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The Art of Music: Posters from the Fillmore

By Charles Purdy

There’s something special about seeing a show at the Fillmore in San Francisco—and it’s not just the intimate setting, the venue’s place in the history of modern music, and the fact that musicians themselves love the Fillmore. It’s also the one-of-a-kind posters that are handed out to concertgoers at the end of sold-out shows—posters that creatively represent the musical act while harking back to the Fillmore’s illustrious past. 

Arlene Owseichik (photo by Michael Wertz)

Arlene Owseichik (photo by Michael Wertz)

Arlene Owseichik began working for the Fillmore in 1985, when it was about to be re-opened under the leadership of famed concert promoter Bill Graham (and his company Bill Graham Presents). Since 2006, she has continued to oversee the creation of the Fillmore’s posters, as the head of her own company, Big Picture Design. The Fillmore’s current poster series started in 1987 with “number 1”—and they’ve recently passed number 1,300. Arlene has worked on making almost all of these posters a reality. We recently spoke to her about her work and the art of music. 

Charles Purdy: Tell me about your history with the Fillmore.

Arlene Owseichik: I started working at Bill Graham Presents in 1985. Bill Graham Presents has hosted shows at the Fillmore, first in the 1960s and again since the late 1980s. I worked as art director and then creative director for the company until 2004. After Bill Graham passed away in 1991, the company was sold, first to SFX Entertainment and then to Clear Channel Communications after that.

I was downsized in 2004, and then in 2006 I was brought back on a freelance basis to manage the posters. I now have my own company, and the projects I work on are still mostly in the music community—but I’m available for anything! 

Charles: What makes the Fillmore’s posters unique?

Arlene: The fact that the series has lasted so long. I don’t think there’s anything else like it. And the fact that they’re all for real shows at the Fillmore makes them more unique.

The really special part about our posters is that they’re given out at the end of the night, as a surprise gift to the patrons. I think that’s wonderful. So they’re in the community, they’re with the public, and they’re instantly collectible—it’s pretty great.

(Learn more about the history of the Fillmore’s poster art.)

A wall of concert posters at the Fillmore (photo by Michael Wertz)

A wall of concert posters at the Fillmore (photo by Michael Wertz)

Charles: Why does the Fillmore do this differently, do the one-off concert posters?

Arlene: Well, we make posters based on tradition. Arguably, we invented the genre back in the ’60s, so when the Fillmore re-opened in the ’80s, the tradition already existed. We carry on with that. It’s historic and it’s part of the Fillmore brand, shall we say.

Charles: How does the work of Wes Wilson and the other iconic psychedelic poster artists of the 1960s and 1970s influence the posters produced today? Are you conscious about aligning with that aesthetic?

Arlene: We have a slogan: “When in doubt, do it Fillmore-style.” So we are conscious of it. But it’s not mandated. I think another really amazing feature of our posters is that they’re of all styles. Some look very digital, or they look very Flatstock, or they look very silkscreen, or they look very much like the posters in the ’60s.

When I went to work there, the posters from the ’60s and ’70s were all up in the office, and they weren’t quite as lofty as they are now, because it was a little closer to when it actually happened. So, you know, they were just nice posters. By the time I was in the role and [was doing] a lot of posters back in the ’80s, the norm had become more “Xerox style”—new wave art and punk art were coming into popularity, and so there had been a stylistic change. '

Charles: And that’s of course pointing to a change in how posters are made.

Arlene: When I started in the ’80s, the method was still the antiquated way of handing in an art board with Rubylith cutouts for the color. A lot of finishing work was done at the print shop—the stripper at the print shop would lay in the color when the film for the plates was prepared.

The Fillmore closed in ’89 after the [Loma Prieta] earthquake, and it didn’t open again until ’95, and by then things were becoming more computer based.

That’s been the biggest change. It used to be illustration boards and manual art—not that manual art no longer exists, but if somebody makes an illustration, they’ll often scan it into the computer to colorize it. Or they’ll make the whole image in the computer. It is always a digital file that goes to the printer. For the most part, we print offset, which means that the files are created in CMYK, and they’re turned into four printing plates. Sometimes we do spot color. Rarely, if we’re in a time crunch, we print direct to digital—which means it’s not even turned into plates. The final poster is a digital print. 

