Saying the digital revolution has changed the music industry is like saying the wheel has really helped people get around. Once upon a time, musicians had to rely on record labels and disc jockeys to get their start, but now any band can create a song and broadcast it to the whole world in a day. Promoters can instantly reach the masses with tweets and email blasts.
Though all those zeroes and ones are hurtling toward music fans, there are still some old media that thrive on the streets and refuse to die. In fact, one medium's name is the same as the basic unit of online communication: post. I'm speaking of the lowly band flier.
It's a given that music events must be promoted visually. Actually, the last dozen years have seen a rock-poster renaissance. A new generation of artists apply their own colorful imagery to concert announcements and screen-print posters the old-school way. But these amazing artworks transcend the kiosks; few are ever pierced by a staple gun. Instead, they hang behind shop windows and on websites like GigPosters.com, available for purchase via PayPal. In contrast, the anonymously created slapdash flier is on the streets doing the grunt work, stopping wanderers in their tracks by promising a good time.
In this age of social media, is the cheap band flier still necessary? Many leaders in the local music community say it's pretty important.
"They're very valuable. There's so much stuff online, [a show] can get lost in the shuffle," says Sybil Augustine, music director of WORT-FM.
Plus, the ubiquity of fliers can help tattoo concert information on people's brains.
"When people start seeing the same flier, it has an effect," says Majestic Theatre co-owner Matt Gerding.
At the very least, people seem to miss concert fliers when they're gone.
"Well, the bands certainly notice if the posters aren't up," says Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon.
Madison is a natural place for kiosk culture to flourish. While college towns are typically poster-prone, not very many have one street connecting a major university with the seat of state government. Promoter Peter Jest says his home base of Milwaukee isn't as flier-friendly.
"They don't have a street like State Street," he says.
Madison's original poster wars
Posters grabbed me early on. During forays into the hippified UW of the early 1970s, I would marvel at campus bulletin boards festooned with fliers for concerts, rallies and other happenings. I was fascinated by the bombastic graphics that 20 years later had me creating my own posters for local promoters. (Full disclosure: I've designed fliers for many of the people mentioned in this article.)
Print underwent a technological revolution thanks in part to the colorful offset posters of the 1960s and the cheapo photocopies of the 1970s. Black-and-white fliers from local clubs like the Nitty Gritty fought for attention with full-bore political posters. A wonderful gallery from this wooly era can be found on the Wisconsin Historical Society's website ("The Madison People's Poster and Propaganda Collection" at wisconsinhistory.org).
By 1976 State Street's funky vibe had spread into nearby neighborhoods, and not everyone was mellow. Prompted by property owners' complaints about urban blight, Madison passed a contentious poster ordinance that limited fliers to just kiosks and bulletin boards: no poles, no mailboxes, no bus shelters. Some declared this the death of free speech, or at least of campus film societies.
One east-side woman, Vicki Hopper, relished the new law as she stripped illegal postings from her Willy Street neighborhood and sent them to the city attorney's office for prosecution, to no avail.
"They put this junk everywhere," she said in a Wisconsin State Journal article in 1975. "My neighbors and I go out three times a day and tear them down as fast as they put them up."
At the same time, the cracked sidewalks of State Street were undergoing a major makeover, transforming into a car-free, pedestrian-happy mall. Figuring prominently in the plan were kiosks on every block. Spaces on these mighty pillars quickly became downtown's hottest real estate.
Screening movies in classrooms had become lucrative for some campus film societies, resulting in the first "poster wars." Rivals would tear down each other's fliers or stamp their foes' movies CANCELED. These incidents sometimes escalated to charges of physical assault and vandalism of vehicles. In 1981 the university shut down the film groups for a summer, before the spread of the VCR largely wiped them out.
Meanwhile, new music clubs invaded downtown, and the kiosks-only law was roundly ignored. Plus, there was no relief in sight with the rise of punk, a genre whose DIY ethic and ransom-note graphics were perfect for razzing passersby.
That aggressive attitude resulted in posters being put up where they shouldn't. Last year's "Smart Sounds, Alt Music, Mad Scenes" exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum documented zealous posterers' tales of creative placement, such as having two halves of a poster meeting when an elevator's doors closed.
While he owns up to some "weird guerrilla stuff," Reptile Palace Orchestra guitarist Bill Feeny found that making fliers for his then-band the Appliances-SFB was another creative outlet.
