In the shadow of the Museum of Science and Technology and around the corner from Freedom of Espresso, classic rock and modern heavy metal blast into the ears of a re-emerging breed of music lovers (and everyone else strolling through Armory Square). For many, it’s a welcomed tune. The iPod, iTunes, and Spotify delivered a sonic boom that almost silenced brick-and-mortar record stores left. In fact, the physical record industry shrank by more than 7 percent between 2010 and 2015, and fewer than 4,000 stores operate in the U.S. today. But Soundgarden, one of those store stalwarts, capitalizes on the low-quality competition and attracts a steady stream of loyal music fans. Kanye might big talk streaming music, but the walls of CDs, posters, vinyl records, and customers at Soundgarden seem to be holding off the TIDAL-wave well.
The shop opened in Armory Square in 1997, four years after the original Soundgarden started selling records in Baltimore, Maryland. Founded by two Upstate expats, the company opened their second store in Syracuse on the backs of Baltimore profits in an effort to fill the music-store-sized gap in the city and university market. The warehouse-style building features CDs, posters, and trinkets, but the massive vinyl section demands shoppers’ attention. Every month Soundgarden buys nearly 15,000 used items from local audiophiles.
Store clerk Gordon Campbell believes the vinyl covering nearly one-third of the store is Soundgarden’s strong suit. “If you’re looking for good quality, vinyl is the best,” says Campbell as he hauls out a hefty 180-gram record. The market supports Campbell’s opinion. In 2015, vinyl record sales jumped 29.8 percent to 11.9 million units. According to the measurement company Nielsen, 2015 marked the 10th year in a row that national vinyl sales increased.
Vinyl’s power (and customer preference for it) even extends beyond record shops as non-music stores begin to stock vinyl. Shoppers browsing the Urban Outfitters around the corner will find crates of vinyl on sale. While many popular albums are sold in stores like Urban and Barnes & Noble, according to Campbell, the quality doesn’t compare to Soundgarden’s offerings. “Those stores price things way to high,” says Campbell. “Independent music stores like us get special records or releases other stores don’t. You’ll see we price them right too.” Thorough shoppers can find real classics in Soundgarden’s used vinyl bins, where records can cost as little as one dollar.
Browsing the multilayered bins of vinyl, an aspiring audiophile can find some marked “Soundgarden Exclusive.” Companies give small, independent stores like Soundgarden records and recordings and lock out larger chain stores from those releases. Purple vinyl, bonus songs, and packaged digital releases find their way into sleeves designed to boost a formerly struggling market. But unique vinyl presses aren’t the only perks found at the store. During the summer, the store organizes film nights and projects movies on a screen hung on the wall outside of the shop, billing it as part of “Flicks by the Crick” (a reference to Onondaga Creek that snakes through Armory Square).
At Soundgarden, hefty 180-gram records, thinner 160-gram records, or even tiny “45s” (named because they spin 45 times per minute as opposed to the larger records’ speed of 33 rounds per minute) find their way into many shoppers’ bags, and rightfully so. Between high-quality sound and the mechanical, tactical experience of playing physical records, modern vinyl connects the listener to music in a way the iPod never could. Soundgarden continuously receives new stock, and their used vinyl bins means shoppers can expect surprises on every visit. Even if the store doesn’t have a specific record, if it’s in print or available somewhere else, clerks such as Campbell can put in special orders to deliver that dream vinyl to a customer in a few business days.