Matt and Nikki Ray might be accountants by trade, but their business acumen, love of music and keen eye for hiring staff have helped to make EatMyBeats a one-stop shop for anyone looking to “make music with attitude.”
“Like our name, we try to have something people can remember,” the store’s President, Matt Ray, explained. “Being able to come to one location and get everything you need is what makes us stand out from the rest.”
Ray was a part-time DJ when he started the business as an online-only record store in 1999, initially as a way to handle his growing record collection. “I had maybe 50,000 records, so my wife jokingly said, ‘Either find a place for them, or we’re getting a divorce,’” he laughed. “So, I opened up a record store.”
Two years later, in 2001, the Rays opened their first 900-square-foot, brick-and-mortar location. From there, the business only grew. They brought in speakers so that customers could listen to the records, which led to them renting and selling new and used speakers. A few years later, the strip mall in which they were located was sold. The store moved into a 6,500-square-foot space, which allowed it to expand into guitars, keyboards and drums.
“But then,” Ray recalled, “that strip mall got sold, too. So, about three years ago, we moved to our current location, which is 22,000 square feet.” He added, “We’re in the process of buying it, so that our store will never get sold from under us again.”
With so much square footage, EatMyBeats can offer an eye-popping selection of gear, much to the chagrin of Nikki Ray, its CFO. “My wife gets mad sometimes because there is so much stuff,” Matt Ray said with a laugh. “It ties up money to have a big inventory, but it helps with sales when people can come in and be awed by the selection. We want to be the destination for everything. We will also do custom orders if there’s something we don’t have.”
The store’s décor is almost as awe-inspiring as its merchandise. Throughout the store, you’ll find paraphernalia from the University of Alabama, as well as memorabilia from every band that has visited the store to utilize its in-store studio, equipment rentals and gig-booking services.
“Every band we do work for signs a drumhead that we hang on the wall…even the local guys,” Ray said. Many of the bands come to know EatMyBeats when it does sound check at one of the four local venues where the store runs sound and lights. “It’s cool for them,” he continued, adding, “Like their little claim to fame that they get to hang next to Sister Hazel or Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
A large part of EatMyBeats’ business comes from equipment rentals: not only to bands, but also to companies and universities, and even to many of the 40,000 students in their college town who need gear for frat parties and other events. However, the lion’s share of revenue comes from installations at local churches and schools. “Our installation business started as a small part of our overall operation, but, now, it accounts for half of our revenue,” Ray affirmed.
Ray gets many of his church referrals from another of EatMyBeats’ secondary services: birthday parties. “We have an event room in the back of the store that holds 200 people, and we host four or five children’s birthday parties every week,” he explained. “People who otherwise would have never gone into a music store are now walking through here, and a lot of them end up becoming customers.” He continued, “In this area, many people go to church. So, they’ll refer us to their church to fix microphone issues and, before you know it, we’re doing their install.”
Most recently, Ray purchased an SL100 stage, bringing EatMyBeats into yet another in-demand market. “We always wanted to do staging, but it’s a big investment,” according to Ray, who reinvests all profits back into the store. “We’ve seen a demand for it now, so we decided it was time to do it. I hope that, a year from now, it will have paid off.”
Offering such a wide variety of services, Ray said, helps the store provide great customer service while keeping prices in line. “You can adjust the prices on services much better than you can on your merchandise, where you have profit margins to keep,” he explained. “We offer our services at a fair price, and we’re often going to be lower than anyone else.”
Ray continued, “We’ll explain why things cost what they cost. We try not to hide anything, so the customer never feels like we’re putting one over on him.” He added, “By doing that, we hope they’ll come back for other things. And, usually, they do.”
With such a great variety of products and services on offer in the store, you almost forget that it’s owned and run not by musicians but, rather, by accountants. That’s something Ray sees as more of a positive than a negative, though. “Having a business background means you are always thinking about the bottom line…what’s making you money and what’s losing you money,” he said. “The downside is that I’m not as good at knowing the guitar as a player would be. But, we can always hire a musician. It’s harder to find a businessperson who knows the music industry.”
The staff at EatMyBeats includes 18 people, split evenly between the sales floor, lessons and installations. They are all musicians, and they’re all people who make customers feel right at home.
“People want to be treated right,” Ray stressed. “It used to be that you could get good service everywhere. Now, though, you have to look for it.” He added, “We hire people who are friendly. People who are in the music industry often can get jaded, but we hire those we know will be a good fit. We tell them to treat customers like they would want to be treated, and to give them a fair price.”
At the end of the day, Ray attributes his store’s success not only to the great selection, exemplary customer service and wide variety of available services, but also to Nikki, his wife. “The reason I think we have had such success—sales up over 18 percent last year—is that I have a partner in the business, Nikki,” he said. “I handle the store and the Internet. She handles installs and production. And we, together, just tackle whatever else comes our way.”