Emek: The Thinking Man’s Poster Artist

If you’ve ever caught yourself looking at a cool concert poster, chances are it was designed by Emek. That’s not hyperbole: Pollstar hosts a concert poster contest every year at our Pollstar Live! conference. If Emek’s art piece doesn’t win first prize, it’s invariably somewhere in the top three. It’s gotten to the point where we take it for granted. So Pollstar thought it would be worth the industry knowing a bit more about the man.

If I wanted to get you to make a poster, what would be the easiest way to get in touch with you?

Email. Short answer. ([email protected]) People do call me but I do best with email. And then we just go from there. Every job has different terms. I’m flexible. I work with all kinds of different bands and productions – big budgets, little budgets. I like to draw and I love music.

Who contacts you more? Tour promoters or artists?

When I first started in this business 18 years ago, it was promoters. It was basically me going after them. But every job leads to another, and nowadays it’s mostly bands. But I work with promoters all over the country as well. I work with Goldenvoice, Nederlander, Live Nation and McMenamins. Maria Cukr at Live Nation calls me and says, “I have a buyer in New York” or “I have a buyer in L.A.” I work with Moss Jacobs at Nederlander. I work with Bill Fold for Coachella and other Goldenvoice projects.

What would be the ideal turnaround time?

I work on everything right down to the last second, so the more time the better. And at any give time I’m working on at least three different projects, usually five. Ideally, a month. But sometimes it’s two weeks, sometimes it’s two months.

So two weeks would be the shortest time?

Well, if it’s a project I’m very excited about, I’ll put it at the top of the list. If it’s a band that I really like or if I all of a sudden get an idea I’ll give it priority. I think most of my work is driven by the idea, and that’s what makes it fun. Bands who come to me at the last minute are familiar with my work and they know there won’t be any edits or changes. “Make something our fans will like and let’s get it done.” And if the schedule works out, everybody wins.

You mentioned in an interview you’ll do about four or five posters for stops along a 50- to 60-date tour. Is that accurate? Is there never a tour poster?

That’s changed a little since I gave that answer. That used to be it. They would do a tour poster that would just be a glossy flier and then they wanted something special, which is what I do. It’s hand-drawn silk screen, limited edition. Nicer inks, nicer paper, signed and numbered. And they’d maybe do it only for the band’s hometown or for a special show or something where they could afford it, I guess, or reconcile it with a budget.
I think now a lot more bands have been exposed to it or have seen how it can work to everyone’s benefit so there are a lot more posters being done for more shows. Some bands love art – particular bands will do lots of posters while other bands are still testing the waters. They’re new to it and a lot more hesitant. But usually once a band does it, the band becomes addicted.

But will you create a poster where the promoter can just overlay the date and the venue?

Yeah, there are bands that come to me and say, “We want you to design a tour poster and leave a blank space and we’re just going to take black ink and put a different date in every one. But we want the entire tour to be a silkscreen.” Other times they say they want to make two versions of the poster, one that’s a small glossy that goes inside records stores and coffee shops. On that one, they’ll change the dates on all of them but they also want the same art, big, for just one or two special dates with hand lettering so it looks like a one-off project.

There’s a joke on your website about being unemployed but it seems you work your ass off.

Some people have a stereotype that artists wake up at noon, listen to music or get stoned. It’s a life of leisure.

But my parents are artists and I grew up in their art studio. I watched them work really hard and struggle. And I knew if I wanted to make it as an artist, there are no handouts. It’s not like I could ask my parents for money. So you have to treat it as a full-time job. Art is a difficult profession.

How does the artwork get to the buyer?

Usually a promoter or a band will contact me through email and say, “We have a show coming up and we’d like you to do a poster.” And I’ll listen to the music; that’s always key. I need to get a vibe and a lot of ideas come to me in my sleep. I’ll wake up, start sketching and send a rough sketch to the client.

Most clients are familiar with my work so they just ask for something their fans will like. I’d say the majority of the time they like it and know it’s a rough sketch. Then they approve it and I draw the poster.

It’s all colored in layers in a certain way that can be screen-printed. And I know what it’s like to work with clients so if they do have changes I don’t freak out about it. I just know there’s a delay. A lot of times the deadlines are tight. I’m very easy to work with but in any case. I draw the art. I prepare it for silkscreening, which is a special process that’s been around for a hundred years. That’s how Andy Warhol printed his art.

Then I sign them, pack them and ship them off to the client. Sometimes they want a certain amount at the show and a certain amount to the office. But I’m basically a one-man band.

But does the one-man band have any help?

Sure, over time my business has grown. I’m at the point where I don’t do a lot of the dirty work. I do all the art but I have a great printer who’s got an amazing shop. But when a client contacts me, I take care of everything. It’s not like they have to have me do the art then have to find a printer.

People see the finished poster and they don’t realize how much work is involved to produce it. It’s not like modern-day printing. It is quite a labor-intensive print process. But I think a lot of bands have seen the classic posters from the ’60s, and now that everything has gone digital, where albums became CD covers became web images, people still want some kind of tangible art to remind them of the experience they had at the show, or of the band. Something that lives on after the music experience. So more bands are into the posters.

What are some things a potential client should know to ensure a good product?

The more time the better. I ask bands if they have a theme or concept or a direction they want me to start from. It helps me if I don’t waste anybody’s time if I’m doing something that’s not what they’re thinking. Most of the time a client will say, “Just do something cool that our fanbase will like” or fits the vibe of the particular musician. And that’s great but nobody likes to redo and make a lot of changes.

