Handbills are a bread and butter advertising medium for local musicians. They are also heavily used to promote raves and one-time events of all kinds. Occasionally one will see handbills from retailers or restaurants, but they are not as successful in those realms due to specific distribution methods. The primary attraction of handbills is their low cost and ease of production.
A handbill is a single sheet usually about one quarter the size of a standard 8.5"x11" sheet. Anything larger would probably be classified as a flyer. Printing ranges from poorly photocopied black & white on standard paper to full-color glossy prints on heavy stock.
Handbills are usually distributed by (you guessed it!) hand. Oddly enough this activity is often called flyering, probably because 'handbilling' sounds like something a duck does when you're palming a slice of bread. Choice locations for flyering are outside large venues after events, downtown sidewalks, and anywhere young people congregate. Flyering is usually done by armies of volunteers which are necessary because the response rate is exceedingly low. Nevertheless, flyering promotes a grassroots or underground vibe that can be very successful at pulling in the hipsters who will ultimately be instrumental in pushing you into the big time before decrying that you've sold out and going strictly emo.
Flyers also have a tendency to show up on local shop counters. Record stores rank highest in this regard since it's a natural form of co-marketing, but the intrepid promoter will drop off little piles of them anywhere he doesn't get kicked out from. The local greasy spoons and coffee shops seem to be pretty friendly to them as do mom and pop operations of all types.
Modern handbill design has its root in the 'zine culture of the 80s and 90s. The quintessential handbill is a high-contrast black and white photocopy of an unrecognizable drawing with illegible type on orange paper. Artists are much more common than graphic designers in the handbill field and it shows. More sophisticated handbill design is around, but given the resources advertising is probably best accomplished through other media. Not to mention that shitty-looking graphic design plays right into the sense of hipster irony that a successful handbill targets.
Making Your Own Handbills
- 8.5"x11" sheet of paper
- Magnum 44 marker
- Transparent tape
- Colored Office Paper
- Draw a crude picture of anything with the Magnum 44 marker using the Sharpie for detail. You get extra style points for cultural elements such as graf character for hip hop shows or a vampire for goth shows, but it really doesn't matter because hopefully no one will recognize it anyway. The important thing is style over substance.
- Now cut out some words and letters from magazines to put the necessary info on the handbill. Don't be scared to write on a separate sheet of paper and tape it to the image if you can't find what you need.
- Photocopy the picture with a reduction so you can get four one one sheet.
- Recopy several times with various white balance settings so you get a grainy organic feel and the text is just barely legible.
- Now duplicate to colored paper 1000 times (or as much as you can afford).
- Go downtown in the 10-below wind chill waiting for the basketball game to get out so you can hopefully get two or three extra people to your show.