For the second installment of All Tape Guide, Allmusic's sporadic subsector focusing specifically on cassette releases, I conducted a phone interview with Fullerton, California-based label Burger Records. Burger began in 2007 as a vehicle for Sean Bohrman and Lee Noise to release a 7" by their band The Makeout Party, but the label grew quickly and their focus soon shifted to prolifically released cassette versions of albums by Nobunny, The Go, Black Lips and many many others.
Burger's non-stop work ethic and boundless enthusiasm helped the label explode in a very short time, expanding to include a record and video shop in 2009, a sub-label ("Wiener Records") and an ever-growing discography that was well beyond 300 releases at the time this article was written. Burger releases a fair amount of LPs and CDs, but their empire is definitely built on tapes. Lots of tapes. New artists, exclusive tape releases, reissues of lost classics or even just a cassette version of the new Beachwood Sparks album to play in your car that only has a tape deck. I talked to the friendly folks at Burger about their love of the cassette format, their supporters and haters and the possibility of a small SoCal tape label approaching world-record status.
All Tape Guide: Burger didn't specifically start as a tape label, what drew you to releasing cassettes?
Burger Records: We were sitting in Kansas at Kirby's beer store in the parking lot and I remember thinking "We should put out tapes of all these bands." No one was putting out tapes of Nobunny or other bands like that. Really no album from the past 10, 15 years was being released on cassette. Immediately I grabbed the computer and started emailing. I emailed The Go, The Traditional Fools and Apache and those were the first three tapes we did outside of Make Out Party and Audacity. Those were the two bands that helped start the label, but those other three tapes kinda kick-started it and then it kept growing and growing and now we've released 100,000 cassettes and sold over 80,000 in the last five years. We've released over 250 bands on cassette. It's crazy, sometimes when I go back and look through the first 20 releases-- it was so much of a struggle to get those first 20 out. I remember just failing and having to redo stuff and it was very difficult to get it exactly how we envisioned it, cause we're perfectionists, sometimes to a fault. Now we're releasing 20 tapes a week, just throwing everything out there, and it's just crazy how far it's come in such a little amount of time.
ATG: When you say you contacted bands to release their records, were these records that were already out, just not available on tape?
BR: Yep, it took us a while to get that part of things down. It took us years, actually. We would just get the okay from a band and we'd do a tape version of their record. Then we'd get an angry call from the UK with someone shouting "Where do you think you got the rights to do this??" We put out the Television Personalities' "I Was A Mod Before You Was A Mod", which came out on Overground Records in 1991. We paid Dan Treacy $250 and that was the extent of the deal. We made 250 tapes and that was it. Then one afternoon I got an angry call from some British guy threatening to sue us, and that's when I when I used the "We're just some kids releasing tapes! We don't know what we're doing", but really we know exactly what we're doing.
There's tons of awesome music out there and there has been throughout history, you just have to look for it. People say "I hate '80s music" or whatever, and I say "No you don't, you just haven't explored '80s music enough to find out what you like." The internet has made it so much easier to find what you like, and we've created this network of the 200, 300 bands that we've put out where they tell us about other bands, or hear something awesome. The whole goal is to get music out there and get it heard, and turn people on to this stuff that's turning us on.
ATG: Burger does a lot of LPs and CDs as well, but volume-wise, the bulk of your releases are cassettes.
BR: Yeah, we've did 100 releases last year and we're gonna do 200 releases.
ATG: And the majority of them are all tapes?
BR: We're releasing between two and five new tapes a week. We're doing crazier stuff now, too. We did Brian Jonestown Massacre and Ryan Adams. The Ryan Adams tape sold out in three hours. All 400 copies were gone and people were posting them on eBay.
ATG: What do you think are the benefits of releasing cassettes over other formats?
BR: They're super-cheap to make and the turnaround time is days instead of weeks. It's like a business card, like a hand-held little collectible item. It's something you can hold in your hand instead of a download in your computer. People have collections of hundreds of tapes we've put out. There's a bunch of other tape labels out there doing the same thing, but I'd like to contact the Guinness Book of World Records to see if we're the most prolific tape label of all time. We're not beholden to any genre or any one type of music; I love pop music, I love listening to top 40 on the radio, I love punk, I love all types of music and I think it shows in what we release. We've released the Pharcyde, some surf stuff.. Anything we like we put out, and the good thing about tapes is there's no real financial risk in releasing something you know not many people are going to buy.
