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Keep This Concert Forever: The Creators and Collectors of Concert Posters

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Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Daniel Kohn speaks with Ames Bros. and Grouplove’s Hannah Hooper in an examination of the concert poster and why we love them. 

Summer in Chicago is hot, with ungodly humidity and the strength of an unforgiving sun. So why on July 18th with the mercury pushing 100 degrees, would more than a thousand  Pearl Jam fans surround Wrigley Field a day before the band’s landmark gig at the hallowed ballpark? It wasn’t to get a great spot on the field since there were only a limited number of general admission wristbands available. No, they wanted to get as close to the band as possible without touching them: by buying the band’s merch celebrating the one-off show. But Pearl Jam fans are a different breed from your run-of-the-mill rock supporters. While t-shirts are cool and the commemorative Wrigley wristbands and trading cards were a nice touch, fans were waiting in line primarily for one thing: to snare one of the band’s limited edition concert posters.

I am one of those crazy fans. I’ve been collecting concert posters since my first Pearl Jam show back in 1998. That night, the poster was designed by Ames Bros. and cost $10, which for a high school kid, meant the difference between a souvenir and a 12-pack of beer. I decided to splurge and haven’t looked back since.

Waiting in the Chicago line, though, was brutal. After half an hour, the heat started taking its toll. But unlike any other concert I’d been to, Pearl Jam had four different artists design posters. Each were unique to the event, and all had to do with baseball.

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Here, I met Dustin Norwood, who traveled from Lake Charles, LA with his cousin for the show. He told me he buys a t-shirt at every show he’s been to, but as of late, has been ramping up his concert poster collection. As the line slowly made its way towards the merch stand, we yapped about Pearl Jam, our travels (I’m from Los Angeles), and posters. Ninety minutes later, as we’re in striking distance of the stand, we’re informed that they’re sold out of posters. Our despair becomes hope minutes later when we’re told that the stand will be opening early and, yes, we’ll have our choice of posters in the morning, assuming they don’t sell out first.

The poster that most fans are after is the one designed by the Ames Bros. Founded by Barry Ament and Coby Schultz, the duo’s work is highly decorated, especially among the Pearl Jam faithful. They met and became friends while attending Montana State University (a school Ament jokingly calls the “Harvard of the West”). Upon relocating to Seattle, Ament worked as the in-house designer for Pearl Jam (Barry’s brother Jeff is the bassist), while Schultz was working at a different studio. In 1994, they combined forces and formed Ames Bros.

“The plan was always to work together,” Ament says. “I think after [Schultz] had a few years under his belt, we got together and Ames was born.”

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pearl jam crackerjack Keep This Concert Forever: The Creators and Collectors of Concert PostersIn Seattle, Ames Bros. started off humbly. Initially, they designed concert flyers for local venues and bands. The first project that they took on was for a “James Bond dance night” at the Re-Bar.

At the time when Ames formed, the Seattle art scene was filled with a number of rising designers and Ames didn’t have the experience or connections to get enlisted for bigger projects. Except for one. Using their connection to Pearl Jam, Ames offered to design the band’s posters for each show during their brief 1996 run of Europe supporting No Code. Besides their close relationship to the band, the duo made the band an offer they couldn’t refuse: they’d work for free.

“We did it for that because we just wanted to work on posters,” Ament recalls. “There’s no other intention beyond that. We were excited to work on screen prints.”

It’s hard to imagine that they worked on those posters for free, especially if you look on eBay and see the insane prices collectors will pay for posters from that tour. But the experience of designing posters for that run allowed for Ament and Schultz to build their portfolio and profile within the artistic community.

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After the Pearl Jam merch attendants announce that there will be posters in the morning, I hear chatter that some crazies were willing to sleep out in order to score one of Ames’s coveted posters. This no-nonsense lunacy is impressive for any fan base, but it speaks how important Ames Bros. have evolved as artists over the years and what their posters mean to fans.

pearljamhotdog 832x1024 Keep This Concert Forever: The Creators and Collectors of Concert PostersWhile Ames Bros. are among the most famous poster designers, they’re far from the only ones who have a dedicated following. Whenever Grouplove’s Hannah Hooper hits the stage, she usually notices the up-and-coming indie pop outfit’s fans clutching onto that night’s poster they purchased out in front.

