Burger Records, which is based in Fullerton, Orange County, is making waves across the West Coast as one of California’s most influential underground labels, and rightfully so.
Only five years running and the list of bands pressing vinyl, cassette tapes or CDs through Burger is highly impressive, numbering over 350. These releases include, most notably: Dave Grohl (of the Foo Fighters), Thurston Moore’s (of Sonic Youth) latest collaboration with Beck, Ty Segall (who recently debuted nationally on Conan and Letterman), the Black Lips, the Growlers, King Tuff, Audacity, Hunx and His Punx and The Pharcyde to name a few.
On election day, I visited Burger’s Fullerton storefront, as I have many times before. I opened the industrial, glass swinging door, passed through makeshift curtains, and immediately I’m overwhelmed in exuberance, like a child on Christmas morning. As a vinyl connoisseur, I’m touched, every time, by the wall-to-wall records and tapes for sale. Clearly, Burger’s in the business of selling analogue releases to the public.
I shuffled through some punk kids browsing local vinyl, dodging a few trendy women shopping for the newest cassette releases, as I made my way to Burger’s back office. Behind closed doors, I sat down on a worn, yet surprisingly comfortable leather couch with founder and co-owner Sean Bohrman to discuss the many facets of Burger Records.
First off, we discussed Burger’s revolutionary business success. Bohrman earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Humboldt State in 2004. He is a man who, without any previous business experience, has carved out a successful niche for Burger Records in today’s ever competitive, evolving music industry. In the last 10-15 years, the Internet has decimated profits of the largest record companies. Longstanding institutions like Sony and EMI, together, have posted multi-billion dollar losses since 2009 alone!
As students, our generation has witnessed a paradigm shift in the way music is consumed. We live in a world dominated by free access to seemingly unlimited amounts of music via legal means like YouTube, iTunes and SoundCloud, as well as quasi-illegal means, P2P sharing and other types of direct music downloads (such as Bit-torrent) from the Internet.
This transition is strangling the established titans of industry to death, one dollar at a time. The once-powerful retail players like Tower Records and Virgin have left a legacy that amounts to little more than distant memories and vacant warehouses.
And yet, Burger Records is flourishing in this particularly difficult time of transition. It’s grown from a start-up, initially managed by two people. I asked Bohrman why this is so. Candidly, he replied, “We make our money selling records. That’s how we do it.” Unsatisfied, I inquired as to what makes Burger’s retail model a success where so many others have, and continue to fail. Bohrman took a moment to consider this question, in depth.
A minute passed, and he looked me straight in the eye. In a kind of tone that can only be forged through years of being a self-made man, he replied in earnest, “We work fucking hard.” Bohrman continued, “We work hard to promote our bands too. And now, it’s paying off.” He went on to tell me how there’s an ever larger community revolving around Burger. Adding that, “A lot of people, now, want to buy music to support the local bands they like.”
He noted that there’s also a revival in the popularity of analogue mediums. “There’s value in being able to touch your music,” Bohrman stated. He added that groups of young people eager to see local shows, of which Burger hosts several a month, after-hours in their shop, is on the rise. And rising still, is the number of those who are willing to buy records. I’ve seen many bands play at Burger since its conception, and I’ve been to the shop in Fullerton more times than I can count. That said, I’d have to concur with Bohrman’s statement. The community fostered around Burger in the last few years, has grown considerably. As Bohrman himself light-heartedly puts it, “It’s kinda’ grown outta’ our hands. People have taken to Burger Records and “Burgered” themselves.”
Feeling satisfied with my new-found knowledge of Burger’s business successes, I shifted focus, asking Bohrman about Burger’s relationships with the bands they release. Not surprisingly, this aspect of Burger’s business is also unorthodox. In the words of Bohrman, “Nobody’s signed to Burger, we’ve never really signed any band.” However, the bands pressed through Burger self-identify as Burger bands. This model of pressing releases while simultaneously not owning the artist’s creative content has proven mutually beneficial.
Using Ty Segall as an example, Bohrman explained to me how the relationship works, stating that, “we’ve known Ty since he started playing music, when he was really young.” Adding that, “just now he’s starting to get super huge. But he’s in control of his career. He hasn’t signed any crazy deals with any of the bigger labels. He owns all of his music and can do whatever he wants with it. That’s why we’re able to press 10 [different] Ty Segall albums and have it done in a week, even though we had to go through six other labels to get approval to use their logos and Ty’s artwork.” This creative freedom licensed to Burger bands has proven to work well with multiple artists.
Next, I asked Bohrman what’s new for Burger. He filled me on Burger’s latest Internet sensation, Burger TV, saying, “We’re starting weekly episodes chronicling what happens in our shop.” He continued, telling me that on Burger TV, “you’ll be able to see videos of shop shows, and interviews with bands that come through Burger.” The pilot and second episode are up now on Burger’s YouTube channel BRGRTV, the latest and greatest place to keep current with CA’s underground rock and roll scene.
Lastly, Bohrman added, “Riverside is only a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Fullerton. Come shop and hang out. I’ll turn you on to music, we’ll all turn you on to music… Yeah, we’ll turn you on, period.”