Central.
The bookmarklet lets you save things you find to your collections.
Note: Make sure your bookmarks are visible.
Click and drag the Collect It button to your browser's Bookmark Bar.