Rock Poster Maven Ron Schaeffer Preserves an Art Form
An Alamedan with a lifelong passion for rock posters and rock ’n’ roll serves as treasurer of The Rock Poster Society and promotes posters as art while assisting the artists who make them.
Ron Schaeffer is treasurer of The Rock Poster Society.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Rock posters remind Ron Schaeffer of the countless shows he’s attended. Such posters decorate his home, each a fond reminder of the electric guitars, drums, and cheering crowds that fill his memories.
Schaeffer is treasurer of The Rock Poster Society, an organization dedicated to preserving rock posters — those unique artists’ advertisements for upcoming concerts and shows — as an art form.
“I didn’t care about rock ’n’ roll or any of that stuff until the Beatles showed up. I really liked their music,” Schaeffer said. “All of a sudden, there were rock shows in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.”
And thus began the Alamedan’s lifelong passion for rock, as well as the accompanying promotional rock posters. Schaeffer got his first rock poster at a Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish show. Over the years, his poster collection has grown, and his involvement in this art scene, which has Bay Area origins, has deepened as well.
What is a rock poster?
The criteria for most people that are in the scene is that it has to be a poster that was made before a rock show to advertise it. A musician commissions an artist to make a poster. It’s not record promo art. It’s not newspaper art. It’s unique stuff made for a particular show. It’s usually facilitated by the band or band management who commissions a poster artist to make this poster for a show. That’s what everybody wants. They can go to the show and take this thing home, and it reminds them of the show for the next 20 years. Some people have them framed on the walls. Some people tape them to the wall. Some people put thumb tacks in them. It varies what people do with them, but they all want to have them on their walls. These posters are little totems of those experiences. Some people consider them cool images that ring with the band. It’s the artist trying to do something cool for the band and capture where their feelings are and what their direction is.
Why do you love rock posters?
Rock posters are a symbol of a subculture. At times, this subculture has almost become mainstream. I like art, and I like to be reminded of the music and the shows I’ve gone to. It’s beautiful stuff to put up. I’m not big on austere, white walls. I used to work at a big Silicon Valley company. Everything was gray, white, chrome, or white wood. It was a beautiful presentation, but unless you had some color in there, it was like Eastern Bloc chic. I think of my walls as places to put up things of interest and things I like to look at. I don’t like to have my walls empty, because it is a palette that doesn’t say anything.
What kind of events does The Rock Poster Society put on?
We were invited to a big event last year that was hosted by the San Francisco [Museum and] Historical Society at the San Francisco Mint. They had several hundred nonprofit organizations show up. We talked to hundreds of people and gave away posters, cards, and other show stuff. We also have the Artist Relief Trust. If there’s a musician that has a medical problem or, for example, needs a pair of glasses, the ART can help them with the expenses. It was started because there was a major artist that landed up in the hospital. He had fallen ill, and we all really wanted to help him. These artists kind of live on the edge, so who’s going to help them out? We got other nonprofit organizations that are kind of aligned to help us with this. We do a fundraiser for it every year. One poster artist every year volunteers to make a poster for the ART, and we sell it at our shows. That’s what primarily funds the ART. We also do Rock Art by the Bay. The most recent event was at Alameda’s Faction Brewing. We provide the entire set up, like the advertising, required to do an art show. It’s free for the artist. It’s a public benefit for the artists. We normally try to do events that benefit the arts or support artists.
What is the history of the rock poster art scene?
The real centers are the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and, to a lesser degree, New York. It’s all grown out of the West Coast. It became a thing in the 1960s, because the only way people could afford to advertise back then was to put posters on the wall. At the time, it was way too expensive to advertise in newspapers, like the San Francisco Chronicle. At one point, the Chronicle refused to take ads for psychedelic or hippie-type music. You were left with just advertising on the street using street art. So it’s grown out of street art.
How can people learn more about the history of rock posters?
There are two major books. One is called The Art of Rock: From Presley to Punk by Paul Grushkin. It reviews rock posters from the era of Elvis Presley to the punk generation. The other book is The Art of Modern Rock by Dennis King, which is the sequel to Grushkin’s book. It goes from punk up to now and chronicles the worldwide phenomenon of handmade silk-screen posters. It’s gone from being just a Bay Area thing, or a California thing, early on to being worldwide. Several Bay Area artists have shows in other countries to show other budding artists how to do stuff for music. There’s hundreds of books, but those are two main ones. They’re kind of the bibles.