Music Press Photos

You know those glossy, black and white photos that celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld would sign for fans while on the road, and write quips on them as regrettable as “Nothing’s finer than being in your diner” or worse? I collect those. I’ve seen plenty of bars and dining establishments display signed pictures of musicians or other popular talents that have graced their business, most often of local bands that didn’t quite get their big break, but for me it’s not even with the intention of getting them autographed.

Then why do I collect them? What could possibly be so great about these black and white, 8×10, 5×7, or whatever-such dimension of photos?

It sounds a little sappy or cliché, but every one of these pictures can tell a story. If you’ve seen any of these press photos in your travels, you probably know what I mean. Some of these photos aren’t the ones that get included on album sleeves or posters, and some we’ve seen in hundreds of contexts before. Some of them capture a band’s sense of humour in how they pose and represent themselves, some show them looking bland and stiff as if they were taken at a Sears Portrait Studio or for a grade school yearbook photo (possibly as a joke), and some serve as further reminder that an artist can be as much of a visual innovator as a musical one. Perhaps less importantly, they can remind you that just about every band went through a flannel phase or of that one tour when your favourite drummer rocked a tongue piercing of which he never spoke again.

This collection of mine has grown slowly but steadily over the past couple of years. If you want to get technical about it, I really began it around 15 years ago when I was a starving college student (metaphorically, I was quite well-fed). There was a vendor that sold an assortment of music collectibles who set up shop one day in the front foyer of the school. While his overpriced Testament poster that looked to have been salvaged from a flooded basement was tempting, it was his collection of promotional photographs that caught my eye. If memory serves correctly, he was charging around $8 per photo or two for $15. Whether these were actually authentic from the era or not I can’t say with certainty, but the print quality and photo resolution is very good on both of the ones I bought that day.

Each is in a pretty common style for these photos. You get the names of each band member printed on the bottom of the photo so there’s no mixing up who is who, and who plays what with respect to the King Diamond one. Each are what I would call vintage eras for each band, with Metallica in their late-80s glory (I’d say it’s from 1987, slightly after The $5.98 EP was released, judging by James Hetfield’s facial hair), and King Diamond’s band around the time of The Eye, the last studio album from his most popular years while with Roadrunner Records. Not a bad place to start for a young metal fan.

I’d like to say that these got the ball rolling, but it wasn’t that easy because at the time I rarely encountered other merchants that sold them (this was before I was a regular eBay shopper). I know that I also had a glossy pic of Emmett Chapman (inventor of the Chapman Stick) with interviews and press clippings that came with a copy of his only solo album, Parallel Galaxy. I keep that one in the album jacket, so it never quite felt like a part of my photo collection being that it was out of sight and out of mind. I never pursued any more of these until several years later when I retrieved my first two from a binder in my parents’ attic that also housed partial sets of Brockum Rock Cards and Pro Set MusiCards (click here for a great blog on that set). Growth of my collection was, and continues to be very, very gradual. I look to various online resources to find them mostly, and was even fortunate enough to get a couple as Christmas gifts.

Many of these capture bands during interesting states of lineup flux, which I take a bit of a guilty pleasure in owning. For instance, I came across a photo of prog-rock/fusion band Bruford with the so-called ‘Unknown’ John Clark in the lineup rather than their well-known guitarist Allan Holdsworth. It was missing the more noteworthy musician, and they happened to be standing on a beach beneath a beautiful sunset for some odd reason, but for the slight obscurity of this group’s incarnation it found home in my collection. Similarly, I had also bought two photos of other bands within weeks of each other without even thinking too deeply about the common link. See these ones of tech-metal pioneers Voivod and alternative rock band Dinosaur Jr below, and try to identify it yourself.

The above shows Voivod during their underrated The Outer Limits period, and Dinosaur Jr. for their Green Mind album. Each are from the early-’90s, of course, and both bands were doing time with major record labels, but both of these bands didn’t have a bassist in their lineups at this stage in their careers. It does seem rather odd seeing photos with incomplete lineups, but it happens fairly frequently in certain contexts. You might find press photos of just one band member (usually the vocalist or leader/spokesperson), and some labels might go as far as printing these of each individual musician in a group. As a side-note, I’m not sure why J Mascis is in the background peering bashfully over drummer Murph’s shoulder considering he’s the frontman, main songwriter, and even played drums on most of the album. Either that’s out of irony or his introverted nature is showing.

That leads me to the next photo, which I may have to call my favourite one of the lot. Another variant of photo I like are ones where the band members are in their own separate photos on a single sheet. Like in this Medeski Martin & Wood photo, we get action shots of them playing their respective instruments in a studio setting. I’ll take this over standard head shots more often than not. Each of these images, which appear to be from around the time of Combustication’s release, look to be worthy of promo photos all of their own.

