Log In

A Brief History of Concert Posters

For decades, posters have announced upcoming shows and enticed audiences to attend. Concert promoters also designed handbill versions of many posters as sidewalk handouts. 

As music changed over time, so did artistic perspective and printing techniques. Artists became better skilled with their craft, evolving from the spare and straightforward style of early “boxing” posters to the kaleidoscopic imagery of psychedelic concert posters.

Rock posters, a popular genre of collectible art, have taken on a life of their own, sometimes outshining the rock bands they were created to promote. The popular art of concert posters allows collectors to collect by music genre, musician, poster artist, and venue or promoter. 

1996 Grateful Dead Poster by Bob Masse.

THE BIRTH OF THE ROCK POSTER

From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, rock and roll formed from a blend of blues, soul, and country music. Concert posters during this time adapted from posters that promoted other forms of entertainment, including circuses, big band jazz performances, and boxing matches—which spawned the term boxing poster.

These early boxing posters—utilized by performers such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles— incorporated simple, easy-to-read block lettering, unadorned photographs of the performers, dates, and venues. They were created on lightweight cardboard and were not particularly beautiful. Posters were printed to attract audiences, and promoters hung them on telephone poles and in public spaces. 

Though a few early R&B posters added background art and a bit of bright color, rock posters remained essentially unchanged from their inception until late 1965.

SAN FRANCISCO PSYCHADELIC ROCK POSTERS AND HANDBILLS

By the mid-1960s, the psychedelic music scene was in full swing, and rock posters from that era reflected the eccentric and colorful hippie world with wild designs and brilliant colors. Some even glowed in the dark if the correct ink was used.

Over 450 posters were printed between 1966 and 1971, advertising events and rock concerts promoted in San Francisco by Bill Graham. These shows initially showcased local talent but eventually featured performances by many of the era’s most famous rock acts. 

Blend in free love, drugs, and hippies, and the outcome was experimentation in music and art. These new psychedelic posters—daring and highly experimental in their use of color and elaborate typeface—represented artistic excellence.

They were the first commercial art form more clearly focused on the artist’s statement than the advertising content, and they forever changed the concept of what a poster could and couldn’t be. These bright, eye-popping artworks blended color, dense design, and flowing style into a new art form, pushing the boundaries of convention. 

Bill Graham was among the most famous rock promoters and owned the Fillmore East and Fillmore West clubs. Graham commissioned posters to promote the shows. Nearly all of the posters commissioned by Graham were also printed as handbills. 

Initially, the handbills were printed in black and white and on thin paper, and eventually incorporated color. The next evolution of the handbill came in a postcard style format with a calendar of upcoming shows on one side and poster art on the other. These handbills represented an essential element of rock concert history because they were hands-on marketing tools that united promoters and concert fans. 

Though San Francisco remained central to the psychedelic poster scene during this era, psychedelic concert posters were also created for concerts throughout the United States, and several important pieces were also created in Canada and Europe. 

PUNK FLYERS

After Bill Graham closed the Fillmore West in 1971, he and others sporadically continued to issue posters. However, they had become an afterthought created primarily as commemorative pieces. 

As new forms of rock entered the mainstream, a counterculture emerged. Rejecting the polished style of their contemporaries, Punk artists embraced grittiness. Easily accessible Xerox machines pumped out black and white 8.5 by 11 flyers.

Flyers advertising punk shows were commonly posted on streets, and the artistic style reflected the music advertised. They reverted to the boxing style from the 1950s and early 1960s, and were loud yet straightforward. This simplified format was inspired by the do-it-yourself attitude ingrained in the music. 

Punk art was street art at its core. These flyers were meant to catch the eye of people on the street and were never intended to be collected and hung on the wall, yet many were taken down from the streets and saved by people who valued their visually intense nature. 

THE SILKSCREEN MOVEMENT

In the 1980s, silkscreen prints gained popularity. Fueled by a curious mix of pop culture, punk rock ethos, and psychedelia, the silkscreen movement arrived on the scene, and a new era for the rock poster was officially born. A few cans of ink, a screen, and a squeegee, enabled an enterprising artist to create top-quality posters in small runs, which instantly leveled the playing field and created an entire generation of artist-entrepreneurs.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Posters evolved over the decades, and today, we find another opportunity for creative change. The digital revolution offers a new set of tools to poster makers, and now it is easier than ever to create art posters. Yet few have mastered these tools, and fewer still have found a creative outlet through them. 

We are inspired by those who have, for they grace us with the beauty of their creations, and we look forward to many years of evolution in the genre of rock and roll poster collecting.

 

View our Poster Collection

 

Signup for information on new artists, editions, sales and more

Walnut Street Gallery – The Art of Rock and Roll®
© 2022 Walnut Street Gallery. All Rights Reserved.

700 North Colorado Blvd. Box 336
Denver, Colorado 80206

Thanks for signing up!

Check your inbox soon for our newsletter!

Good music comes out of people playing together, knowing what they want to do and going for it.