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March 30, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Poster Wars

Poster space in Wellington is at an all-time premium. Phantom Billstickers have a monopoly on most of the central city, pushing independent gig promoters further up Cuba Street and down the alleys previously reserved for street artists.

The Paper Trail

Phantom started up in Christchurch in the early 1980s. Offices were opened in Auckland and Dunedin as the company grew, and half shares purchased in a Wellington poster company called Sticky Fingers.

At this point, Wellington was a poster badlands. Bands could claim a space for as long as they could defend it. Local musician Vorn Colgan describes the way it was.

“You’d break a space. Find a wall on an abandoned building or just go try a space out. You’d poster, they’d rip them down and you wouldn’t go back. Or, you would go back and eventually you’d win. It would become a poster space, and then Sticky Fingers would claim it.”

Phantom eventually bought out Sticky Fingers and, in 2002, entered into an exclusive contract with the Wellington City Council. The contract has been renewed several times since then, with further rights of renewal reserved until 2016.

Basically, Phantom get exclusive use of the 53 poster bollards and 36 pole poster holders in the central city. Since this is public space, Phantom are required to provide 10% of the bollard and pole holder space free to community and charity groups. A Council audit is run each quarter to check the “free” provision is being met. In fact, according to both Phantom and the Council, free space usually runs at 25-30%, due to high demand.

Wellington City Council spokesman Richard Maclean says it makes sense to contract out public assets like the bollards. “If we had an ‘unmanaged’ facility as we did in the past, it would rapidly descend into a chaotic mess. People would fight for the space, cover up each others’ posters, and then the Council would need to clean it up. It is more appropriate to engage a contractor to manage that sort of work on our behalf.”

Phantom also lease around 150 private and commercial billboard sites in the central city, surrounding suburbs and Hutt Valley. Some of these are former Sticky Fingers sites, others are more recent acquisitions. A small amount is paid each week to the relevant property owner, and Phantom take responsibility for maintaining the poster site.

According to Phantom area manager Matthew Smith, “most private property owners are more than happy to make a bit of money off their space, especially since we keep it looking tidy.”

The total 200-plus Wellington poster sites are managed by 5 full-time and 7 part-time staff, who book 60 to 100 campaigns a week. Bookings are based on a Sunday to Sunday cycle, with daily check runs to replace vandalised or damaged posters. In theory, a poster is guaranteed placement for seven days.

Once the weekly quota has been filled, late bookings receive part of a shared pool of 1200 A3s. This “pre-emptible booking space” is divided evenly between clients, with credit given for posters that can not be placed.

Bands can either bring in their own posters or pay extra to have posters printed by Phantom. The flat rate for distribution is $1 per A3 poster, a price last raised in late 2007. Unsigned bands are entitled to either 25 A3 posters free, or a 20% discount off the total purchase.

In the last weekly cycle, free service was provided to 24 Hour Party People, A Social Gathering, Amenta, Calibre, the Glue Band, KissKiss BangBang, Lawrence Arabia and Cassette, Little Bushman, Mel Parsons, Odessa, Sinden, State of Mind, and Tony Joe White.

The 10% free provision for community groups was shared between the play “A Brief History of Helen of Troy”, Access Radio, Aro Valley Fair, Craftwork 2.0, Family History Month, “Serendipity”, and the Swamigi Tour.

Paper Cuts

Many local bands and promoters remain unsatisfied. The first argument put forward by critics of Phantom, according to Vorn Colgan, is that the history of many billboard sites undermines the legitimacy of the Phantom business model.

“Those sites were broken by indie posterers, taken over by a small company, and then taken over by a big company. If it wasn’t legitimate for the first indie posterer, then it’s even less so for the next guy.”

“It’s basically on the order of any other mafia scam where you intimidate and hustle yourself into a position where you hold all the stuff, and then you sell the stuff. Yet it’s not the same as staffing a shop or selling a product, because this is arguably public space.”

Matthew Smith admits certain sites on Cuba St. are legal grey space. “There are a number of sites on Cuba that are nobody’s site, really. They’ve been there for so long. Obviously it’s a fine line, but it’s not necessarily legal for other bands to put their posters there either.”

Smith says that leaving Cuba St. free for independent posterers is not a viable option. “We have thought of that idea, but it could get out of control. There is obviously a high demand for those areas, so no one would have their poster up for very long. Posters would go up one night and be covered over by the next.”