"I started in the punk thing, with a lot of collage," Feeny says of his early fliers. Later he put his drawing talent to work, creating a different poster for every gig. Was it ever a chore? "Never," he says.
Feeny's day job just off State Street made it possible to continually police the kiosks to make sure his fliers stayed up. Feeny describes that struggle as "a passion, a pissing match and a sort of code of the West." He struck alliances with other posterers and declared war on all interlopers.
Occasionally, questionable imagery has been a problem. In 1986 avant-garde artists Miekal And and Liz Was were advised against "explicit postering" during the city's much-heralded Festival of the Lakes. Ten years later, the High Noon's Dethmers was fined for a poster her then-husband designed to promote the Mercy Rule's appearance at her venue O'Cayz Corral.
"I found an image of a mother sitting upright, nude, against a tree with her infant son lying in the grass next to her, also nude. He was yanking his penis, as boys are known to do," says artist Jerry Newbrough. "I thought it was the perfect level of cuteness for the Mercy Rule."
Within 24 hours of posting the fliers, Dethmers and Newbrough received a call from the Madison Police Department. Armed with search warrants, the cops scoured the club and their apartment. When Newbrough asked an officer why he was looking under their sink, he allegedly said, "Kids are small. You can hide them anywhere." After attesting that she felt her free speech had been violated, Dethmers paid a $25 fine and decided that in the future, posters would be more "on the modest side."
Today citations for illegal placement are seldom issued, about one a year. The fine is now $109, and that can be charged per poster. So posting 20 fliers of your missing kitty on some telephone poles could theoretically cost you more than 2,000 bucks.
"Realistically, would someone be charged?" asks Madison Police Lt. Anthony Bitterman. "Probably not."
These days, the more pressing problems concern the clowns who set the kiosks aflame. Noting this, the city retired State Street's old wooden hulks in 2006 and replaced them with artfully bowed sheet metal. This has yet to deter the firebugs.
The Parks Department maintains the kiosks downtown, stripping them every few weeks while displaying larger color posters behind glass on utility boxes. Event organizers are invited to let the city hang their posters, even though the city website has warned (PDF) that timely posting "is not a high priority."
One innovation that helps feed the kiosks is the street team. Organizers post an invitation on their websites, encouraging people to post some bills in return for seeing some shows. The Majestic's Gerding says he has a pool of 10 or so people he draws from to flier every show. "It takes a great deal of organization," he explains.
Gerding says his venue has come to terms with "a kind of fliering protocol" regarding whose posters go on which row of the kiosks. "It was an interesting thing to learn when we first came here."
He's referring to Tag Evers, the local promoter who founded True Endeavors. Evers began postering shows in the early '90s. He has since garnered a reputation for ruling the State Street kiosks with an iron staple gun. (Actually, clear bookbinding tape is de rigueur these days.) Evers' claim on the top row has rankled some local players.
"Nobody owns the kiosks," says Gerding.
Evers says his team only papers over fliers for True Endeavors' expired shows and tries to transfer trespassing posters to new, albeit lower, spots. He says this is necessary to maintain order for all.
"We keep our fliers up. If everybody covers everybody willy-nilly, the half-life of a flier on State Street is about 30 minutes," he says.
Which leads us back to the question of whether all this paperwork is necessary to fill a club.
Gerding thinks it's worth it, citing the low cost, along with a gut feeling that a show can get a boost with a "handsome poster in a high-traffic area."
Evers is less enthusiastic.
"Fliering is anachronistic, of declining importance relative to the Internet and social media," he says. "If the kiosks went away tomorrow, folks would have other ways to find out about shows." Yet he continues to use fliers, as well as print ads and radio. "Old habits die hard," he admits.
What say the bands themselves? In an informal poll of local scenesters on Isthmus' online Forum, 14% said fliers were "a highly effective marketing tool," while 64% called them "a necessary evil."
Some musicians recalled heavily postered shows that tanked. Others said a Facebook posting was sufficient. And some said 4-up handbills passed out in bars were more effective, which may be true. Those slips of paper will go home with you at bar time and pop up in your pocket the morning after, enticing you to leave the house again.
Perhaps it's that physicality that makes fliers so enduring, as well as endearing. Even if a poster fails to pack a gig, bands and fans can still save this bit of ephemera as a snapshot of the night. Regardless of the design, such a keepsake can trigger memories and say to others, "What a night that was!"
Posters provided by Wisconsin Historical Society (WHI), Bill Feeny, Lisa Mine, Dave Barber and David Michael Miller.