I was saddened to see that Atomic Records will close in February, but I'm not entirely surprised. Let’s face it, if Tower tanked and Virgin closed a downtown Chicago megastore before there was even an economic crisis, how can we expect owner Rich Menning to weather the storm?
"The reasons for shutting down are many -- and I'd hate to bore you with wonkish details of shifting demographics, downward market trends, changing consumer habits, etc. -- but the decade-long (and running) decline of the music industry combined with the recent economic downturn have made it impossible to continue doing what we love to do," wrote Menning in announcing the closing on the Atomic Web site.
It’s no secret that the digital age is affecting stores that sell CDs and vinyl and that Web sites like CDBaby.com help even the smallest local acts sell their CDs internationally and get paid reasonably quickly. Recently, The Mighty Lumberhorn told me that it sold the first copy of its new CD via CD Baby to a fan in Spain.
"Very sad news," says Bill Rouleau of Rush-Mor, of Atomic's demise. "Just another sign of the technocalypse, the more advanced we become digitally, the more awkward and insular we become socially. I'm always astonished that people would rather download music than actually go to their favorite store and dig and talk and debate. I guess I've always been a music geek, though."
Talking to Menning and to other local record shop owners in recent years, it’s been clear that business here has sagged just as it has in that sector internationally. In early spring, a city-wide Record Store Day was launched to help draw attention to these local music scene gems. You don’t think that is a coincidence, do you?
Back then, in April, Menning admitted things were not rosy.
"It's not easy being a record store owner anywhere these days, let alone Milwaukee, but we do our best to run a tight ship with a good crew, often working extra hours for little pay," said Menning. "Any indie store still standing, be it Atomic -- or our brethren at Rush Mor, Bull's Eye or the newly re-opened Lotus Land -- are clearly in it for the love and not the money.
"Some call me crazy -- particularly my accountant -- for doing this for the past 23 years, especially in light of the decade-long collapse of the industry due to online piracy and basic major label cluelessness."
And many of these stores -- just like local bookstores and other independent businesses -- suffer from the fact that even many of their most devoted fans don’t shop there enough. I admit I’m guilty, too.
Yesterday, I talked to Luke Lavin of Bull’s Eye Records and although he said things were going OK, he admitted the economic downturn has also affected the buying habits of record geeks. They are not as immune as one might think.
But tomorrow, on OnMilwaukee.com, you’ll read my article about Lotus Land in Riverwest, which is about to celebrate its eighth anniversary. Co-owner John Kuester said that things are tight there, but that the growth of the store’s online component has helped.
"In-store business is about a sh*itty as it can get right now but we have always been more of an online business," says Kuester candidly. "Sales online are steady but I'm keeping a close eye on things."
Rouleau, meanwhile, says Rush-Mor has found its niche in Bay View and, although things are tight, the shop is not in danger.
"Knock on wood, we do OK," he says. "But we have only two people to support."
Atomic is not Milwaukee’s oldest indie; that distinction goes to Rush-Mor, which started out across the street from its current location. But Atomic, which changed its name from Ludwig Van Ear when Menning bought it in the mid-‘80s, has pretty much always been Milwaukee’s modern and alternative rock record shop.
When the Smashing Pumpkins came to town, they did their in-store appearances at Atomic (heck, a couple days ago, Juliana Hatfield did the same). When a new Billy Bragg or Nirvana record came out, you got it at Atomic first. When alternative rock became a marketable phenomenon in the 1990s, Atomic was the best place in town for that indefinable movement.
No one can say that Atomic died because it allowed itself to become moribund. Menning has always kept up with the times and, although they never ditched vinyl, Atomic has carried CDs from the get-go. But the problem is that the entire idea of selling music in a bricks-and-mortar shop seems to be growing ever more moribund.
"These local shops are by and for the people, lip-service support and bumper stickers do not save them in times of need," says Lotus Land co-owner and local musician Andy Noble. "People spending money there does."
Atomic is not the first record shop to close in Milwaukee -- who ever would have expected to see a Milwaukee without Radio Doctors for example. Remember Earwaves and Mean Mountain Music and Dirty Jack’s Record Rack and Star Spin and Mainstream and 1812 Overture and Tropical Records and Di Hole in Di Wall and Audio Vibe (aka Audie’s) … I could go on but I’ll stop here.
Sadly, Atomic certainly will not be the last to go, either.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.