Inside Hawaii’s Music Business

Henry Kapono Kaaihue was already a well-known performer, with decades on stage and dozens of best selling CDs, when he met his wife-to-be, Lezlee.

She was a successful, trained-on-the-job stockbroker and he was playing at the Pier Bar at Aloha Tower Marketplace. She took one look and said, “You need help on your business plan.” He laughs: “I didn’t have one.” Together, they have been working ever since on the family business, Kapono’s music.

The music business has always been a challenging one, but digital technology has transformed it and made it even harder to survive and make a buck off your art. In Hawaii, even though music is crucial to the Islands’ main industry, tourism, few people in Hawaii make a full-time living from music. In fact, even well-known local musicians who work long and hard – preparing, practicing, recording, performing and touring – must also work at other jobs to help pay the rent.

To help us understand the business part of the music biz, an eclectic group of local performers allowed us to peek behind the curtain at what happens between performances. In addition to Kapono, we talked with Kellen Paik and Lihau Hannahs Paik, who perform and travel together as Kupaoa; Brad Kawakami, Dr. Elliott Hirai and Kuuipo Kumukahi; The Green, a local reggae band with an international following; and the Mountain Apple Co.’s leadership team, Jon DeMello, Leah Bernstein and Shelly Coscina. Each has taken a unique path in the music business, working to make a living in a world they love.


A Life in Music

Henry Kapono Kaaihue is one of the lucky few who has made his full-time living from music for many years. No day jobs or temporary outside gigs, just nonstop work in the music business. Not surprisingly, it isn’t a one-man job.

Kapono relaxes on his spacious lanai in East Oahu while telling his story and describing what it takes to make sure the business part of his life supports his music. At his side is Lezlee, his wife/business partner/manager/mother of their 7-year-old twins. Often, they sit together on this lanai to brainstorm about what they will create next. Henry describes the old way of marketing his performances: “Back in the day, it was always, ‘Hey, Henry, where you playin’ tonight.’ ” Lezlee laughs and says, “Who would have believed that if a few thousand Facebook fans ‘liked’ us and told their friends, a million people could know about a ‘Wild Hawaiian’ tour.”

Lezlee says they are always looking for new ways to present Henry’s music. “Our concept for a new music venue was part of a package of ideas and concepts presented by one of the bidders for the Hawaii Convention Center management,” she says. Though the contract was awarded elsewhere, the couple are re-formulating the ideas generated during that discussion into a new plan.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Kapono never had a music lesson, but was surrounded by music as he grew up. He sang in a church choir when he was 5, and watched and listened to his father play the ukulele. “My parents weren’t rich but they made us feel like we had a lot. My Dad taught me how to play the ukulele. He would come home from work and sit in his easy chair and play the coolest stuff.”  Though Kapono learned to play the uke, it was the sound of the guitar that he loved, and he taught himself how to play by listening to records and the radio.

A baseball scholarship took him to Punahou School, followed by a college year in Oregon. A football scholarship brought him home to the University of Hawaii, but a first-season injury ended that dream. Henry says he poured his energy into music. “It was in those days that I started playing gigs at small clubs in Waikiki and was actually making money with music,” he says, amazement still in his voice.

One reason for Kapono’s success over the years is his ability to regularly reinvent himself, to keep his music and his performances fresh for younger people while still playing songs that older fans loved. His latest persona is the Wild Hawaiian, which has reinvigorated existing followers and won new ones worldwide.

Another reason for his success is his willingness to take risks. One of the first was saying yes to a friend who invited him to play a six-week tour in Asia. Unfortunately, the tour company went under just as the band’s flight landed in South Vietnam. With no way home, the three musicians lived with the tour organizer and shared his family’s food. The band played gigs in little clubs and more dangerous locations. “We knew the troops were fighting for us, so we flew to the front lines to play at the U.S. firebases,” he says. Once, when a hurricane delayed them nine hours, they missed a gig and learned the next day that the place had been bombed. “That piece of news changed my life,” Kapono says.

He spent two years overseas before returning to Hawaii and forming a musical partnership with Cecilio Rodriguez in 1973. The short version of this chapter is eight years of performing as Cecilio & Kapono, or simply C & K, and recording with Columbia Records. In 1981, Henry went solo and says he was determined to “learn the business” of music. “I found out quickly that it was 80 percent business and 20 percent art,” he says, adding that there were some “very lean times.”

His accomplishments run for pages, including 17 albums, Grammy nominations and multiple Na Hoku Hanohano awards. But he insists he has never let success turn his head. “Forget the limo, I still drive myself to my concerts and gigs.”

After he and Lezlee met and fell in love, they went into business together. They bought the Pier Bar at the Aloha Tower Marketplace and reopened it as Kapono’s, with 18,000 square feet of space and 100 employees. They describe plenty of obstacles, including facilities that needed upgrades and trees that dropped leaves into customers’ drinks. “I just couldn’t find a manger I could trust,” Henry says, and Lezlee adds, “I took the job and just added it to my marketing, advertising, sales and PR duties, along with being a full-time travel partner when we went on the road.”