ATG: The first installment of all tape guide drew a lot of comments, and a lot of really strong opinions, many of which were negative. People had a lot to say about how tapes were a dead format, cloyingly nostalgic, had unforgivably low-quality sound, etc. Running one of the most active tape labels out there right now, do you ever run into this kind of criticism? Do you have anything to say to the haters of the tape?
BR: In the five years we've been doing this I've heard EVERYTHING. The guy who started Maximum Rock N' Roll [magazine] came up to us at a show, drunk and berating us for destroying music and killing music. It was crazy. I was like "I'm not trying to, I love music!" As far as tapes go, it's not a nostalgia thing for a lot of kids. This kid from Florida, he's 13 years old, he just came into the shop today. He's on vacation and he wanted to meet us cause he's into the label. He bought $75 worth of tapes today and he's not nostalgic for them. He wasn't around when tapes were big or anything. It's a playable format of music. If you put out music that people want to hear on any format, people will buy it to listen to it. If it's too hard for you to get a tape player, then you're too lazy to be listening to music. You're the type of person who lets people tell you about music and doesn't explore. Tapes aren't the best quality sound, but they're portable and it's cheap. You can get an entire album for $5 and you can't do that with any other format. People like to complain on the internet. When we started doing this I tried to turn people's opinions and let them know we're doing a good thing. There was this one guy who kept posting on this one blog and every time I posted something he would just write "F*ck Burger! F*ck Burger! F*ck Burger!" over and over again. So I made a button that just said "F*ck Burger Records" and sent the guy a pin, and he became a fan of our label by us doing that! In a way it kind of hurt us though, cause when he stopped being online posting "F*ck Burger!" all the time, people didn't have to defend us. Careful manipulation of social media is what running a record label is like today because everybody's on the internet.
ATG: Are there any older tape labels like Shrimper or K that you looked to for inspiration with Burger? Or are there any labels right now you can point to that you're into that are doing similar stuff as you?
BR: There's a label out of Portland called Gnar Tapes. They are my favorite kids, they have a band called the Memories, and we re-released their tape on Burger, they're awesome, my favorite band of this year. I really like everything Gnar puts out and their vibe, and that they're able to create all of their tapes in house. That's something we've strived for but it's just not possible for us.
ATG: The high volume of tapes you make means you have to get them outsourced as opposed to dubbing them yourselves?
BR: Yeah we use a company in Pasadena that's been making tapes since 1981. We're putting their kids through college! That started out as a joke I made, but actually we seriously are. I've done the math.
ATG: What are some standouts from Burger's history of cassette releases? What was the most ambitious release you did, or one that blew up in a way you didn't expect?
BR: The King Tuff tape we did was special because the guy who put out the vinyl kind of dropped the ball by not pressing enough copies and now it's a $100 record on eBay. We've sold over 2,500 copies of the "King Tuff was Dead" cassette, that's probably our best seller. That and Nobunny's "Raw Romance". That was the one that kinda kickstarted the label because it was all new stuff. Gap Dream is this guy who's been buying tapes from us for years. He sent me a song and I was like "Oh my god! This is so awesome!" and right when we said we'd do a tape of his stuff, a guy from 4AD hit me up to put out the vinyl. It kinda took off from there. The guy who started Pitchfork bought two copies and started posting some of the songs, CMJ did an interview with him, he just got picked up by all these PR people and a booking agent and it all started with me posting a song on our Soundcloud. It just took off. That blew up, but I expect everything to blow up cause I love it all so much.
The most ambitious thing we've done was The Go box set, five tapes with a full color booklet and liner notes for each tape. There was a re-print of the zine they made when they first started the band. The Go is from Detroit, and it was Jack White's first band. They released their first album "Whatcha Doin'" on Sub Pop in 1998. The box set was five tapes of unreleased music from their entire career, ten years worth of stuff. It had a wrap-around cover and buttons, super nice packaging. It took a lot of work. There was an unreleased Jack White song on there, it was six, maybe seven hours of music on there, chronologically from the very first song they ever recorded together on. It's amazing to hear how they've progressed through the years. They're one of my favorite bands. They rule.
Header image based on "Tapespine_03" by cassettes, CC-BY-2.0.