“If it’s a new fan and it’s their first poster, I think it’s a great way to introduce them to the band,” Hooper says before the first of the band’s two shows in Boston. “I think my work represents what this band is about.” For the singer, being able to see the connection that her art has with a fan is almost as satisfying as running the through the group’s high energy set list.

What amazes Hooper more than anything is how fans have taken to the band and, in a way, her artwork.

“Sometimes people buy the poster because they don’t want to wear a bright, crazy t-shirt,” she says. “A poster can be something that you can just buy, and I know it’s a bit fancier, but I love that it’s something you can get at the merch table and you can go home and it’s a piece of art. And that it’s directly associated to the show that night — hopefully a good show and a positive memory. I love that art can translate into so many different forms and that our band can make music and artwork.”

Hooper’s words are what attract fans like Norwood to snagging a poster at a show instead of a t-shirt. Braving the nearly 19-hour Amtrak ride to Chicago, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on another coveted poster. A concertgoer for 20 years, the first one Norwood bought was in 2000 when he snared 311’s limited edition poster from a show in New Orleans. Despite his dog snacking on its corner, Norwood proudly has that poster displayed in a frame at his home. He says it changed his habits in buying a t-shirt at every concert.

311Norwood“I usually end up wearing the t-shirt until it starts to fade and get holes in it,” he explains when we catch up a few months later. “Once that happens, it goes into the closet and doesn’t get seen very much. However, with concert posters, they’re usually very vibrant in color and many are unique to the individual show. That is something I strive for. Most concert shirts can be pretty generic. I prefer to have something specific.”

He also says each poster in his collection tells a story about a specific gig through its particular imagery. Bouncing off the 311 poster, Norwood fondly looks back at the shows he’s attended. He recites the details without thinking too hard (it was actually March 11th and the band’s first daytime show and spanned four hours) and his vivid description makes the show sound like it was yesterday, not 13 years ago. Even with his collection pushing nearly 40 posters now, whenever he sees the slightly chewed poster, the memories from that afternoon always come back in a flash.

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62513B93-82E6-4205-90BA-A4694600DE95Looking at a wall and being transported back to a memorable show, that’s what attracted me to concert posters.

My first and favorite poster is one of the most famous in both Pearl Jam and Ames’ history. This was the one I used a crumpled Alexander Hamilton to purchase at the outside merch booth at Madison Square Garden. The shows were some of the band’s most memorable gigs, and the image from that poster is just as iconic. Conceived by Schultz, his inspiration for the poster came from the Sesame Street characters who stole letters, which he rolled into a film noir-type gangster selling illegal goods. The image became not only one of the most classic posters of the Yield era, but the one that put Ames’ work on the radar of collectors.

“It seemed like a clever way to advertise for the show,” Schultz remembers. “Back in those days, it was a little bit of both. It was fitting for the show.”

On the Yield tour, Ames Bros. designed, to their best recollection, around 60 posters, one for each show, turning their studio into a poster factory.

“At that time, we talked our printer into quitting his job and he rented the space below us and he printed all night while we designed all day,” Ament says. “It was just around the clock, spitting out posters left and right. ”

hooperart3 Keep This Concert Forever: The Creators and Collectors of Concert Posters

Just like me, Hooper became interested in art and posters at a young age. Growing up in San Francisco, her older brother was a graffiti artist and Hooper would go out around town to help him graffiti bomb the city. In grade school, she would draw in her sketchbooks because she says “it felt like being social without participating.”

Instead of collecting posters, she’d collect postcards from art museums and flyers from East Bay punk shows. Her interest in art was furthered when she attended the Parsons School of Design in New York City and then become Grouplove’s artist in residence.

While she’s created all of the band’s art, her favorite designs, like a poster from one of the band’s earliest shows at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, were part of a larger drawing that would work with what she thought the vibe of the show would be.

“A lot of the Bootleg posters were directly from my sketchbook and sketches of the band,” she says. “The one there was of Sean hanging out in the back of a van and I just drew him and added color and type. That’s how it became a poster.”

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Hooper’s design method varies depending on where she is both mentally and physically. When she’s home in Los Angeles, Hooper can cull through her hundreds of drawings and will usually find something she likes, which will be the basis of a potential poster. When she’s on tour, the singer will look at her current sketchbook, and there usually is something there that can be the basis of something to useful.

