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Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009

A World Without Atomic Records

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Though Milwaukee music lovers were saddened to learn last month that Atomic Records will close this winter, few were genuinely shocked. The music industry was struggling long before the greater economic turbulence of the last two years, and with even titanic chains like Tower Records collapsing from the strain, the forecast for small, independent retailers has been dire.

"It has been a death by a thousand cuts," explains Atomic Records owner Rich Menning. "You don't notice the blood draining at first-you just keep your head down, working hard, without noticing the slow erosion. You try to ignore juggling the maxed out credit cards and the dwindling state of the music industry. You look for bright spots: 'Record Store Day was awesome!' 'Vinyl sales are up!' But you come to the realization that the negatives far outweigh the positives and you have to pull the plug. Bottom line: music sales are tanking, I'm out of money, and the forecast for an economic turnaround was dismal."

Milwaukee's most visible independent record store, Atomic has already cut back on its hours, remaining open Tuesday through Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Through January, Atomic will liquidate its stock, selling off the rarities and oddities that have piled up in the store's basement over the last quarter century, before closing the doors for good sometime in February, likely between the 15th and 20th. (Worn by generations of local musicians and sported by alt-rock luminaries like Billy Corgan and Dave Grohl, Atomic's iconic T-shirts have been a hot seller during these final days-Menning has moved more than 600 in the last month. "I joke that we should have been expanding our apparel line all these years and concentrated on the music less," Menning says.)

The loss of Atomic Records is a daily topic of conversation at Rush-Mor Records in Bay View, one of only a handful of remaining independent music retailers in Milwaukee.

"I'm already seeing people come into the store with a 'please don't tell me you're going out of business, too' mind frame," says Rush-Mor co-owner Dan DuChaine.

DuChaine says his sales have been resilient and that his store has no plans of closing, but he sympathizes with Atomic's plight. Illegal music downloading, the recession and the weak American dollar are among a confluence of factors working against brick and mortar records stores, DuChaine says, but most troubling, perhaps, is the dearth of young music buyers.

"Young people don't hang out in record stores anymore," DuChaine says. "They don't come in here to get their bikes fixed or to meet future bandmates. When we got involved in the business 14 years ago, the average entry age of costumers was probably 12 years old, but now we rarely see costumers younger than their twenties."

Nonetheless, DuChaine says that Rush-Mor will try to fill the void left by Atomic by expanding its selection, stocking in particular more vinyl.

Like Rush-Mor, Bull's Eye Records has survived by keeping its overhead low. It stocks mostly used albums, and two years ago owner Luke Lavin moved the business from a prime storefront on Farewell Avenue to a less expensive location on Irving Place. Bull's Eye is the nearest record store to Atomic, but Lavin says that as much as he'd like to expand, the market for new music is too fickle.

"Our physical store is pretty small, and I can't magically create more space than what I've got," Lavin says. "And frankly, with the new LPs that I do stock, even the records that I know are good and that people are interested in, I might order two copies and only sell one. The other could sit there for two years until it sells.

"I might try to take a few more risk ordering new LPs," Lavin continues, "but I can't replace Atomic."