Remembering Atomic Records and considering the furious collecting dash of Record Store Day.
Six years ago, Atomic Records closed. The venerable music shop had been an East Side landmark for a quarter century. When it existed, Atomic was the epicenter of the city’s music scene. It was a place where you could assuredly snag a copy of a local release and where bands played countless in-store performances. I can’t remember precisely the first time I set foot in the store, but it must have been 2005, on some Saturday afternoon during my first semester at Marquette. Like any freshman, new friends and dorm-mates were exposing me to innovative and interesting musical styles and in turn, stretching my music palate to new limits. We wouldn’t swap records or burn CDs for each other, though. We ripped all our music onto our laptops using an application that connected users’ iTunes accounts, as long as the shared the same network. Suddenly, an entire dorm’s library was at our fingertips. I’m sure that’s why I don’t remember my first visit to Atomic— with a seemingly limitless catalog at home, the store probably felt small and inadequate.
It really wasn’t, however; a fact I learned over its final four years in existence, as my personal laptop rapidly became bloated with junk I never really listened to (sorry, Blur B-sides and that Remy Zero album). The feeling of downloading an entire band’s discography in one click was amazing, but actually trying to physically listen to everything became a chore. In that first semester, I could continuously play iTunes for 36 days without repeating a song. Atomic, with its small and rough confines, felt refreshing in contrast. And I eventually came to realize that they carried much more than I’d initially perceived. While I never bought much because I was broke at the time—being a student and all—I still remember the thrill of simply walking in the store, flipping through the racks and talking with the clerks. Even the bus rides to and from were filled with a nervous excitement, whether I picked something up or not.
While the internet played a significant role in its shuttering, Atomic still exists online, selling its iconic t-shirts on its website and its remaining inventory on Amazon. There’s even an active Facebook account. But the loss of the brick-and-mortar store felt like an irreplaceable piece was stripped from Milwaukee.
There won’t be another Atomic Records, just like there won’t be another Rush-Mor Records (2635 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), or another Bullseye Records (1627 E. Irving Pl.), or another Acme Records (2341 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), or another Musical Memories (833 E. Kilbourn Ave.) or another Exclusive Company (1669 N. Farwell Ave.), if any of those were to go under. It’s vital to hold on to what we have.
This Saturday is Record Store Day. The annual national celebration aims at drawing music consumers to independently owned record shops. It’s mostly been a success, bringing in better business for an otherwise normal Saturday. But the focus has been slowly weaning off supporting the actual record shops and more towards the special, ultra-limited releases that line the shelves and seemingly draw in the Black Friday-esque K-Mart looters shoppers. Last year’s hot item was a Ghostbusters glow-in-the-dark 10” record that was impossible to find and wildly overpriced on eBay seconds after stores opened. This year’s big gimmick release is a special edition Father John Misty 7” record that’s shaped like a heart. Don’t get me wrong, I love picking up some of the exclusive items. Local radio station 91.7 WMSE is releasing a 7” record this Saturday including live, in-studio versions of Field Report’s “Home (Leave The Lights On)” and a cover of John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” and Pele is offering its 1999 album Elephant for the first time on vinyl. (For a full list of releases, check out the Record Store Day website.) But something is being lost in this mad consumerism.
I can’t help but think about the similarities between this furious collecting dash for these exclusive releases and my own extensive downloading practices. The feeling after snagging that Ghostbusters vinyl must have been wonderful, but seriously, how often are you pulling out that soundtrack? To me, it feels like downloading the entire Counting Crows discography onto iTunes. It’s an empty satisfaction. So, when you’re in a record shop this Saturday, forgo the urge to spend on the crazy limited releases that will probably feel meaningless over the next few years. Instead buy something lasting, something you’ll be proud of years down the road. Buy yourself a T-shirt.