Gig Posters

“With the rising popularity of MP3 files and streaming digital music – and the near extinction of traditional album art – concert posters have become the most important visual representation of contemporary music.”

The line comes from an introduction to Clay Hayes’ book Gig Posters Volume 1: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century, and yet it reads as a mission statement. Why else would a 25-year-old Calgary musician decide to create an online community dedicated to the preservation and presentation of concert posters? Did he know something we didn’t back in January 2001? Could he have foreseen in 2009 that an online market called iTunes would reign supreme, so-called ‘music stores’ would shrink their music sections to make way for DVDs and video games, and artists crafting lasting images for the fronts of CD jewel cases would have to look elsewhere for work?

Hayes must have had a crystal ball because, eight years later, has become one of the largest music-based communities on the web. With over 20,000 members, the site is a must-visit for anyone who wants to discuss posters, gigs, festivals, or simply music in general. The lure of conversation with people who have a shared interest in art and music attracts new members daily. The almost 8,000 designers featured on the site have an active marketplace to showcase and sell their work. Type “concert posters” in a Google search, and it’s right at the top of the search results.

Sounds like the man knew exactly what he was doing from the start. But in reality, Hayes’ journey started more innocently than one might have guessed.

“Everyone assumes that I must be an artist or a collector when they ask me how I got started, when in reality that was never the case at all,” explains Hayes. “I played in a band for ten years and I would collect the flyers from our shows – you know, black-and-white Republik flyers, crap like that – and that’s what I called a ‘gig poster’ when I was starting the site. I didn’t know any different. To me, it was more memorabilia of where a band played.

“Some of the posters were cool looking, but I wasn’t as interested in the art part until I started the site,” Hayes continues. “I wanted (the site) to be a community where people would share their posters as well, so I emailed everyone on the net I could find who had anything to do with posters and it started to grow. It was at that point when I realized that a gig poster can be a lot more amazing and involved than the stuff that I had known before. I mean, limited-edition screen prints… those weren’t around when I started the site, at least not here in Calgary. It opened my eyes to the whole world of rock poster art that no one had really known about. And that’s the beauty of the site – everyone was learning about it at the same time as I was.”

Hayes’ search for posters naturally led him to designers, who enthusiastically submitted their portfolios and told friends and colleagues to do the same. From there, it was just a matter of word-of-mouth, which spread like wildfire and continues to fuel the site to this day. Hayes says he hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising, but that doesn’t stop him from attending the Flatstock Poster Convention four times a year, including the upcoming stop at the South by Southwest Film and Music Festival in Austin, Texas this month.

“It’s like a comic book convention for poster art,” enthuses Hayes. “It’s a blast to meet people who are part of the community, to talk to them face-to-face and become really close friends. It’s made the whole experience really special for me.”

All that success pales in comparison to Hayes’ most recent endeavour: his first foray into the world of books. Gig Posters Volume 1 is the culmination of a goal Hayes has had for years and, after looking at an advance copy – the book won’t be released until late April, though Canada might have to wait until early May – his excitement bursts forth.

“The book is a dream come true, for sure,” says Hayes. “The publisher (Quirk Books) approached me about a year and a half ago, asking me if I would be interested in putting together a book of posters, which had been my goal for a long time. Before that, I never thought it would happen. I looked at self-publishing, but it wouldn’t have been financially feasible. So I’m very grateful that they approached me.

“It was a long process – about three or four months – of narrowing down the posters. I had to leave out some of my favourites and I pissed some people off… but the great thing is that the publishers really went to town on it. I just supplied the guts of the thing. It looks amazing.”

And so it does. While the layout and quality of the book are certainly high calibre, the most amazing part is how a book containing 101 full-page posters that can be torn out and put on your bedroom wall holds together so professionally. “I was worried about that,” says Hayes, “that it wouldn’t hold together. But it works both as a coffee-table book and a pull-out book, which is fantastic.”

So what does the future hold for Clay Hayes? Growth is an obvious answer – at the time of this story printing, has just uploaded its 100,000th poster. The community he built almost single-handedly is destined to expand further throughout the web and the world. It shouldn’t be a surprise. In an age where music seems more disposable than ever, Hayes continues to dedicate himself to a medium that remains everlasting, untouched by the changing musical climate. However musicians release their music, they will always play gigs, and there will always be gig posters.

Maybe he didn’t need that crystal ball after all.

Originally published March 2009