Back in 2009 I saw a documentary called Died Young, Stayed Pretty about the culture behind rock gig posters. I was a fresh-faced college graduate already getting beaten down by my desk-job and the recession and this film was a welcome reminder to me that there was a whole world of creators out there who create because they have to, even if they can't make a living from it - that they create because they're inspired by the world around them, and that they create to share their work.
Like most of us, I started going to concerts when I was 14 and didn't think much about the creative process behind a band's visual identity while I was waiting in the merch line to buy a pink baby-tee or snag some stickers (also, if an artist was still small-time, they often worked their own merch tables, so it was a good excuse to get to chat with them). I also didn't notice that a band's concert posters were often completely different from city to city, tour to tour, and if I had noticed, I am not sure it would have impressed me at the time.
But now, I love thinking about it and how collaborative a process something like that has to be.
In the early days of gig-posters, as seen in the aforementioned film, there was rarely a collaboration or approvals process: in those cases, if a band was coming to town that you loved, you'd just whip up a poster yourself and plaster it around town in hopes it would pique people's interests. Or, more often, if it was your own band, you'd ask an artist friend to help you out and let them run with it.
Nowadays I imagine musicians and their labels can get finicky about the particulars of copyright infringement and trademarked logos and artists can get prickly about getting credit for their work. To be honest, I still don't know a lot about that world. But I do know that I LOVE a good concert poster. (If you're on Pinterest, I have a collection going here).
Even bands that have really consistent, strong visual identities end up with wildly varying concert posters in styles and palettes of all kinds - that all still somehow hit at the heart of what the band and their music are doing. Unsurprisingly, I'll use The Decemberists as an example. Carson Ellis, my favorite illustrator, is married to Colin Meloy (lead singer + songwriter of my favorite band) and for years has done most of their merch, album art, and accompanying visuals. I think she still may, but The Decemberists have authorized and sold dozens of other artists' work over the years in the form of these concert posters, creating this really beautiful body of work that serves to enhance their music and create a kind of fuller, richer, aesthetic experience. If you purchase one of these posters, every time you look at it, you'll remember the show at which you acquired it - you might hear a snippet of a song in your head, be reminded of a hand you held, or a moment that made your eyes sting.
I bought one such poster at my fifth Decemberists show - one I went to alone at the Beacon Theater in New York City the January after I'd moved there. I was so proud of myself -living in that city on my own, going to a concert alone- that I spent money I hardly had on buying the poster, getting it matted and framed so that it would feel at home in my tiny morning-sun facing Upper East Side bedroom (so that I'd feel like an adult having some framed art when I stumbled home alone night after night at 4 AM with dollar pizza slice grease on my fingers). The print is of a deer wearing a dress and it specifies the date and location of the concert, commemorating my date with myself.
Back around the time I first started going to concerts, I met Justin Klump. He was already a talented guitarist, but we met at church summer camp, and not at a show - though I've been to many of his, now. We've been friends for close to 15 years and have gotten to support one another's growth as artists and people in that time - which is why it was so special that he asked me to help design a poster and t-shirt for him to coincide with the release of his newest album, to be released this May.
The process a good mix of collaboration and free-roaming creativity and I think we're both happy with the end results!