A Conversation with BRETT ORTONE–Part 1

Yet another interview submitted by UH student Chaz Umamoto for the MUS478B class on Hawaiian music this past fall. Unlike the other two interviews posted so far, which were submitted for a regular assignment, this interview is lengthier and ranges widely, because this was the focus of Chaz’s term project. So the interview will be posted in two or three installments.

Chaz writes:

In an age dominated by Guitar Hero, and iPods, there has been an increased interest in music in the younger generations.  With the near collapse of CD retail, and the physical distribution of CDs, there is a growing market for online sales.  Although the local music industry has been tracking their steps for years, it is still uncertain for many what the future may hold.  These issues are even more pressing for young musicians emerging in this market.  Without proper guidance and enlightenment a young musician in these times can easily get lost, and throw away their career with impending bankruptcy.  It is almost always necessary for musicians in Hawaii to work a day job in order to survive.  But this may not be the case according to seasoned members of the industry.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Brett Ortone, owner of Go Aloha Entertainment, and go through these issues.  His experience in the last two decades of the Hawaiian music industry is what have kept his business alive to this day.  In the last two decades there are no public documents or articles about this man who has played such a huge role in the distribution and propritation of local music.  In this interview we go into depth about Brett’s career and his advice for young musicians.

Chaz: Tell us about your early childhood and your musical upbrining.

Brett: I was born in San Jose, California, in June of 1958.  When I was five, my family moved to southern california, Los Angles area.  My father was a musician, composer, and arranger. He led bands—mostly big bands.  He played the trumpet.  He passed away when I was seven.  My mother was also involved with music, she sang as well, but also acted, and did things in the entertainment field.  She gave up a lot of it when she had kids.

Music was always around the house. Though my dad wasn’t around I always felt that his influence was there.  Even though my mom was a housewife at the time, she still connected with a lot of musicians and people in the industry.  She would put on variety shows periodically.  There was always music playing in the house.  Stereo, turntable.  She didn’t play a lot of rock.  Mostly theater, Broadway.  

I remember being interested at a young age in music.  I remember being five or six, riding my bicycle with a little transistor radio strapped to the handle of my bike listening to the Beatles, “Help”.

My first records were three early Beatles albums my mom bought for me from the salvation army.  My brother worked for radio stations and often brought home promotional records.  I had a lot of music around me,that I would listen to. : I started playing music at a young age.  I took up piano lessons and learned the guitar.

Chaz: How did you become involved in the music industry?

Brett: I got a job at a record store while I was still in junior high school.  That was my first job.  I got paid $10 a day under the table, coming in on the weekends stocking records, and helping customers.  I guess I was about 14, 15.  Eventually the company grew from one store, to one of the largest music distributors in the United States, years later, a chain of about 40 stores.  I stayed with the company from the time I was 14 or15 until I moved to Hawaii in 1993.  I started off as a clerk, then eventually I became the director of retail operations as the company grew.  I worked advertising, worked with major and minor record labels, artist relations, every possible job you can imagine.  That knowledge helped me a lot, coming to Hawaii, and starting my own company here.  I came to Hawaii in 1993, when the company I worked asked me to check out some accounts.  I investigated some stores called Jelly’s.

One thing led to another, and I ended up acquiring Jelly’s, then starting a local distribution company called Olinda Road.  Our first big album was Hapa’s debut album, which went on to win a number of Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, and was one of the largest selling albums of the year.  Prior to that we had Bruddah Waltah, and some of the very local early reggae albums.  The phrase Jawaiian music was coined at the time.

A few years later I purchased House of Music at Ala Moana Center, a landmark music store that was older than me—I was still in my 30s at the time; the store had already been at Ala Moana for 40 years!  Then I bought a chain of music stores here called JR’s Music, which was later renamed to Tempo Music.  They had stores on all the islands, and a couple of stores on Guam.  At the peak in Hawaii, I had 21 stores between Hawaii and Guam; plus I had Olinda Road Distribution.

In the late 1990s I sold the JRs / Tempo Music chain to National Record Mart, which was the 3rd largest music retail chain in the United States at that time. They bought the Tempo stores and the House of Music store, who converted them to National Record Mart.  I sold the Jelly’s stores to an alternative chain called Cheapos.  By that time I could read the writing on the wall regarding retail music—CD burning had become popular, and Napster had just startedYou could feel the strain of retail at the time.  It was a good time to get out of retail and focus on the wholesale side, which was Olinda Road Distribution. I also started a record label called Koa Records and put out some local releases by the group Vaihi, ‘ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta, Jr,, slack key guitarist Nedward Ka’apana (who, with brother Ledward Ka‘apana and cousin Dennis Pavao, formed the trio Hui ‘Ohana in the 1970s).

Chaz: What led you to create the Island Music Source Book?

Brett: When I first came to Hawaii, I had a real thirst for knowledge.  I was desperately looking for reference books on local Hawaiian music.  There were very few, and none that represented contemporary Hawaiian music.  My favorite book at the time was George Kanahele’s reference book Hawaiian Music and Musicians, which was already out of print.

I began working on the Island Music Source Book around 1997. I was trying to gather information on all of the recordings that had been released in Hawaii on vinyl, CD, cassette, whatever configuration.  I wanted to include them in a book that featured all of the song titles, artist names, album titles, and catalog numbers of the releases.

I was really frustrated not being able to find a reference book. Then I stopped and thought about it.  Who is in a better position to put together a book like this than myself.  I had owned House of Music which had been in business for over 40 years, which had hundreds and hundreds of demos in the stores of local music on vinyl.  They had lots of old catalogues that they printed them themselves.  Lydia Luden was one of the local music experts who worked there, and was really involved in all of those years, of work.  I had also owned Jelly’s which maintained one of the largest used vinyl and CD selections in Hawaii.  And I owned a distributor that stocked all of the local releases under one roof, not just from my own distributor but from other local distributors and record labels like Microphone Music and Mountain Apple.  I had all of these resources, and all I had to do was sit down and type them into a computer.

So I did that for a year or so, then put out a book that a lot of people were happy to see.  People in hālau could easily see all of the artists who recorded a specific song. Retail stores were like Tower Records and Borders were also happy. When tourists asked for songs that were recording twenty or thirty years ago, the clerks could easily look them up.  It’s a very useful tool, a great resource, and that was that.  The book came out in 1999.  I didn’t realize.  I just get involved in these types of projects.  I think a lot of people get involved with projects.  So I crossed that finish line.  But hearing back from a lot of people in the industry, even George Kanahele.  He had sent me an email, he died shortly after.  I was so surprised to hear from him.  I had to ask “Is this the George Kanahele who wrote the book on Hawaiian Music?”  and he said “Yes, I’m the guy who wrote the book”.  But being acknowledged by him was very rewarding.  Also having a book bought for every branch of the Hawaii public library system was really cool.

Chaz: Since 1999, there hasn’t been a new edition printed. Is that a possibility?

Brett: I have updated my files over the years, but they are not published, nor are they current.  It’s too expensive to publish on paper.  I will publish it online after I collect the missing ten years of information.

[Editorʻs note:  Thanks to the Music and Entertainment Learning Experience (MELE) program at Honolulu Community College, Brett Ortoneʻs Island Music Sourcebook is now completely searchable online on MELEʻs Archive on Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Library.\

to be continued . . .

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3 Responses to A Conversation with BRETT ORTONE–Part 1

  1. Norman says:

    great interview about a great resource

  2. Pingback: A Conversation with BRETT ORTONE–Part 2 | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

  3. Brett Ortone is a Hawaiian treasure, and it is good to see he gets at least some of the recognition that HE truly deserves!

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