Charles: Does it help if the poster artist likes the musician or band, or does that not really matter?

Arlene: I think the person first has to have an innate sense about poster art. That means type integrated with an image. And I do think that they need to have a passion for music. Whether it’s a specific band or not—if they’ve never heard of the band, then they can look at it like any other kind of graphic assignment.

I do think they have to have a feeling—an idea of what makes a good poster, and what makes a rock-and-roll poster, or a rap poster, or a heavy metal poster, or a singer-songwriter poster, and so on. 

For the most part, the artists I work with make complete posters. That is, they do the lettering, they do the colorization, and they make the final art file. One important thing for artists who are interested in making posters is to understand typography. The type, and how it integrates into the artwork, is such an important part. 

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Derek Studebaker Johnson (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Derek Studebaker Johnson (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Brad Kayal (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Brad Kayal (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Charles: What’s the creative process for a poster, how does it get assigned and approved? Do you have a stable of artists you regularly work with?

Arlene: I do have a stable, but we also like to keep the art fresh, so there are often new artists. The stable is always changing.

Typically I’ll get an assignment for a poster based on how the show is selling. Once I get the assignment, I’ll think about, “Oh, well, Lucinda Williams—what style of art would work for her, or which artist might be interested in making the poster?”

A lot of times these days, frankly, I haven’t heard of the band, so first I do my own research on the Web—look at videos, look at Wikipedia, look at their CD covers and their album art, look at posters on GigPosters.com.

After I do that, I say, “Oh yeah, so-and-so might be great for this band.” Or sometimes a poster artist will say to me, “Oh, I really love Ani DiFranco and would love to a poster for her the next time she comes to town.” It works both ways.

I give [artists] a lot of design leeway. If they’re familiar with the music and have a passion for it, then I let them run with it. I have also learned that what works best for Michael [Bailey, the producer who manages the Fillmore] is for him to have a choice. So the standard is that we ask artists to do three comps.

I know what my feelings are about the comps, but it really comes down to the producer. It’s ultimately his choice. One blessing is that the bands very rarely need to sign off on the artwork—because it’s a tradition at the venue. The poster is a surprise to them on the night of the show. Only in rare cases do we have to send the artwork to get signed off on by the band. That obviously raises the tension. 

Charles: Do you get feedback from the musicians? Do you find out if, say, they love the poster?

Arlene: I have to say my favorite performance artist for the last many years is Ryan Adams; I’m just crazy about Ryan Adams. Anyways, unsolicited, he signed one of his posters and left it in the dressing room for me. It said, “Thank you for your wonderful vision of music and art and all of these things together.”—I was so thrilled…. Anyway, I know he liked it.

And there’s Lucinda Williams, who recorded a live album at the Fillmore, and at the time she asked if the poster could be the cover. If something like that happens…we love it. I handed her folks over to the poster artist, and he created the artwork for the CD package. It’s a beautiful image, and the interaction was hugely successful.

Probably the best one was…quite a few years ago, we did a poster for David Bowie. He loved it, and after he met the poster artist, they developed a collaboration in which Rex [Ray] created art for Bowie’s website and CD packaging—so that turned out well.

But for the most part I don’t hear a response, really. I’m not in the dressing room, obviously. I don’t attend all the shows, so there isn’t really a direct channel to find out how they like their poster. 

Poster by Joel Elrod (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Joel Elrod (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Hugh D'Andrade (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Hugh D'Andrade (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Brad Kayal (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Brad Kayal (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Charles: Do you go to a lot of the shows?

Arlene: It depends. I’ve seen a lot of shows in my day. I used to live in [San Francisco], and it was my lifeblood, being on the music scene. I live in the East Bay now, and it takes a lot to get me to a show in the city.

I also work on Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, as artistic director. That is a big job every year and I’m there 24-7, from when the show begins until the show ends. I hear a lot of music. That weekend satiates me for a while.

And I love Prince. I’ll go anywhere for Prince.