He says the best option for bands is to use Phantom’s free service. “We can put them up for you, and you can know they’ll stay up for seven days.”

Colgan disagrees. “It’s a common story for people to pay for a set amount of posters then have them just not go up, especially if you’re from out of town. The Canadian woman who came to Happy last Sunday, for example, she paid for them to put up a number of posters that were never seen.”

“Shit service” is the second grievance put forward by local bands, though only Colgan was willing to be quoted directly. Salient received plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding posters going up last minute or not at all, being covered over, or relegated to low visibility areas like Berhampore or Island Bay.

Rumours of favouritism and revenge policies abound. Colgan believes this perception is partially due to the historical battle between independent posterers and Sticky Fingers. “Back in the day, the concept of a spot was a lot more fluid. Sticky Fingers would go through town, rip down the indies and put up their own.”

For Smith, the problem is that there simply isn’t enough poster space to go round. “Wellington is different to any other city. It’s so compact, there’s half as much space available and about twice as much going on.

“We do get complaints regarding placement. We’re not perfect, and the likes of Courtney and Cuba are by far and away the highest demand areas. We try to give everyone a fair piece of that coverage each week.”

Going Postal

Independent bands and Phantom staff aren’t the only ones vying for central city space. Salient asked two local poster artists for their perspective on the Wellington poster scene.

According to a member of street art collective BMD, competition for spots on Cuba St. is increasing. “There are way less spots than there used to be. It’d be a real shame if Phantom took over all the decent spots on Cuba, because that’s what Cuba St. is all about. The street culture, people doing their own art, gig posters.”

Poster artist Beware agrees. “I understand they’re a business, but they should leave some spaces for street artists and independent bands.”

However, both BMD and Beware say irresponsible independents are as much of a threat to street art as Phantom. “What we’ve found really annoying lately is not so much Phantom, but the people who go put gig posters over street art.

“Bands are generally pretty good, but a lot of people don’t follow the rules. Sometimes you see a whole wall with art on it, and then someone will have just slapped a poster on over it, even if there were other available spots. It’s like they just throw it on without even looking.”

Neither artist can see a solution to the current problem. Beware says Council-sanctioned poster space on Cuba just wouldn’t work. “Graffitti rules would come into play, and it would become just another place to go tag and paint.”

Media Studies lecturer and cultural connoisseur Geoff Stahl is optimistic. “When I walk down Cuba Mall, when I see posters, street art, tagging, when I see the irrepressible desire to be creative and to use space creatively… if you try to suppress that, people will find a way to subvert it.”

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jez Kemp says:

    Thanks for a very informative and well-written article. I’ve recently been involved with the postering situation in Wellington, having tried to poster for my own independent music and book releases, so it’s of particular interest to me. I started out believing that the bollards and boards were public space and that Phantom were just the biggest postering company around (ie there was no contract or legal arrangement with WCC) – cue disappointment and frustration when all my posters were covered up or taken down within 24hours.
    I since learned that Phantom do in fact have a particular arrangement as the “poster marshalls” in Wellington and that their prices for postering are not as high as I was first quoted ($500+ for a “standard” 2-3 week campaign, although I now understand that includes colour printing). I was told I’d qualify for the first 25 posters free for independent bands, which meant the rest of my book launch posters went up free of charge and my 75 album launch posters went up for $50+GST. That said, I saw hardly any around the centre, and I wonder what places they ended up, or if all of them went up at all. Maybe in the future technology will offer a tracking service to let clients know where their posters are.
    Wellington is a great place for arts because there is so much going on in such a small place, but naturally this makes it a difficult arena for postering. It’s clear that independents don’t get a comparative slice of pie compared to the theatre productions and music festivals which have huge advertising budgets – why Homegrown needs so much advertising 4-6 months before the event is beyond me (one of the headliners is still “???”!). But I’ve lived in places in England where there is no allowance or arrangement for public postering, and the situation is either a chaotic mess which is still ruled by big nightclub promoters and music companies or a complete ban that makes the town centre look bland, lifeless and like there is nothing going on (which in itself discourages events to happen). The current situation on Wellington isn’t great but it could be worse.

  2. Owlzy says:

    Jez here’s a tip for your next postering arrangement with Phantom.

    Ask for targeted postering. Specify cuba mall or maybe the universities or something.

    I thought No Never was pretty interesting btw.

  3. Jez Kemp says:

    I’ll bear that in mind.
    Thanks kindly, it’s part 3 of the trilogy so feel free to have a gander at those too :)

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