If I get a more extensive press kit to accompany the photo, it can tell much more of the story. Stoner metal band Down’s biography I find to be the most amusing of those I currently own. Instead of a somewhat dry bio, it was written by one of the group’s guitarists, Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity fame. It’s got curse words in it, and everything! It can get a bit confusing at times, but take his description of Rex Brown playing “the dog shit out of the bass” as a compliment since he was a recent addition to the band rather than a recent subtraction. Others in my collection include material such as album reviews (see the Dinosaur Jr. one above) and full interviews, as is the case with the Metal Maniacs magazine interview accompanying a Through Silver In Blood-era Neurosis picture.

Some press kits contain so much supplemental material that record labels opt to send them in pocketed folders. I’ve got a few, including one of jazz fusion band Tribal Tech for their Illicit album, and one of Iggy Pop for Beat ‘Em Up, both of which are contained in folders with their respective record label’s logos on the front. The one of these that first grabbed my attention was that of New York-area metal band Anthrax while they were partnered with Beyond Records in the early-2000s.

This bundle would be from right around the time I got into the band (more on that story here). You get the photo (not one of my favourites, if I’m honest), and press releases regarding a series of album re-issues (Sound of White Noise and Stomp 442) as well as their upcoming tour schedule. I remember being disappointing at the time that this tour with the Ripper Owens-fronted Judas Priest, which I learned about through Anthrax’s website, was not making a stop in Toronto. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be making many other stops on the tour since it would be cancelled due to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I also received a group of photos, many of which dated back to the 1970s, that came with some unexpected bonuses taped to their backs that allow you to see a common use for these photos. As a result of their use by newspapers or whatever miscellaneous publications kept them in their archives, their conditions were not optimal for the most part. For instance, see the one of pop group XTC below that captures them in support of their Drums and Wires album.

Not much to look at, is there? It’s a pleasantly lighthearted choice for a picture of the band in front of a map, with bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding pointing to what could possibly be the venue they were performing at that day. Unfortunately, this has undergone significant staining to turn it off-white, wrinkles implying water damage or that it was stored at a non-ideal temperature, and the entire thing is poorly alligned, off-centre and cropped on the left side. However, if you take a look at what’s stamped on the back, it becomes a much more interesting artifact.

I ordered the bundle of photos from a West-Coast seller, which given what else we see here is enough to provide plenty of detail to work off of. My best guess would be that February 8, 1980 was the date the photo was used in print since it is stamped on the accompanying blurb with additional handwritten notes. This would have been quite a special show to attend because it was the first of the only two shows they played in Seattle, Washington based on their gig history (XTC didn’t tour after 1982, but continued as a recording band), and it’s not very often that you get to attend a show on a ‘leap day’ regardless of who’s playing.

The value of these photos isn’t much, and probably will never be, so it’s more about purchasing what I love and avoiding any potential investment mentality. It’s in ways such as this that I can even spot parallels to my interest in sports card collecting. I can view my Cannibal Corpse Eaten Back to Life-era photo as the equivalent of finding their rookie card, or simply get enjoyment out of the assortment of styles worn by musicians in the likes of Thin Lizzy or Genesis like I would looking at the crazy sideburns and mullets on ’70s and ’80s cards released by Topps or Fleer. I view these as worthwhile to collect, but I’d say the likelihood of being fooled by a counterfeit could be greater with these photos since there are probably less tells to look for when spotting reproductions. On the other hand, I don’t think the resale market is large enough to demand printing these up, but it could likely be done cheaply since they aren’t often in colour. Given that there are risks and uncertainties attached, I’d never throw too much money at any particular one. It depends on a few factors, but you can get a good variety of these images for typically $5 to $15 in funny-coloured Canadian currency. I don’t think I ever had to pay more than $20 for a larger kit, but I don’t necessarily aim for the biggest names in the business.

There’s no need to show absolutely every one of these that I own, but it’s a relatively small collection to date at 29 photos with plenty of room for growth. I think this was enough to give you a taste. If you are wondering why {insert artist here} was not featured in my post, believe me, I’m working on it and may even browse for more when I’m done writing this piece. I could definitely use some more jazz, and I’ve yet to acquire any hip-hop among other genres.

If these photos have any appeal to you at all, or if you think I’m better off tossing my money down a well, drop me a line. Better yet, drop me a line if you’ve got a good hookup to boost my collection. I won’t promise I’ll take you up on it, but I’ll definitely listen.

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