A short history of gig posters in Madison, decade by decade

In the not-so-distant past, the concert poster — or flyer, or handbill — was one of the only ways to find out what musical acts were coming to town.
collection of concert posters
Photo by Chris Hynes

In the not-so-distant past, the concert poster — or flyer, or handbill — was one of the only ways to find out what musical acts were coming to town. The papers that were saved bring music history buffs and hazy-headed rockers a wave of nostalgia and warm memories of younger days. They’re also sometimes the only solid proof that a particular show even happened — there weren’t exactly camera phones in every pocket back then. Evidenced by the kiosks on State Street and fueled by a revolving body of designers, artists and fans, the tradition of concert posters runs deep in Madison.

Big Beat poster

Courtesy of Kurt Stream

Held in April 1958 at the Orpheum Theatre, Big Beat was the greatest collective of early rock royalty ever to grace a Madison stage. Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were among the 17 performers and groups that night, smack dab at the height of the first rock and roll wave. Posters from this era were known as tour blanks. National promoters printed them in large quantities, leaving space for local venues to fill in the details. The utilitarian nature of these posters meant most were tossed after the events. The few that did survive are highly collectible — such as this one, which sold at auction last year for a staggering $118,750.

Otis Redding

Courtesy of Kurt Stream

Madison’s most historically significant concert poster is for a show that never was. Well-known local promoter Ken Adamany owned The Factory on Gorham Street and booked Otis Redding for two shows in December 1967. Tragically, Redding — along with four band members — died when their plane crashed into Lake Monona during its descent into Truax Field. Designed by 20-year-old University of Wisconsin–Madison student William Barr, the poster features what many perceived as a woman lying in a coffin. The truth is far less macabre, as Barr asserts that he was inspired by Redding’s 1966 hit “Try a Little Tenderness.” Adamany printed 100 of these posters and paid Barr $50 for his efforts.


Courtesy of Kurt Stream

1970s and 1980s
Punk arrived, Xerox machines became widely available in stores — and the DIY flyer era was born. Suddenly, anyone in a band could print their own flyers for 5 cents a copy and plaster them around town. One of the most influential underground bands to come out of Madison was Killdozer, which made waves on the national independent music scene in the ’80s. Killdozer’s lead singer, Michael Gerald, made most of the band’s early flyers and approached them with the same chaotic creativity that fueled the band’s music. “I used scissors, an X-Acto knife, rubber cement and dry transfer letters,” Gerald says. “The photos and artwork were usually from coffee table books at Goodwill.” Occasionally, these flyers drew outside scrutiny — like in September 1988, when a Wisconsin State Journal columnist took issue with a flyer advertising a Killdozer show at O’Cayz Corral and gave the venue an “award for most tasteless kiosk poster.” In a letter to the editor the following week, Gerald proudly claimed responsibility and snarkily wrote, “When giving an award of such great distinction, I believe it is in the interest of all to give credit where credit is due.”

They Might Be Giants

Courtesy of Kurt Stream

Independent artists weren’t the only ones frequenting Kinko’s. The early ’90s saw the rise of local promoters like First Artists and Tag Team, which began dominating the kiosks. David Michel Miller is Madison’s most prolific designer, with more than 2,000 flyers to his credit. He created ads for the alt-weekly newspaper Isthmus from 1987 to 1991, then started designing his own flyers. Other clubs and promoters took notice, and he soon created flyers for seemingly every act in town. “I loved the look of the old blues posters and those vintage, letter-pressed, boxing-style concert posters,” Miller says. “It was the direct communication style of them that appealed to me most.” While his flyers aren’t high art by any means, there was a simple uniqueness to them that was satisfyingly familiar to Madisonians. “You can put a lot of work into them artistically, but the best flyers were ones you could read from across the street,” says Miller. “I tried to make them shout at people as they were passing those State Street kiosks.”

Meat Puppets poster

Courtesy of Kurt Stream

The New Millennium
Michael Byzewski and Dan Ibarra were young designers working at the Madison-based creative agency Planet Propaganda in the late ’90s when they started screen printing together as a relaxing distraction. In late 1998 they began designing and printing gig posters under the Aesthetic Apparatus moniker. Those early days were filled with hustle. For works like the one pictured above — from a 1999 Meat Puppets show at O’Cayz Corral — they’d have to get permission from the venue to create the poster, then donate a quarter of the run to promote the show. Night of, the pair would arrive early to give copies to the band as grease for their request to sell the posters and at least recoup their expenses. A screen-printing renaissance of sorts was happening across the country, with artists and designers finding a supportive, like-minded online community at websites like gigposters.com to share and learn the craft. National touring bands and their managers soon jumped on board, directly commissioning designers like Aesthetic Apparatus to design and print posters. Today it’s common to be able to purchase a unique, limited-edition poster created specifically for the show you attended that night. As the digital age marches forward, here’s hoping there’ll always be a need for the printed concert poster. Just as playing music on vinyl sounds better than streaming it, a weathered flyer hastily taped to a kiosk will always be more eye-pleasing than a Facebook event page could ever hope to be.

Kurt Stream is a freelance writer and author born and raised in Madison and currently residing in Tacoma, Washington.

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