November 4, 2007
Two Young Entrepreneurs Unafraid of Risk of Going on Records
By Kyle Kennedy
LAKELAND | As risky ventures go, buying an independent record store at an uncertain time for the music industry would seem to rank high on the list of "don'ts."
Yet Robert Tucker and James Whelan did it anyway, purchasing Evolution Music Movies Games a year and a half ago as their first major entrepreneurial foray. Evidence suggests it was an incredibly bold move, given the punishing climate for CD sales that has shuttered giant chains like Tower Records and and wiped out thousands of "indies."
But even as buyers flock to the Internet, Tucker and Whelan say Evolution has a bright future in Lakeland. That's mainly because of the store's loyal customer following, and the increasingly rare experience it delivers for those who cherish independent record shops as holy sites of pop culture.
"There's an element of this business that defies logic," Tucker said. "We wouldn't have bought this if profit was our only motivation, so emotion has to be part of it."
Nestled inside a shopping center near the intersection of South Florida Avenue and Edgewood Drive, Evolution is easily identifiable from the slew of rock band posters covering its front windows. On a recent afternoon, Tucker and Whelan are taking turns at the register and mixing with customers while the Rocky Horror Picture Show plays silently on a row of wall-mounted TVs.
Incense burns near a speaker pumping reggae music by the renowned Peter Tosh.
"People just love going to a record store. They like going to a place that's not cookie-cutter like a thousand other chains," says Tucker, 33.
Evolution's short history dates to 2000, when it opened in downtown Lakeland before moving to its current spot about four years ago. Owner Beau Miller eventually sent out an e-mail to gauge interest in franchise opportunities, but sold the business outright when it caught Tucker's eye.
The Lakeland Realtor, whose family owns Tucker's Southside Package & Lounge, partnered with fellow Lakeland High School graduate and local musician Whelan and acquired the shop in 2006.
"We wanted to get into the music business one way or another," said Whelan, 32, who also had worked with Tucker in real estate.
But both knew they were facing unfavorable odds.
Downloadable music Web sites, legitimate and otherwise, had already carved a significant chunk out of the traditional CD sales once dominated by mega chains. Pressure also came from "big-box" retailers who could afford to sell music at a loss.
California-based Wherehouse Music blamed illegal downloads when it filed for bankruptcy in early 2003, and the parent company of Sam Goody did the same when it filed for bankruptcy in early 2006. Sacramento-based Tower Records finally closed its stores a year ago.
The independents fared even worse, with roughly 1,200 closing down nationwide since 2003, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Los Angeles-based marketing and information company. The group says that just 2,600 independently-owned shops remain in the U.S.
"There's no way they can compete selling 'the hits,' because the mass merchants are selling below list price," said Joel Oberstein, Almighty's president. "But the way they can compete is to be a little more targeted in their selling and be niche-oriented."
Lakeland had its own cautionary tale in Woodpecker Records, opened in 1993 by Mulberry High School graduate Jeremy Brumley and sold in 2004 to an Alabama company that relocated the business.
"Before the Internet, small retailers drove the underground music scene. We would tell our customers, 'check this band out.' The store was basically their Google," said Brumley, 33, now the general manager of Bonefish Grill in Brandon. "But what happened with the Internet was as it emerged we could no longer give that vital information." But in the absence of Woodpecker and other alternatives, Evolution has managed to cultivate a strong following, Whelan says.
"If you give me two bands you listen to, I can turn you on to five others," he said. "I recognize most of my customers when they walk through the door. Half of them have my cell phone number."
Although Evolution is currently toughing out its slowest period yet, Tucker said the business has been profitable thanks to a diverse array of customers and a broad music selection that might feature major acts such as Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen alongside lesser-known talents like Ween and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
In addition, the 1,800-square-foot shop supplements its new and used music sales with DVDs and video games.
Tucker obviously believes in his audience. While continuing to grow Evolution, he also opened the vinyl-only Grinder Music in the Dixieland Mini-Mall last year.
If need be, Evolution will adjust its business model to stay viable, Tucker says, but he doesn't foresee that happening any time soon.
"Our customers appreciate that. They know we're here to stick it out," he said. "Being an independent, you're almost like a community asset."
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