BURGER RECORDS: STORE, LABEL, EVENT PROMOTER AND HOME OF THE COMPACT CASSETTE RESURGENCE
By Michael Enzor
These days, record stores abound in Southern California. In Orange County alone (according to these pages) there are at least eight independently owned shops where one may purchase vinyl records. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.
Yet in order for a store to survive they must not only carry products people want to buy, they must also possess a certain something that sets them apart from the shop down the street.
Fine stores such as Permanent Records in Eagle Rock and Mono Records in Echo Park also run their own labels as a sort of natural outgrowth of the store’s personality. Another such store is Burger Records in Fullerton. The difference here is that Burger was a label first and a store second (TKO Records in Huntington Beach is another good example of that scenario).
There’s another thing Burger founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard did a little bit differently. The Burger Records label is perhaps most famous for bringing back a format that was long considered dead and gone. Vinyl you say? Well, they do release lots of 7”s and LPs, but their main claim to fame is bringing back the Compact Cassette.
Have you stopped laughing yet?
Yes, cassettes, those small, easy to store music receptacles once fully embraced by the music industry as a cheaper, more convenient alternative to vinyl (which proved extremely difficult to enjoy while driving). Like records, ”pre-recorded” cassettes were killed off in favor of the Compact Disc. When it got to the point where people were able to make near perfect copies of CDs and share them via the Internet, the record industry as we knew it imploded and the door swung wide open for younger, savvier upstarts like Sean and Lee to find success by embracing the formats discarded by the industry decades earlier.
While the mainstream is increasingly embracing vinyl as a more appealing, “hard copy” alternative to mp3s, cassettes are still widely perceived as the lowliest format sound wise, which is probably true. The good news is cassettes are cheap. Full length “cassalbums” sell for about six bucks, and many used record stores sell previously owned tapes for a song. Most used cars come equipped with cassette players and thrift shops practically give away perfectly good discarded home decks. And, as Sean Bohrman pointed out to me, “Walgreens still sells Walkmans” (I found a Craig version at CVS for about $20.00 and it plugs into my car stereo).
Sure, there’s a certain hipster factor involved with cassettes’ unlikely resurgence in popularity, but practicality is also at play. For some, cassettes never did go away and they’ve been the entry level staple of DIY punk bands since the ‘70s.
THE MEN BEHIND THE MUSIC
Who are these geniuses then who brought cassettes back in such a big way and how did they do it?
Sean Bohrman grew up in Fresno, CA where his dad played in a rock band. “My first memory of him, he was wearing black eyeliner and skeleton clip-on earrings, and they would cover The Stooges, The Jam and The Clash. They were the hot band in Fresno.” One of his earliest memories in life was seeing “Jump” by Van Halen on MTV and “…getting up on the table and jumping around”.
Lee Rickard grew up in Santa Ana and Anaheim. His dad taught him how to play “Louie Louie” on acoustic guitar when he was very young. While still a small child he found a Buddy Holly tape and listened to it over and over, loving its heartfelt, uninhibited simplicity. Not much later, his mom’s boyfriend gave him a tape of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. Although he didn’t understand the lyrics he thought it was “cool.”
Sean’s family moved to Anaheim when he was 13 and he met Lee while both attended Katella High School. There, they started a band called The NOiSE mostly as a reaction to their friends’ “lousy punk bands”.
“We didn’t know how to play”, Lee says, “but we kinda had a knack for layout and design.”
They started a zine in high school called The Newsletter and all their friends contributed. Sean and Lee started getting into graphics and soon were designing band flyers for The NOiSE and other bands (their flair for graphic design is a big part of the “Burger look” today).
Sean was an introverted straight A student while Lee was an enthusiastic, extroverted instigator. After graduating high school, Sean went to Humboldt State where he earned a degree in Journalism. While Sean was away at college, Lee started a band called Thee Makeout Party.
The band was like an amalgamation of the bubblegum, power pop, metal and garage rock Lee had grown up with. The lineup changed many times, Rickard being the only constant member (playing bass). They released several singles, played lots of local shows, toured, made friends with bunches of bands from all over and eventually started getting some attention. When Sean returned from Humboldt, he joined Thee Makeout Party on guitar.
Lee and Sean self-released Thee Makeout Party’s second single and put the Burger Records logo on it. The label became official in 2007 with more releases by Thee Makeout Party and an LP by their friends’ band, Audacity. While touring, Sean noticed cassettes at other bands’ merch booths and was intrigued. Cassettes cost a lot less to manufacture than records or CDs, and those savings could be passed on to consumers. Also, they wondered if Burger could release cassettes of LPs by bands they admired who were already signed to other labels.
