Burger Records and the subculture it spawned is so endemic to numerous major circles in the current international rock 'n' roll underground that the sheer outrageousness and, frankly, ridiculousness of its original premise and business model now seems perfectly reasonable. Divorced from its formidable influence on the music community, however, the idea of an independent record label that specializes in cassette-only releases of countless garage, punk and psychedelic acts becoming financially sustainable while profoundly affecting DIY youth culture just as the pop music recording industry began to collapse is an absurd notion, no matter how many CDs Taylor Swift sold last week.
These days, it's usually a given that the majority of indie-identified rock bands, rooted in an underground scene that was rooted in one era of punk music or another, will at some point release their recordings on a cassette. That's right, a tape—the obsolete, cumbersome medium widely regarded as having the worst sound quality and least physical durability of any format. But that's sort of the point: In reclaiming a symbol of derision—of mediocrity and of mockery—and proudly showing it off as a badge of pride, Burger Records and its tape invasion are continuing a narrative as old as rock 'n' roll itself.
In 2007, when Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard founded the label in Fullerton, Calif. as a means to release music by their garage-pop band Thee Makeout Party and their friends' pop-punk group the Audacity, reviving the cassette was a novel idea to break through an overcrowded underground of probably thousands of like-minded acts. Taking the then-logical next step of cyclical nostalgia that defines modern pop culture, making it available in limited, cheap quantities and selling it as both a piece of tangible, physical art that doubled as a fashion accessory was either cynical marketing or genuine ingenuity, depending on your point of view. It also could have been both—but what is certain is that it has proven to be an undeniably successful idea.
Seven years and more than 500 releases later, Burger Records is its own paradigm—there's the BRGRTV YouTube station, the Burger store located in a strip mall in Fullerton and somewhere floating around the brand name are the scores of lo-fi, pop-punk, fuzz-psych and bubblegum pop/rock bands associated with the label. With few exceptions—Ty Segall, Ariel Pink, maybe one or two others—no act that began its career with Burger is more famous than Burger Records itself, nor have many leaped beyond being associated with the label.
And that's why you'd be easily forgiven for having minimal knowledge or interest in the actual artists playing on this year's edition of the Burger Caravan of Stars Tour, which hits Club Congress on Tuesday, Nov. 11. While it's entirely possible that the tour's shifting lineup is due to any number of factors originating with the performers—availability, budget and so forth—it remains symbolically relevant that several of the featured bands are largely interchangeable on the Caravan of Stars. Only together PANGEA, Mozes & the Firstborn and A.J. Davila & Terror Amor perform on every date of the month-long trek, and these are the only Burger artists scheduled to perform at the Tucson date.
In terms of quality, Mozes & the Firstborn are in the top tier of the label's roster; the others aren't significantly far behind. What does seem significant is that after endless hours of brand-building and promotion, and old-fashioned touring by Bohrman and Rickard, and the bands, respectively, a breakthrough in terms of attendance and venue size—let alone even a minor dent on the pop charts—remains elusive, even after a prestigious and thorough New York Times profile on the label earlier this year, and is perhaps the first signal that Burger and its endless summer of tapes and garage-rock has crested and plateaued.