A Conversation with BRETT ORTONE–Part 2

©[This Conversation is a continuation from Part 1, in which Brett talks about his musical background, and his entry into the Hawai‘i music industry through music retailing. Part 2 picks up on Brett’s transitioning from retail to production. The interviewer is Chaz Umamoto, a student in the MUS 478B course at UH Mānoa in Fall 2010.]

Chaz: Please comment on selling your businesses, and the downfall of the retail industry.

Brett: I was reading the writing on the wall.  Retail was always a struggle; it was my least favorite part of the business.  Managing a chain of retail stores is high maintenance work.  There’s several hundred employees, inventory, landlords, insurance. My love is in music—playing it, recording it.  The wholesale side was always my favorite.

Around the time I sold the retail stores, I started my own recording company.,Koa Records. It was owned by the same company, Happytown, Inc., that owned my retail stores—Tempo music stores, House of Music, Jellys, Olinda Road, and Koa Records.  It simplified my life to be able to focus on supporting local artists and record labels.

I started GO Aloha Entertainment in 1998 with my partner at the time, Imua Garza.  G is for Garza, and O is for Ortone—our last names.  Imua came up with the Aloha attachment. He was in a group called the Opihi Pickers who I represented for distribution. He was about 15 or 16 years old around that time, and already a very competent multi-instrumentalist. I taught him how to use Pro Tools, which he learned practically overnight. He was a natural music engineer. His arranging and engineering skills became known known when he started working in the studio.

We were innovators in the early 1990s when the influence of Reggae became real prevalent in the local music scene. Some of the other distributors weren’t focusing on that market; they were primarily marketing the more traditional styles of music.  Whether it was that we had an ear for things, or the energy of being a new company, we attracted a lot of the newer artists, like Fiji, John Cruz, Sean Na‘auao (not his first stuff), Dennis Pavao, BET, Ho’onua, Natural Vibrations, and later Keahiwai, Bubba B, Opihi Pickers, Makana, BB Shawn Ishimoto, Forte, Disguise. Sudden Rush molded traditional Hawaiian music with Hip Hop;  that was one of my favorite albums for a long time.  A lot of my favorite albums weren’t even our biggest selling albums like Makana’s first album–also one of my top 5.  Keali’I Reichel also another artist we helped.

We had a really good relationship with local radio.  They were always eager to see what the next big thing was.  There was a very healthy competitive environment.  Everyone fed off of each other.  That’s when Jammin Hawaiian music festivals were started featuring Bruddah Iz.  It was the end of the Ka’au Crater Boys but the beginning of groups like Pure Heart.

In April 2002, Olinda Road closed, due to the economy.  I started focusing fully on the record label and the studio, and being an entertainment booking and business manager.  I’ve been doing that for the last 8 years, working with artists like Opihi Pickers, Imua Garza, Kaipo Kapua, Brysen G, Rebel Souljahz, and Kolohe Kai.

Chaz: How has the local music industry changed?

Brett: There are those who see it as a doom and gloom situation, but you have to see the opportunity.  The old system is broken. You need to embrace technology.

There are few stores that still sell CDs.  The record industry was at its peak while I was in Olinda Road.  A local hit would sell 40,000 units, maybe 80,000 at the high end.  Nowadays it’s a couple thousand.

The majority of my local sales come from Wal-mart, KMart, and Samʻs Club.  That’s over 50% of my sales.  The traditional ways are gone. Say a year from now Borders gets rid of their music section.  Say most stores get rid of their music sections.  What are you going to do?  You have to think about that now.  Of course there’s iTunes, and other digital downloading sites.  Music listeners have been programmed more to buy, and download hits.  I’ve seen the digital download business grow significantly over the last five years.

With the changes in the music industry, you have to be more versatile than what you did in the past.  You need to be creative with your product.  We make CDs to do the live shows.  With my hat on as a booking agent, I want the phone to ring.  If it’s on the radio, then we’ll get a demand for gigs.  Let your manager do the business, and as an artist you do the performance.  Engage your audiences, be entertaining.  It’s such an important element that is missing from local artists.  It’ll help set you apart from other local acts.  There is a much more bigger demand for bands that have something more to bring.

Chaz: Just in case you never do another interview for the rest of your business career, please share five defining moments in your career.

Brett: That’s an interesting question, because those five things will probably change as I think about them.

1) Walking into the record store when I was five years old.  In terms of business, walking into the record shop when I was fifteen.

2) Coming to Hawaii–it was something I never expected or planned to do.

3) Starting Olinda Road–it allowed me to really do what I love.  I was able to help so many people, labels, artists, and be a crucial part of their learning process

4) Closing Olinda Road was a major defining moment for me. It made me restructure my life and energy to concentrate on my record label, the recording studio, being a booking agent, and managing a record label.  I wouldn’t trade what I have for anything in the world.

5) . . . Being with an artist the first time they hear themselves on the radio, or the first time they do a show like the Shell, or hearing themselves being nominated for a Hoku. These moments are very special.  These collective memories are my fifth life defining moment.  In the future I’ll find new artists and see it happen again.  I hate to sound sappy, but these are moments that I cherish.  Seeing it in the artist makes it special for me.  It’s like having a child taste ice cream for the first time even though you’ve had it a thousand times.  I don’t have children but seeing it through their eyes youʻre able to experience it through them.  You see how much it means to them.  You see it and you take a small part in making that happen  I enjoy that more, it means more than anything else I’ve done.

Coming up in Part 3:  Brettʻs advice to artists

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman, Chaz Umamoto and Brett Ortone. All Rights Reserved,

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