by Carolina Permuy
When I was sixteen my dad came home with a Nevermind record from “a huge record store out in Baltimore.” A few weekends ago, I finally made my way up to The Sound Garden. A giant collection of records, CDs, and other memorabilia, the store perfectly fit my dad’s description. Outside of contributing to Baltimore’s arts scene, The Sound Garden helped found one of the largest celebrations of music in the world—Record Store Day. Considered a holiday in New York City, Los Angeles, Boise, Charleston, Raleigh, and Las Vegas, Record Store Day celebrates local independent record stores around the world. Its website says, “We’re dealing with real, live, physical, indie record stores—not online retailers or corporate behemoths.” Artists come together to create limited edition Record Store Day releases only sold at indie record stores. I had a chance to speak with the store’s owner, Bryan Burket, who founded the store back in 1993. Bryan shared his thoughts on Record Store Day, The Sound Garden’s contribution to Baltimore’s arts scene, the culture of record stores, and why they should be celebrated.
What was The Sound Garden's relationship to the first Record Store Day? Were you involved in organizing it?
15 years ago, back when all this started, I was hosting meetings for the independent record stores in Baltimore, and we all got together on Broadway Square and we were talking about … precipitous drops in sales, [and how] many artists were lamenting the loss of their local indie record stores. It was all basically born right in Baltimore, right down the road from The Sound Garden. The concept was to see if they would do releases for us once a year, and the musicians got behind it right away. Paul McCartney and U2—the monsters of rock music at that point—stepped in, and became our first ambassadors. Then it continued to grow. Now it's a worldwide event. We have Record Store Day multiple times a year and a book is coming out on it. It has a hundred-million-dollar sales data revenue each year.
I started participating in Record Store Day two years ago, soon after I started collecting records. People my age grew up in a time of digital streaming. However, we did witness vinyl’s comeback. I asked Bryan to reflect on the effectiveness of Record Store Day:
It’s been 15 years since the first Record Store Day. How has it been to see the resurgence of vinyl?
When it started, it was just old guys with ponytails and converse high tops. Now our biggest growth has been young women like yourself. Everybody is involved and it is getting more diverse with more people buying vinyl. We’re seeing a widening of our audience, which is awesome to see because we always want to be fresh and new.
What differentiates an indie record store from major sellers like Barnes & Noble or Amazon is the sense of community fostered in the stores. Record Store Day caters to this community.
I'm taking a music anthropology class right now and we talk about how different cultures can come together through music. Do you think record store day adds to such a worldwide appreciation of music? Is there a worldwide community seen during Record Store Day?
Absolutely. There's a community and, for us, community is the foundation of Record Store Day and how it grows. If you think about a really good record store, it is one of the only places in a city where every element of the community gathers. For the Baltimore store, every piece of Baltimore is in that store on a daily basis. That’s what community is. Everybody's in the store with that common purpose and a common goal, and everybody talks to each other to create unique community. I don't think you get that off of a streaming service. I always tell my staff that a lot of times people come to record stores to talk to record store employees about what they like, and I think that’s an important aspect of the community we have here.
Has there ever been a time that you were worried that, with digital streaming so prevalent, that community wasn't going to continue?
Every year since 1993 [the year Bryan opened The Sound Garden], it's never been easy. We've always been worried, and there's always a new crisis. I certainly didn't foresee the rapid growth of vinyl, but it's been good. We just keep hustling and try to do the right thing. We also have an online storefront for the first time because of the pandemic.
Regarding community, every year Record Store Day has ambassadors who support the cause. Bryan mentioned Paul McCartney and U2 early in the interview. When he said a big name like Paul McCartney I thought to myself: “He’s talking about a first-hand connection with someone so huge in such a nonchalant way.” I had to ask if his community in Baltimore included other names in music.
You've mentioned a couple of different artists throughout this conversation. What's it like to be able to work with actual big names in music?
It's kind of surreal. Sometimes, in the moment when talking with people and having normal conversations, I step back and I say, “wait a second… This is this person, and this is this person.” I'm good friends with John Densmore, the drummer for the Doors, which was a huge band for me when I was growing up. If I would've talked to my 20-year-old self and told them that all this is going to happen for you, I wouldn't have believed it. The Rolling Stones got us tickets to their show in Vegas. Metallica got us tickets—their show in Vegas. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make sense.
When you started the store back in the nineties, did you expect it to be such a huge thing in your life? What about Record Store Day?
I just wanted a store. I just wanted a cool record store and [The Sound Garden] became a great record store. As for Record Store Day, it just kept growing. Michael Kurtz and Carrie Colliton are the two that really operate it the most, but things just kept coming to us [...] We've always stayed true to our principles in the sense that it’s one day to celebrate indie record stores. If it ever becomes something different, if it ever becomes about the money or anything else like that, then it's done because if the artists aren't going to support this, it doesn't exist. If it feels dirty or anything like that, I don't think it exists.
Can you explain a bit more about the Baltimore arts scene? Would you say The Sound Garden is an essential part of that scene?
Yeah. We're an impactful part of the scene and we're becoming more and more as time goes on. I think the art community in Baltimore is pretty strong. Obviously we have Mica [Maryland Institute College of Art], we also have cheap rent. Typically our culture follows cheap rent. For example: New York, nothing was breaking out of the upper west side–except a few outliers like The Strokes. Almost everything else breaks out of cheaper rent areas because that's where artists can live because until they get big, they need cheap rent. And that's where the practice spaces are. Baltimore has that right now. Places like DC or New York are very expensive. Baltimore is unique in that way that it can provide a home for artists
The Sound Garden fosters a community artists have created together over the years. Record Store Day started as something that celebrated artists. When one visits the Sound Garden and walks around the endless amount of music, one will see the ethos of Record Store Day and why indie record stores are and should be celebrated.
Visit The Sound Garden at 1616 Thames St, Baltimore, MD 21231 and at sgrecordshop.com. Support the local arts scene in Baltimore by enjoying live music at The Luna Garden,their new all-day cafe, beer and wine bar.
Carolina Permuy is a freshman in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.