A Look at Burger Records and the Longevity of the Cassette Tape
by Steven Spoerl
Over time musical formats, like all things, evolve in one way or the other. We currently live in an age where it’s occasionally necessary to specify whether your release is a physical object. Album sales through the first nine months of the year were down 6.1% from 2012’s sales. Digital sales are also down. Vinyl is continuing a curious re-emergence, up 100% in sale volume over in the UK. Then there’s the perpetually-overlooked cassette tape charting its own unique path.
Considered painfully outdated by many, the truth is that the cassette never really disappeared. A perennial staple of the DIY music communities due to its cost-effectiveness, it’s been virtually impossible to get an accurate sales projection on as the majority of its sales seem to take place independetly. However, with some of the cultural focus shifting back over to the musical regions that most heavily embrace tape culture along with the balls-out risk of Cassette Store Day they’re back to being a common point of debate.
There are those that will endlessly champion the cassette and its merits, this very publication being one, and those who are completely baffled by anyone who’s interested in the format. Cassettes haven’t been as easily accessible as they are today since the peak of their popularity in the 90’s. When the mass consumption ebb switched to favoring the much sleeker CD, the cassette seemed all but buried. Cassette walkmans went from trend pieces to lost artifacts that seemed hopelessly out of touch. This cultural shift propelled the cassette to an outsider status that lent it a new context.
Unsurprisingly, the basement punk scene continued to latch onto the format and while the numbers of mass sales decreased, the independent business model for it held strong. Punk and hardcore bands as well as outsider pop, folk, and psych bands often only dealt in cassette releases simply because they became the most affordable option. A deep bond was formed between format and genre, each proving beneficial to the others aesthetics. Then, while the mp3 started to overtake the CD and vinyl began a surprising but entirely welcome comeback, tapes were left almost completely out of the cultural conversation.
In 1993 a Guitar Wolf demo tape convinced Eric Friedl to start a label to release the bands first record Wolf Rock!, that label, Goner, became one of punk’s most seminal since the ugly decline of SST. Friedl likely never paid the trajectory of tapes’ popularity any attention, continuing to release his artists music on the formats he/they saw fit. Even as the cassette turned into a surprisingly contentious topic, Goner consistently released them and anchored itself as one of the cornerstones in the formats strange history. As admirable as Goner’s works with cassettes were, at the start of the new millennium there was somethingt brewing on the west coast that would take the tape even further.
Two members of the much-beloved Fullerton, CA basement pop outfit Thee Makeout Party!, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, founded an independent record store and label in 2007, launching it officially two years later. Less than five years later their label, Burger Records, has become nearly synonymous with the word cassette. This year has proved to be one of Burger’s most prolific stretches, aided by an unexpected spike in interest for cassettes and the various basement punk sub-genres. While their collaborations with punk wunderkind Ty Segall may have lent some momentum to this, the label also experienced a greater amount of national coverage in 2013. Cassette Store Day certainly influenced some of the coverage but consistent reporting from scribes like Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, Noisey’s Zachary Lipez as well as a handful of articles from Stereogum’s Miles Bowe expanded Burger from a portion of the MRR set to the more indie-inclined crowds.
That crossover is where Burger has managed its biggest coup; for over four years the label has been releasing consistently impressive material that has equal appeal to both parties. Another coup; psych and surf influence litter the labels catalog, giving it a distinct west coast flavor, while also nicely syncing up with a growing demand for music that features either. All of these manage to intersect to provide the label with a legitimate identity apart from its near-refusal to release anything apart from cassettes (the label does occasionally release some vinyl, makes a select few of its releases available digitally, and even fewer available on CD). Burger’s ability to sustain a breakneck pace has been astounding and they’ve proven themselves as taste-makers in an impossibly short amount of time.
Looking at the amount of titles Burger has sold out is staggering, even considering their ace-in-the-hole model of release. Nearly everything the label presses to cassette is available once as a limited-run release, so if you missed out on Tenement’s Napalm Dream + Demos double-cassette, then you’ll likely have to keep both eyes peeled to a secondhand service like ebay. While some of their more popular releases do manage to get multiple re-pressings, it’s somewhat of a rarity. Burger’s also proved to be efficient at capitalizing on bands that seemed to be geared towards greater success, as they did with Tenement and as their currently doing with Seattle’s Big Eyes, having just recently provided a tape release for a record that’s already been out for months.
While cassettes still exist in abundance as several bands preferred mode of independent release, Burger seems keenly aware of the urgency created by a ‘get ’em before they’re gone’ kind of model. Their claims of starting their own movement don’t feel too far off base. Demand for their products were high enough to warrant Burgerama, the labels own self-curated music festival, Wiener Records- a subsidiary label, and the Burger Caravan of Stars tour that takes the central idea of Burgerama and condenses it into a smaller-scale nationwide version. They’ve created something far bigger than themselves and it’s paying off. Burger’s responsible for over 500 notable releases and more than half of those are currently no longer available.
Cassette Store Day brought a lot of issues to light and several people were left aghast, while it inspired local artists the world over to make their small contributions. Austin, TX troubadours Okkervil River took advantage of the nostalgic aspect of the cassette, releasing The Silver Gymnasium on the format. Burger Records understands the format and what it stands for. They’re the ones that know how many miles in a van a cassette can represent, how much cheap spilled beer went into making and celebrating one, how the slightly compressed sound quality can actually prove beneficial to the sound of particular artists, and the skip-resistant longevity of a cassette. They’re the ones that have been part of post-show basement cassette trades between local and touring acts. Burger Records knows who will fit and who will respond to the format most strongly.
Burger Records knows the cassette’s not dead and they’re going to keep it that way. Whether that’s a triumph, a statement, or a disgrace is anyone’s prerogative. For a generation that’s involved in their movement, it exceeds simpler classifications and becomes a way of life. To Heartbreaking Bravery, it’s a life well worth living.