Poster by Frank Wiedemann (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Frank Wiedemann (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Charles: Do any posters stand out as particularly challenging?

Arlene: Well, Prince. You know how he announces a show the night before it happens, and then everybody scrambles to make it happen?

This Prince date happened while I had taken time off and was visiting friends in LA. While on the road, I got a call saying, “Prince is playing the Fillmore tomorrow; can we do a poster overnight?” Not only is it Prince—the most important thing in the world—but the poster has to happen overnight?!

So I called up my go-to artist Frank Wiedemann and said, “Oh my God, oh my God, Prince is playing the Fillmore tomorrow night! Can we have a comp immediately?” I wanted to integrate an image of the new Bay Bridge into a poster…because Prince had played Oakland the last time he was here, and now he’s playing the Fillmore, so I thought, “He had to cross the bridge.” Frank sent a quick design, and I got Michael to sign off on it, and then we literally went to press the next morning. But then I get a phone call—and I am at Legoland, of all places—the printer calls me and says, “You know it’s the wrong date on the poster? You have yesterday’s date on there.” So I called Michael and I said, “Do you think anyone would notice if the date was wrong?” [Laughs]…. Not!

So everything stopped, and I needed a new file. I get so involved with the imagery that I forget to read it sometimes. Usually there is a proofreading system for the posters, but the poster happened so fast in this case.

So Frank made a corrected file, and we had to arrange with the direct-to-digital printer to start over. By the time the printer delivered the posters, Prince was already on stage.

And I loved the poster—I mean, I don’t know if Prince did, but I love it. His people did request additional copies of the poster, though.

Charles: Aside from having a set size and the occasional time crunch, are there other design challenges or requirements, as there are with movie posters, for instance?

Arlene: Not with us. For the most part, we’re informal, so to speak. We have a tradition that the posters still say “Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco” at the top, in honor of Bill. Bill always wanted his name to be really small, so we want that line to be really small. We want to give the headliner their due, and we want the special guests to be listed but to be obviously smaller. Generally, they’re top to bottom: “Bill Graham Presents,” headliner, special guest, date including the year, “The Fillmore,” and then the address of the Fillmore, and at the bottom a tiny credit line.

In general, I hear from [Michael Bailey] if there is anything extra that I need to know in terms of sizes of billing.

Oh, yeah, and we never do portraits or literal interpretations of a band’s name. Well, sometimes it sneaks in there.... We always go for something that’s evocative, subjective. Another rule is no guns, no violence, and no imagery that is demeaning to women or to a particular race. I want to put only positive images into the world.

Charles: What are some of your favorite recent posters?

Arlene: Well, I love them all. I already mentioned the Ryan Adams poster, an illustration by Joel Elrod.

We did Drive-By Truckers a couple years ago, and I worked with a poster artist whose name is Reuben Rude—he’s great at lettering, and he knows how to evoke the old traditional Fillmore style. The poster is an opossum hanging upside-down in a tree, and it’s just so “Southern” and unexpected. I love it.

Another one of my favorite posters is a poster Reuben made for The Darkness. They are a retro glam and heavy metal band from England. I call that poster “The Glam Reaper.”

Then there are two Blondie posters by Frank Wiedemann—the artist I called up to do the overnight Prince poster—and I just think they’re both so great…. The Empire State Building poster makes me happy every time I see it. It reminds me of madras shirts, back in the day.

(See more posters created between 2007 and 2013 in this Fillmore gallery.)

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Reuben Rude (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Frank Wiedemann (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Poster by Frank Wiedemann (copyright Fillmore Corporation)

Charles: What do you love about the work itself?

Arlene: The whole package. The people, the art, and the music.

All of the people involved with the posters continually step up: Great Impressions, the printer; Zebra Graphics, who prepares the plates (and FlightChecks the files); and the beloved poster artists—also Michael Bailey, of course, and the folks at the Fillmore who distribute the posters.

Music and art go together hand-in-hand. In these days without album covers—there used to be covers that you could love—it’s more diffuse. Even if there is a CD, it’s a tiny thing. I think posters fill this need. They are a visual representation of a musical moment.