Arts & Culture

Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip

It all really started back in the 1960s possibly because a record company, Elektra, began noticing how effective billboards were along the Las Vegas strip. It got them thinking, what better place to promote entertainment in the Los Angeles area then the Sunset Strip?

Check out the Billboards on the Sunset Strip presented by the City of West Hollywood Arts Division

Every single day you had a captive audience in their cars including some of the biggest players in the industry.  And so Elektra began promoting the Doors with vibrant, visually interesting billboards that helped launch the band. Many other record labels followed and interestingly, the billboards were less about generating money then they were a way for the labels to prove to the artists that they believed in them. It was more an ego stroke than it was a means of selling albums. Once one band got a lavish and unique billboard, other bands began demanding them as well. And local disc jockeys cruising the Strip would also take notice. Thus began one of the great pop-culture expressions along the Strip.

Courtesy of the LA Public Library

Back in the 1960s, there were two primary outdoor advertising companies, Pacific Outdoor and Foster and Kleiser. Both companies employed talented artists and builders. The creators would hand paint the billboards in local warehouses and each one took about 10 days to produce. Prices could range anywhere from $1200 to $10,000 depending on how elaborate the design of the billboard was.

The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Humble Pie, ELO, ABBA – band after band began pushing the creative envelope, with extensions, props and lighting used to help create more and more outlandish billboards that would draw attention.

In the early 1980s ,once MTV began becoming a force, the billboards along Sunset Strip became less important.  Promotional money was spent more on videos and less on outdoor advertising. But they never completely went away. While the golden era of rock’n roll billboards may have only lasted 15 or so years, there are still plenty of examples of elaborate and effective billboards still being created today on the Strip.

Prices of course have changed dramatically since the mid-1960s. Today a full-size billboard on the Strip will cost between $35,000  and $100,000 per month depending on the location and the elaborateness of the design.  But that doesn’t stop film companies, TV companies and yes, still some record companies from investing in what’s some of the most famous billboard real estate on the planet. One of the most well-known and expensive billboards in Los Angeles is located near the Chateau Marmont Hotel. It’s priced at $60,000 per month and Apple has a long-term contract. At one time it was a billboard for the Marlboro Man.

In the popular book, Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, author/photographer Robert Landau showcased the most well-known rock and roll billboards, documenting the bigger-than-life images that remain burned into the minds of music fans from the era. As Landau told Smithsonian magazine in 2015, ““Because all the record companies were in L.A. and most of the artists were living there, they were all trying to outdo each other,” Landau told Oatman-Stanford. There were billboards that lit up at night and ones that changed over time (like a brick wall that changed brick by brick to reveal the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”) Record companies spent fortunes on the billboards, which supplemented album art and built buzz for upcoming albums.”

So look up when you walk or drive the Strip today. You just never know what you may see.

Chris Epting
About Chris Epting
Chris Epting is the author of 30 travel/history books, including James Dean Died Here (Santa Monica Press), Roadside Baseball (McGraw Hill), Hello It's Me, Dispatches From a Pop Culture Junkie (Santa Monica Press) and many others. He is also an award-winning travel writer and has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways and Travel + Lesiure magazine, among other publications. In addition, Chris is a veteran music journalist and recently co-wrote Def Leppard's Phil Collen's memoir, Adrenalized, and the John Oates Memoir Change of Seasons. Originally from New York, Chris now lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and their two children.

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