Fly the underground flag

London councils are trying to outlaw fly-posting. But they serve a function and inner cities would be really dull without them, says Adrian Shaughnessy

One of my first jobs as a designer in the music business was to design a fly-poster for a new single by the Boomtown Rats. I’d been pestering one of the bigger labels to let me design a record cover and as a sort of test they gave me a flyposter to design. I flunked the test. What did I do? Spell the band’s name wrongly? Leave off the name of the single? No, worse. I added the label’s logo to the bottom right hand corner of the poster. Fly-posting is illegal and music industry fly-posters never carry the label’s name. I didn’t know this. The printer spotted it as it was about to go to press. I got a rollicking from the label and I had a long wait before they trusted me with another job.

It’s always struck me as barmy that the labels imagined that the local councils wouldn’t be able to find out who was responsible for the illegal posters in their boroughs. Any bright 15-year-old could tell you which label an artist was signed to. Well, the councils in London have finally wised up and worked out which labels are responsible for which posters. As a recent article in the Guardian noted, Camden Council in London spent £250 000 removing fly-posters last year, and received more than 1000 complaints from residents. That’s a lot of complaints from residents of an inner-London borough with no shortage of serious social problems. But as Richard Gruet, head of litigation at Camden Council, stated, ‘It’s pretty outrageous that multinational companies are cynically engaged in criminal activity to promote their wares.’

Accordingly, Camden instigated proceedings not against the guys on motorcycles armed with a brush and a bucketful of glue who do the fly-posting, but against senior executives from Sony and BMG who commissioned the fly-posting campaigns. In a determined attempt to stamp the practice out, the council decided to apply to the courts for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, restraining Sony and Bertelsmann Media Group from fly-posting: senior record industry executives faced the prospect of up to five years in jail under legislation normally used to punish delinquent teenagers. ‘We thought this was a really good way of bringing this case to the companies involved in a way they couldn’t ignore,’ said Gruet. Westminster Council followed Camden’s example and threatened to take entertainment company chiefs to court if they failed to stop fly-posting. The council issued an ultimatum to 12 companies it had caught fly-posting in central London, and listed the offenders on a website (

Fly-posting is illegal – no argument. But in the scale of things, how bad is it? Camden reckons Sony and BMG saved themselves millions of pounds by not paying for legitimate poster sites, yet the labels also spend millions on legitimate media, and pay millions in taxes and rates, so we’re hardly talking about criminal organisations here (OK, releasing Dido records comes close.) And how justified are the councils in spending time and money on this when there are countless other social and environmental problems of far greater importance?

There’s also a design issue here: many fly-posters are small marvels of graphic art. The UK urban environment is hardly damaged by fly-posters: in fact, you could argue that inner cities are enhanced by groovy posters. Most fly-posting is done on sites that need brightening up. I’d also guess that tourists find fly-posting helpful. Spending by foreign visitors makes a massive contribution to UK coffers, and judging by the numbers of Japanese tourists I see photographing street poster sites, I’d say fly-posters are part of the attraction.

Of course, not all fly-posters are works of art. And some are undoubtedly put up by unscrupulous operators looking for a fast buck. But if the councils have their way, we face the prospect of our cities being populated exclusively by official poster sites. This means that our urban centres will be covered with dreary, sanitised advertising. Do we want this?

Despite the efforts of the councils, fly-posting continues unabated. While execs from big record labels may have been put off by the threat of a spell in jail, smaller fish – night clubs, promoters and indie record labels carry on as normal. The councils have responded by announcing that they are going after fly-posting companies, and it has to be said that fly-posting’s days look numbered.

Here’s a final thought – if you’re asked to design a fly-poster, don’t include a design credit. You never know, councils might come after the designers next.

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