Building a Better Burgerama

Saturday afternoons at Burger Records can be hit or miss. On this particular one, it's bustling. Burger has lured record collectors to its location in a strip mall just off the 91 freeway in Fullerton by offering 50 percent off all used vinyl, plus a slew of other salacious offers. The store is filled with people digging through its extensive used vinyl collection as well as checking out Burger's own burgeoning catalog of tapes and vinyl.

But for Burger owner Sean Bohrman, his focus isn't on the cha-ching of the cash register on a day when a half-off sale attracts record collectors from across Orange County. Instead, he's ironing out the kinks for the record store-come-label's showcase events at South By Southwest (SXSW) and putting the finishing touches on what has become the company's signature event: Burgerama. Though they've been doing the Burger Boogaloo for six years, Burgerama has become a concert synonymous with the budding empire.

In just three years, Burger has turned the office park by the Observatory into one of the country's premier indie punk festivals. When the Galaxy Concert Theater became the Observatory in late 2011, the new ownership reached out to Bohrman, asking if he was interested in bringing shows there. The first of those shows was quickly planned and christened Burgerama. Its success allowed for it to morph into a two-day event last year that included sets from Ariel Pink, the Black Lips, Bleached and Nick Waterhouse.

As with the rest of the music business, Burger is a prisoner to the SXSW festival in Austin. But with its rapidly expanding profile, Burgerama will have a decidedly international flavor this year with bands such as Boogarins from Brazil and Mozes & the Firsthorn from Norway, in addition to the usual Burger alumni. In the past, bands such as these would head to Austin and then home, but now they're able to continue westward, with Burgerama as the destination.

“That's the beauty of having it next to [SXSW],” Bohrman says. “All of these bands are touring the United States around then, and we give them somewhere to go after [SXSW], and everybody comes here.”

Fans travel from the East Coast and even Canada for the event, of which Bohrman is well-aware. As the festival's curator, he has a responsibility to put together a lineup that will stay true to his company's roots, yet also reflect his personal tastes. He says he loves introducing obscure groups, such as '60s psych outfit Nirvana (not Kurt Cobain's group), for whom the label put out a cassette, and, closer to his heart, discovering new bands.

The best example of Burgerama's growth is the second night's headliner, FIDLAR. Burger took a shine to the Los Angeles quartet early, putting out 500 limited-edition cassettes of their debut album months before it was released on Mom + Pop. Last year, the band were a mid-card band, but they had one of the best sets of the two days. Their subsequent success, including selling out the Observatory on their own, isn't lost on the Burger boss.

“We knew about them, but they were one of the punk bands with Together Pangea and those guys,” Bohrman says, trying to hide a smile. “It's great to see them doing so well.”

With the popularity of both the Burger brand and Burgerama growing, this year's edition is the most ambitious yet. Having gotten approval from local authorities, Bohrman says there will now be a third, outdoor stage, which will allow the festival to grow to 3,000 people per night. On the lineup are Sleep, a band Bohrman has been after to play the fest for a number of years.

Even better, ticket sales can't keep up with the demand for the show. Last year, 127 tickets were sold the first day. This year, 2,000 were swooped up the first day; he expects the event will sell out.

As we finish chatting in Burger's back office, it's time for Bohrman to get back to work, which he does every day from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. He's glowing as he describes watching friendships among the bands blossom within the community, and the office door swings open to reveal Matt Schmalfeld from Audacity. A regular at the Burger offices, his band is one of the Burger success stories; they have seen their profile grow along with the label's.

“It's a big uprising of young people full of energy,” Schmalfeld says of Burgerama. “They're all passionate about Burger and what it's trying to do, and as a band, it's really cool to see us all getting together and having as much fun as we are.”



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