The Weeping Elvis Interview: Bryan Burkert, Owner of One of America’s Best Record Stores

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Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent music stores,  is coming up this Saturday. I’m fortunate to live in Baltimore, home of The Soundgarden, which really is one of the best record stores in the country. If you don’t believe me then take the word of Rolling Stone, The Grammys and The Baltimore Sun.  We spoke with Bryan Burkert, founder of The Soundgarden, as he was making his way west to the Coachella Festival.





Weeping Elvis: How did you decide to open The Soundgarden?

Bryan Burkert: I opened it in 1993. I moved here from Buffalo. There was a great store there called Home of the Hits. I just didn’t see anything like that as an all-encompassing indie store in Baltimore.  We took a chance and now it’s some 25 years later. When we started used CDs were just taking off, and we did well pretty quick.  I get a lot of credit for the store, but I’ve had a lot of good people work for me and we give our employees a lot of freedom to make choices to bring different things in. There have been people over the years that have been into electronic, world music, punk, metal. Over the years a lot of the sections, even the movie or game sections, have been built by employees or inspired by customers coming in and telling us “oh you guys need to get this.”  Those sections have sold and just grown from there.

WE: How has The Soundgarden managed to do well while so many stores have gone away?

BB: I think when everybody started telling us that all the record stores were going to go away, a lot of stores listened and made it a self fulfilling prophecy, meaning they started returning a lot of their inventory and stopped taking chances and doing a lot of the things that made them a good store in the first place because everybody told them they were going to fail doing it. We took the stance that we were going to bring in as much product as possible and a diversity of product. We’re lucky that Baltimore, and our Syracuse location, have a wide variety of people that shop the store so we are able to carry a lot of different music. People fill up their shopping baskets with Blu-Ray, vinyl, CDs, DVDs, video games. I think nowadays most of our customers buy in a lot of genres so it makes us appealing.

WE: What are you guys doing this year to celebrate Record Store Day?

BB:  We’ve got GWAR in store.  They’re coming in costume and signing autographs. They’re not playing but it will be very cool.  Trampled by Turtles will be in store too, which is exciting.

Record Store Day actually started in Baltimore. I’m part of a coalition of independent music stores. We have meetings once a year and it was sort of born out of one of our meetings five or six years ago. It’s grown bigger than any of us ever thought it would.

There was a lot of discussion about Free Comic Day and that’s kind of where we got the idea. We thought it was an important thing for the bands that stood for record stores and wanted independent record stores around. It was really easy once we started to ask them to participate. We started asking different artists what indie music stores meant to them and they would tell stories and we put them together as great quotes. It got a lot bigger than any of us ever thought it would.

WE: It’s very cool that Iggy Pop is the King of this year’s Record Store Day.

BB: Last year it was the Foo Fighters, and Metallica‘s done it and Ozzy did it. They frequented shops like mine so they have an attachment.

WE: What was the first album that you bought?

BBEcho and the Bunnymen’s The Cutter, which was an EP. I used to buy all The Cure, The Smiths and The Jam 12 inches.  I was into Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello too. Tom Calderone was a DJ at WBNY. He had an independent radio show there and we used to listen to him all the time. He went on to do really well at MTV and Viacom. We used to listen to CNFY, which is out of Toronto, too. The Goo Goo Dolls were getting started then as well and I was friends with their manager.  So a lot of inspiration came out of that era for me.

WE: You’ve produced a lot of in store appearances with artists at The Soundgarden over the years. Who haven’t you met that you’d  like to?

BB: I guess the artist I still haven’t met is David Bowie, and he’s actually releasing a 7” for record store day. We’ve had so many great in stores with so many artists I wouldn’t have expected, like with Lemmy from Motorhead.

We’ve had some great, great in stores and for the most part everybody’s been really appreciative of the store and the culture that we have.  One of the weirdest things is when we have younger hip-hop artists in, like J.Cole, and they end up spending two or three hours buying music and asking us for recommendations, which you wouldn’t expect because they come from a generation where they buy everything digitally. Stuff like that is exciting to me.

Thanks to Bryan Burkert for chatting with us.

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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.

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