Bent over a metal filing cabinet in his back office, Record Exchange owner Michael Bunnell thumbs through a thick stack of concert posters. A flash of neon reflects in his eyes as he gingerly pulls out a Bob Masse retro Stevie Nicks poster. Eagerly, Bunnell moves to another drawer brimming with Boise artist Ben Wilson's pop surrealist concert posters. He hoists up one the Record Exchange commissioned for Band of Horses, which features a bearded man holding a bouquet of flowers as goat-horned rats gnaw at his shins.
Every inch in Bunnell's open office is packed with framed posters commemorating shows, including acid-tongued, 1960s gig posters from San Francisco's The Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, where Bunnell spent much of his youth. Bunnell's wall is like a visual timeline of the last five decades--big, drippy '60s fonts transition to swirly '70s lettering and twee animal-filled illustrations from the 2000s. Concert posters, like fashion, are an uncanny expression of an era's visual trends.
"Gig poster art has always interested me. It's such a reflection of pop culture, I think. The time and the mood," says Bunnell. "Through the years, I've developed an interest in specific artists."
For-sale bins in the back of the Record Exchange house many of Bunnell's favorite poster designers--established artists like Gary Houston, as well as up-and-comers like Jesse LeDoux. Through the years, Bunnell has also helped nurture local artists' careers by commissioning them to design posters for in-store performances and events. While Wilson is one of Bunnell's go-to's, he also turns to artists like Erin Ruiz and Record Exchange employee Erin Cunningham for innovative poster designs.
"If the band's big enough where we're going to have a crowd, we like to commemorate the event," says Bunnell.
Visual Arts Collective co-owner Anneliessa Balk also sees value in commissioning concert posters. Balk says VAC tries to print at least 50 posters per event, but she's less concerned with making commemorative collectors' items than she is with getting the word out and keeping VAC in people's consciousness.
"If they're walking down the street and they see a poster with Visual Arts Collective or VAC, it triggers something," says Balk. "So people might not even notice the show, but they notice the venue."
Though gig posters can tend toward the purely pragmatic--black and white, hand-scrawled fliers wheat-pasted to traffic boxes--they can also teeter into the fine-art realm when they're printed on high-quality paper and seasoned artists let their creativity gush forth.
"It's got a job to do, which is fine. It's supposed to be advertising an event or band ... But if [artists] have the freedom to really create something and make their own vision, then they get excited about it," says Bunnell. "So, the freer the hand they have, oftentimes the better the results."
Many artists, like Wilson, first started designing gig posters as a labor of love.
"I initially started doing them as self-created assignments in my upper-division classes at Boise State," Wilson says. "Then I began approaching bands that I liked. For example, I did a design for Rogue Wave in class, then I emailed the results to the band and they ended up using it for a West Coast tour. Shortly after getting a few professional gigs under my belt, I then started posting my posters on gigposters.com and it kind of took off from there."
Now Wilson regularly does commissions for out-of-town venues like the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore. But before artists can snag those higher-paying commissions, they have to line their portfolio with work.
"People want to do the Built to Spill posters ... They can add it to their portfolio," says Balk. "Even [with] smaller bands, just having the poster design in your portfolio is really helpful. It also helps their creativity. It helps them grow because they have to design specifically for the band or the event."
In order to beef up her portfolio, illustrator and graphic designer Julia Green volunteered with the all-ages music venue Kilby Court in Salt Lake City. After uploading her work to gigposters.com, Green's Fleet Foxes poster was published in a poster design book. According to Green, gigposters.com is the essential resource for artists looking to make a name in the crowded poster design world.
"It's the largest archive of gig posters. You could probably find 90 percent of major poster artists upload all their stuff up on there. The forums are really great for beginning poster artists ... all the poster artists chat on there and give you help or ideas; it's huge for networking," says Green. "If you're a poster artist and you don't go to that website, you're totally missing out."
While Green readily admits her early poster designs were "horrible," she says she has picked up some handy tricks along the way. She says a large central image and a limited color palette, for example, tend to grab people's attention.
"You really want to make sure the text in the poster really goes with the image ... I would say that's the No. 1 thing with beginner poster artists: they're using some kind of premade font, some crappy font that looks ugly with the poster," says Green.
Though Green says the poster collecting community is still small in Boise, she sees it as a viable avenue for people to looking to buy limited-edition artwork for relatively cheap.
"The reason I like them is it's an original piece of artwork and it's screenprinted and someone took the time to actually do that ... You're basically buying a piece of artwork for between $20-$30, or less even."
Bunnell says he recently started noticing a trend in the industry. As album sales continue to decline, bands are getting creative with how they add value to their brand and personalize experiences for fans.
"We see a lot of bands now that commission tour posters as part of their touring process ... They're really unique commemorative pieces when each night is an individual piece of work," says Bunnell. "As those merch sales at shows become more and more important to the artists' living, you're seeing the quality of that merch being elevated."
Overall, Bunnell views gig posters as a way to synthesize visual art and music in a format that perfectly captures the prevailing zeitgeist.
"I think it just adds excitement to an event, a cultural element that a lot of times is missing ... Mixing the arts is what, maybe, excites me most about it," says Bunnell.