Interview: Rich Menning of Atomic Records
The record store owner signs off after 24 years
On Sunday, East Side music shop Atomic Records will close its doors for the last time. The end of Atomic not only means that Milwaukee is losing its most iconic record store, it also signals the end of an era in the city’s music history, when the store served as a hub for thriving underground rock scenes in the ’80s and ’90s. Now the question is: Will another independent retailer come along to replace Atomic? Owner Rich Menning, for one, doesn’t think so. Menning spoke with Decider via email about the future of record stores and where he plans to go from here.
Decider: Was there anything in particular that made you decide to close Atomic?
Was there a specific breaking point?
Rich Menning: No, not one thing in particular, unless having all of your lines of credit fully maxed out counts. The decision to close had been building for a few years. Many, many things were combining to make it unsustainable, and, finally, I couldn’t get the sound of Johnny Rotten screaming “Noooo fuuuuture!” out of my head. People today are immersed in music that they have never paid for. Unfortunately, there is little moral stigma attached to this. They just shrug it off and rationalize away any guilt they might have. I wonder if things may have been different if someone other than Lars Ulrich had first railed against Napster. Someone more sympathetic with big, sad eyes like Fiona Apple. Or a baby seal pup.
D: There was an outpouring of support for Atomic once the closing announcement was made. Were you surprised by the reaction?
RM: Very much so. And it still moves me. The past few years, we’d been feeling more and more like the lonely Maytag repairmen of record stores, and our importance to people had dwindled. But it appears that a greater legacy existed. It is gratifying to know that our efforts did have an impact on people.
D: Was there a part of you that was also like, "Hey, where were you guys before?"
RM: A little, but I realize that times have changed. The record store patrons of yore now have mortgages and kids to feed. And I suppose much of the grief expressed was an acknowledgement that times really had changed, and maybe not for the better.
D: Is it a given that record stores aren't going to exist in a decade because everyone will be buying music online?
RM: I’m afraid that’s the way it’s going. Unless it’s a no-profit labor of love, I don’t foresee a sustainable future. Enjoy the era of record stores while you still can, people!
D: Atomic has hosted some great bands for in-store concerts over the years. What are some of your favorite memories?
RM: I have a notoriously poor memory—thus was born my hobby of videotaping bands. From the late ’80s through the early ’00s you would rarely see me at a show without a camcorder. So I'll have to review the tapes. But off the top of my head, I'd say The Posies, Nada Surf, Nellie McKay, Eagles Of Death Metal, Diamond Nights, and The Paybacks were the most enjoyable for me. Another cool one was a surprise party for my 40th birthday where David Garza showed up to play Cheap Trick and old MTV hits.
D: What do you plan on doing once Atomic finally closes?
RM: I have no firm plans for my future. I went straight from college into the music biz. So I am concerned that my skills may be irrelevant in much of today's world. Short term, I'll be hunkering down in my basement, selling my archives on eBay and Amazon to make ends meet. And also the chore of organizing and digitizing over 300 live video recordings I've made. I guess I'll need to start a YouTube channel to share some of those gems.
D: Where will you buy your music?
RM: I look forward to making the circuit of the used record shops in the area. It'll be fun to be a consumer on the vinyl hunt again. To be honest, the stress of running a struggling record store the past few years had sucked the fun out of music for me. Keeping abreast of all the new music coming out was quite a strain and left little time for recreational listening at the end of the day. I crave listening to my collection just for the enjoyment of it again. I've got a lot of catching up to do on that front.