So if a client has something in mind or they just respect me as an artist, and let me do my thing, then I think the end result is usually better than anyone expected. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and when I get a lot of people telling me “change this” or “do that” and it’s a lot of committee work, then it’s not necessarily my best work.

If you look at my pieces that have won awards and are in books it’s because people let me do what I do.

About 10 years ago I think I had a lot more complaints about clients making changes that I felt were ridiculous but now I think people understand my work and I also understand now what people are looking for.

Emek Collected Works of Aaarght! Signing @ Black Book Gallery from Black Book Gallery on Vimeo.

Do you have any advice to other poster artists?

I definitely get a lot of calls and emails from other artists saying, “I want to do what you do” or “How do you do what you do?”

It’s difficult because I don’t really have a plan. I never said I wanted to be a poster artist. I always knew I wanted to be an artist and I’ve just been drawn to music. It kind of just grew.

So I don’t really know what to say. But I think you have to be really passionate about it. And maybe it looks like a glamorous profession but anything you do is a lot of hard work. For a long time it was costing me a lot of money and I wasn’t making any.

And I think you start, maybe, by imitating or copying your influences but eventually you have to find your own voice. That’s what people respond to. When I was first starting, people were saying to me, “Your posters should look more like Frank Kozik, or J.W. Coop.” And they definitely had a style – hotrods and devil girls. Maybe how a rock poster is supposed to look like in some people’s minds. Bright colors.

But it wasn’t me. So in the beginning it was difficult. But I think it’s opened up a lot more as an artform. There are no more rigid rules or perceptions about what a concert poster should be, so there are a lot more artists entering the field. Which is good; there’s more variety.

But, for me, I think you need to treat every piece as if you want it to hang on your own wall. And I want it to look good in comparison to other forms of art in the world, not just the rock poster subculture. I have to give every job 110 percent, whether I’ve got two weeks to work on it or a tight budget or had arthritis that week.

The client and fans don’t know the backstory. You have to do the best you can do, or just don’t take the job. The posters are collected, traded. They end up in galleries, museums. It’s like a business card. Don’t try and rush things out.

What percentage of your income comes from concert posters?

That’s shifted over the years. When I started I was doing all different kinds of art. Illustrations for magazines like Wired and Rolling Stone. Book covers. Painting commissions. I was doing all different kinds of things. But I think over time I gravitated more toward rock posters, where now it’s the vast majority of what I do.

I think once I found my niche, that’s what I got hired to do, but I also really enjoy the deadlines of someone coming to me and saying, “I need some art. Come up with an idea.” That gets my wheels turning. I’m addicted to that deadline idea. For me to switch gears and just do paintings would be much more difficult.

But do you get offers for things other than concert posters?

Sure, I’ve painted guitars, skateboards. I’ve gone into people’s homes and painted murals. I get things like, “We’ve got a big beer company and we want you to design some ads for our product that look like rock posters,” or in the Emek style.

One of the things I love about rock posters, though, is I’m creating artwork for an event. It’s kind of a historic document. I don’t want to be the guy in advertising who sells products. I love the fact that what I do is to advertise and commemorate a tribal gathering, if you will. I don’t just want to do something for Pepsi or McDonalds. That’s kind of against my principles. But I do enjoy beer. But I’d never do a cigarette advertisement.

Do you do any kind of trades?

Sure. One of the things I’ve found out as an artist is that there is a network of people who are creative or have services. I moved to Portland from Los Angeles a few years ago, and the whole idea of trade is much more popular here. There are a lot of people here who’ll say, “I have a hotel room or a flight or concert tickets or a hand-woven rug from a tribe in Afghanistan that’s known for their rugs.” All kinds of different things. And I think it’s wonderful because money is just a means to an end, so to bypass money and get cool things, or exchange services with other artists, is great.

We’ve heard stories about people who will run across a little doodle from an artist and try to resell it.

Yeah! I remember a guy offered me an Art Crumb napkin and he wanted thousands of dollars for it. It was something that a friend of a friend got when he went out to dinner with Art Crumb. Art drew on a napkin, and he stole it. It still had a lot of grease stains on it.

People would try and get Picasso to write them a check because they knew if they cashed the check it’s worth 50 bucks but if they just framed it, it’s worth thousands.

It’s as if you could be exploited.

Yeah, and I think the Internet has changed things in a lot of ways because it gives me direct access to fans and clients, and it’s great for democratizing the access you have to all kinds of people but, at the same time, it’s kind of faceless. It makes it very easy to deal with clients but it makes it very weird to deal with fans.

People will say, “Please draw me something and I promise I’ll never sell it” and then the next thing you know it’s on eBay. It’s a trust issue but I think most people are legit. Still, there’s a certain element of people who’ll steal napkins just to make a buck. It’s part of the process.

Are there Emek forgeries out there?

There have been bootlegs, where people will just take a print and make a colored Xerox, or make refrigerator stickers or wallets or T-shirts. With the technology today, people can take an image, scan it and replicate it. The quality is never the same. They just like the image.

People will send me photos of stuff they’ve found at flea markets in Canada. There’s no one doing my style, necessarily. It’s a full time job just shutting down illegal auctions but, at a certain point, I just have to live my life and not worry about all these other distractions. Unless they’re making millions of dollars.

Any closing thoughts?

What I want to get across is I am a working artist, I love music and I love to work with all different kinds of bands, promoters and events. I have a new book out. If anyone is interested they can go to my website (www.emek.net) and buy it. And if you’re contacting me, just give me time.