“It cost $200 to make 250 cassettes at the time, so Sean and I would each put up $100,” Lee explains. “The first dozen releases were like that and then it started paying for itself.”
Sean adds, “We did Nobunny’s Raw Romance, the follow-up to Love Vision, which was blowing up at the time. It was only available on cassette, so we sold out 500 in a week and a half. That started everyone paying attention and buying cassettes again.”
Their business model is to release records and tapes in low numbers. Depending on the projected sales of any particular release it could be anywhere between 200 – 500 cassettes, or 1,000 – 2,000 LPs. They recently had their largest release to date: 5,000 LPs for the reissue of King Tuff’s, Was Dead.
A RECORD STORE IS BORN
After graduation, Sean spent the next four years working for Boating World magazine as an art director. “I could’ve worked there my entire life. There were people who were there 40-50 years.”
In ’09, Thee Makeout Party were planning on touring, but Boating World wouldn’t let Sean take the time off.
“It was just really crushing and depressing that I worked so hard through high school and college, getting straight As, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, now you’re in the little cubicle for 50 years’. So when they said, ‘We can’t let you go on tour’, I said I have to quit then, because I’m not going to let this thing I hate, that is the worst thing in my life be the reason that I don’t do something fun that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Bohrman quit his stable job and when they returned from the tour, he cashed in his 401K. In the fall of ‘09 with another investor’s help they opened Burger Records in a light industrial strip on State College Blvd. in Fullerton. Neither of them had any retail experience, but they knew what they loved about record stores and they set out to build the best store they could. They painted the place, and Sean built the record racks from scratch. Once the store opened, they learned by doing.
Sean: “Customer service, making the place nice and pre-sentable, easy to reach for little people. We’re still working on that… We pride ourselves in like, ‘All genres carried, loved and appreciated.’”
Lee: “And whatever sounds good to us at the time, that’s the jam, and so our label reflects that too. You can’t just pigeonhole us and say we’re just a slop-pop or a bubblegum label, or rock ‘n’ roll or whatever, because we’re putting out ambient, dance music, hillbilly, folk music, lost ‘60s and ‘70s music, old, new. Whatever is rad, we want to be a part of it.”
THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT
The Burger Records label is successful partly because they’re able to reissue other labels’ product on cassettes. Since most labels are not in the cassette business, they’re usually more than happy to let Burger put out one of their releases in that format because it is good publicity for both the label and the artist. The Burger logo has become a stamp of approval and a credibility booster for artists and other labels. Earlier this year, Dave Grohl asked Burger to make a cassette version of his Sound City album. Lee and Sean thought about it for a half a second, and then said “OK!” They made 1,000 copies, which were given away at SXSW.
Lee sees it this way: “That’s our thing. We want to make friends. We’re not trying to create an elitist group or anything; we want everyone to be a part of the family. If you’re cool and you’re loving and appreciate rock ‘n’ roll and you’re the real deal, then welcome. All the outsiders and freaks and weirdoes, we welcome you. It’s not about being competitive, it’s just about getting the music heard.”
Last year Burger TV (BRGRTV) was launched on YouTube. They now offer Wiener Records as an alternative for bands who want to self-release cassettes (“Everyone’s a Wiener”). In addition to frequent in-store performances by Burger artists and other bands, they host festival-like shows called “Burgermania” in various cities around the country. This fall, a Burgermania “package tour” hits the road in the U.S. and Canada. Future plans include marketing their own cassette decks! They’ve got their eyes on artists they’d like to work with too — some of them not quite of the “up and coming” variety. For instance, they’ll soon release a cassette of new material by the legendary Kim Fowley (Fowley approached Burger about the project). Sean recently compiled a list of “old rockers” he’d love to have on Burger like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Phil Spector.
Lee Rickard says, “I want to tap into the legends who are still with us right now. You know, if I can get Chuck Berry on Burger, that’s awesome! So we’re just throwing that stuff out there. You know, just thinking positively. The law of attraction and the universe provides. Just stay happy and believe. Burger believes, that’s what we do.”
Black Sun featuring Cee Lo Green collaborator Curtis Harding with Cole Alexander and Joe Bradley of The Black Lips. (First recording project funded by Burger.)
Gap Dream 7” & LP (Cleveland psych pop)
Conspiracy of Owls Flexi Disk
Nirvana (‘60s English psych) 2-LP compilation
Rodriguez Cassette reissue of Light In The Attic soundtrack LP
Townes Van Zant Cassette reissue of Fat Possum LP
Curt Boettcher Misty Mirage (archival reissue)
The Three O’Clock Rarities LP