In mid-September while the group was celebrating the release of their sophomore album, Hooper had her work on display at a four-day pop-up show in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood. There, not only did she showcase some of her pre-Grouplove work, but she also had the original designs and layout of the band’s work. For Hooper, the transition from visual artist to musician has been an easy one, thanks to her dedicated fans.

“A lot of our fans know I make the art and I show stuff on my own Instagram,” she says. “We get a lot of packages of people sending us their artwork, and I don’t know how it is for most bands, but we get a lot of artwork. I feel like there’s a responsibility to keep making art and encouraging people to do the same.

“The fans that have gone out of their way to write me or whatever, I feel like I’ve spoken to them on a level that’s bigger than music. It’s about creating stuff. It’s about putting yourself out there and people really respond to that. Whether or not this band works out, I’m still going to be making art and success to me is growing as an artist and connecting with people.”

Most of the time, Hooper will use someone she saw as inspiration for the Grouplove’s next poster. Unlike the band’s Bootleg poster, the current one isn’t a band member.

“It’s this girl strangely looking out, an audience member that I saw in a photo that a fan took,” she explains. “I saw all these people looking at us, but I saw this one girl in particular who kind of embodied the way that people used to look at the Beatles. I was so moved by it that I ended up painting her.”

Ames Bros. operates in a similar fashion. When they come up with a particular image or an idea for one, they never feel the external pressures that a larger studio may have to deal with when working on a huge campaign or a poster rollout.

“I don’t think there’s ever been pressure because it’s always exciting,” Schultz says. “There’s a lot of different ways to approach a poster. We’ve done close to 300 posters for [Pearl Jam] and there can be a different tact each time. Sometimes it starts with geography and history that speaks to the city. Other times we incorporate personal influences so the city is irrelevant. It really depends on the situation.”

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When I return to Wrigley Field at 10 a.m. the next day, the lines are somehow even longer than the day before. But unlike yesterday, Norwood got there early, fortunately saving me a spot and nearly three hours later, we got the posters.

Naturally, by the time we reached the merch stand, they’re sorry to report that they’re out of one poster: the Ames Bros. one. Norwood and I grumble, but we aren’t too surprised. We buy the other posters, but are disappointed. After all, if there’s a designer that Pearl Jam fans are most loyal to, it’s Ames.

A lot has changed for Ament and Schultz since those early days. They operate out of an artist loft in the SODO area of Seattle, which has become their headquarters. They’ve evolved from a small design studio to an international brand. Nowadays, you’re just as likely to see one of their snazzy t-shirts on sale at Nordstrom or worn by Keith Urban on American Idol.

pixiesames Keep This Concert Forever: The Creators and Collectors of Concert PostersThey’ve designed hundreds of original screen printed posters, as well as CD packaging (they were nominated for a Grammy in 1998 for the design of Yield), and, of course, T-shirts for the likes of Neil Young, Radiohead, Snoop Dogg, Foo Fighters, The Strokes, and most recently, The Pixies. If that’s not enough, they’ve been called upon to design ad campaigns for major corporations like Virgin Mobile, Nissan, Absolut, Nike, and professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL. Not bad for a couple of dudes from the Harvard of the West.

Despite the growth in their profile, Ames considers itself a design studio at heart, with concert posters at its core. Ament adds: “We tune in and out (of outside chatter) and try to make the very best poster we can do.”

Nearly 20 years after they first officially combined forces, Ames Bros. remains a preeminent name in poster art. Many new designers have popped up over the years, but whenever a concert poster designed by Ament and Schultz is on sale at a show, it immediately becomes a sought after item.

“Sometimes the stars line up and it’s hard to predict,” Schultz says laughing.

“The thing that we always joke about is that we think of the fan’s perspective and say ‘It’s spinach for dinner again’ because the Ames Bros. are doing another poster,” Ament continues. “So knowing that, we like to have a pretty serious spice cabinet to do something different and inventive, as opposed to sticking to one style and wearing it out. We’re glad that people aren’t sick of it and like what we do.”

“I think there’s no question we like doing posters more than anything,” Schultz says.

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