Fallout from Atomic Records' Closing

One of the city's oldest and best known independent stores plans to shut its doors.


Milwaukee- Atomic Records, one of the city's oldest and best known independently owned record stores, plans to close shop for good this coming February after 24 years in the community.


Located on Locust   Street near UWM, Atomic specializes in rare domestic and import album sales as well as being one of the city's few destinations for new and used vinyl records. Over the years, it has also become a significant distribution hub for many local musicians.


Store owner Rich Menning cited a number of reasons for the stores closing in an e-mail this past week.


“Downward market trends, changing consumer habits, shifting demographics, and the decade-long and running decline of the music industry combined with recent economic downturn have made it impossible to continue doing what we love,” said Menning. “I only wish we had the wherewithal to continue on.”


He also announced discounts on all remaining goods through December. Beginning in January of the new year, Atomic Records will clean out the basement to host a rummage style memorabilia sale.


The announcements generated an overflow of messages in Menning’s inbox from store devotees. The petite one-story, brick-clad, poster-laden storefront has become a local musical institution since its induction in 1985.

Music Editor for a Milwaukee-based arts and entertainment magazine Laura Kezman describes Atomic’s role in the east-side community.


“I think it was a huge focal point. For a lot of people it’s that nostalgic store where the found their favorite band however many years ago or where they would stay and listen for hours to music they wanted to buy,” says Kezman.

With a seemingly large cult following why is the store unable to continue on? One factor could be the growing popularity of digitally downloaded music in the United States.


The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) represents interests of the recording industry worldwide. Their 2008 digital music report shows sales growing 40 percent from 2006 to 2007 netting the industry $2.9 billion. The United States is the number one digital music market globally where 30 percent of all sales come from downloads.


Local business owner’s alliance Our Milwaukee calculates that sixty-eight-cents out of every dollar spent at an independently owned business stays in the native economy.


Atomic customer Stephanie Shmaefelt believes the Internet’s musical selection is still inferior to those of local music stores.


“I like a lot of obscure and special edition albums,” says Shmaefelt. “It’s easy to find some obscure stuff on iTunes but I still can’t find everything I’d like and you can’t always trust the quality you’re getting online”


The IFPI report also presents a 20-1 ratio between unlicensed tracks downloaded and licensed tracks sold. This figure is troubling for small time musicians trying to support themselves with their musical offerings.


Standing on snow covered December sidewalks on Milwaukee’s east side local guitarist Erik Gosnell smokes a cigarette explaining the impact of Atomic Record’s closing on area musicians.


“It’s unfortunate because a lot of these independent music stores are the only ones who carry hard copies of local music,” says Gosnell. “With things going digital though I’m not sure it will have the impact it would have 10 years ago, but it’s still sad.”


A 2008 record store industry report generated by IBIS World estimates 9,400 record stores nationwide. The report called the industry “highly competitive” with “expected stagnant future growth”.


Vinyl record collector Daniel Kushling believes other independent music shops in Milwaukee will benefit from the disappearance of Atomic Records.


“I think some of the other record stores like Bull’s Eye Records on the east side and Rush-Mor Records in Bay View will be able to pick up the slack,” says Daniel.  


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