The bar kept them working from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.; around 2 a.m., after closing, Kapono says he would be out with a broom, “sweeping up the joint.” His performances, C & K reunion concerts and album revenue funded the bar and restaurant. It might still be there if 9/11 hadn’t happened or if Aloha Tower Marketplace management had been more stable. Fans were broken hearted when the lease ran out and Kapono’s closed. Lezlee shakes her head in disbelief and says, “In one week, Henry and I packed up, moved the office to our living room, started our own recording label, and I gave birth to twins.”

Today, Kapono plays weekly at the Tropics Bar in the Hilton Hawaiian Village and at Duke’s in the Outrigger Waikiki, plus monthly gigs on Maui and Hawaii Island. “We travel the world without leaving Hawaii,” he says. “Lezlee uses every possible electronic tool to market our music.”

Lezlee describes her marketing work as observing, learning the new technology and using it, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, QR codes and their website, called The Kapono Store ( She also works the corporate-meetings side of the music business. “My job is to get him in front of business,” she says. “He does the work from there.”

His list of corporate clients over the past decade includes almost a hundred organizations, including Harpo Productions (Oprah’s outfit), Jaguar, Marriott, Sheraton, Farmers Insurance, Harley Davidson, the NFL, AT&T, Hyundai and Honda.

Recently, the Kaaihues have been discussing the possibility of a new Kapono’s venue, a live-music space that would embrace all ages and cultures. “Stay tuned,” Lezlee says, “reinvention is in the air.”


Always Have a Plan B

Together, Kellen Paik and Lihau Hannahs Paik are Kupaoa, what they call a “self-contained unit.” They are GenXers who understand that the Internet and social media have transformed music. Three of their four albums, on their own record label, Hulu Kupuna Productions, are on iTunes and available via their webstore ( Their CD distribution is handled through Mountain Apple. They have both individual and Kupaoa Facebook pages, and use Instagram and Twitter. LinkedIn is coming soon. “It is like a full-time job” to stay current with all the new connections, Lihau says, though she adds that she communicates with clients via old-fashioned email so there’s a written record of transactions.

“Isn’t it amazing, music is our only career now,” she says. Their travel to Japan began with a trip or two a year and though “we are small fish” in the Pacific, they are traveling to Japan monthly for the rest of the year. Their relationships with hula halau in Japan have grown from one to several and a single, three-week tour includes 15 performances organized by Kosuke Watanabe’s company, Kaulana Entertainment, one of the foremost promotion companies in southern Japan.

Lihau’s dad is Neil Hannahs, director of the land assets division at Kamehameha Schools. Playing music was OK, but he cautioned that she needed a backup. “He told me that as long as I had a good ‘Plan B,’ I could do whatever I wanted in my life, so I went to college, got two bachelor’s degrees, an MBA, went to law school and passed the bar. Needless to say, that satisfied my folks,” she says with a smile.


Day Job: Yes and No

Brad Kawakami grew up in music. Dr. Elliott Hirai didn’t. Both musicians play at several of the live-music venues at Sheraton hotels in Hawaii, booked into some of the more than 100 slots Sheraton has for Hawaiian music.

Hirai says he has “maybe 14 gigs a month but no plans to quit my day job.” Kawakami, on the other hand, is all in and booked for 52 gigs in one single month, including Sheraton venues, weddings and sitting in with other bands when they need another pro. He says he hasn’t had a night off in nearly three months, but his new house fund keeps growing.

Playing with the band Pali, he won his first Na Hoku Hanohano award in 2009. His single from his own CD, “I Found My Love in Waikiki,” was a finalist in 2011 for Na Hoku single of the year.

After graduation from Aiea High School, Hirai was off to chiropractic school in San Francisco. He picked up a guitar as a social thing, to make friends. “Turned out I was pretty good at it.”

Back home with his degree and eight years of school loans to pay, he got a job at the Masters Back & Pain Relief Center in Honolulu and now works as a chiropractor 50 to 60 hours a week, helping people “deal and heal,” he says. He loves his work, but he also loves his music. Sitting in with the Delima family band at the Sheraton Waikiki he met promoter and manager Ken Thompson. A few gigs turned into many and today some of his Waikiki fans also stop by for regular chiropractic treatments. He has no plan to quit the day job he loves, but says, “Music helps the student loans shrink faster.”


Local Boys on the Road

The Green is six local boys who tour for months at a time and have fans around the world. Relocation to the mainland would lower travel costs, but they say that coming home to Hawaii revives their music energy and keeps their sound different from any other reggae band.
Hawaiian Airlines is their favorite way to travel. Guitarist and singer Zion Thompson says their baggage fees alone would make a down payment on a condo, “But the crews know us. It is like being home the minute we board.”

Band tours are much like they have been for countless other bands for decades, with some modern twists: on the road, on the bus, pulling into towns for early morning radio shows and newspaper interviews. Making and posting videos. Connecting with fans in person and digitally. The main goal: Make fans happy. “We stay as long as they want us after concerts, taking photos, signing stuff. We write back to all the fans,” Thompson says. They are constantly connecting with followers through social media, says JP Kennedy and Ikaika Antone. In fact, Antone says, every day he wakes up and wonders, “What am I going to post today?”

The efforts have paid off. In three years, concert audiences have grown from 10 people to one or two thousand, Thompson says, and they are finally making money with their music. Their first two albums have sold more than 55,000 copies, they have 142,000 Facebook fans and 8,000-plus Twitter followers. Their website sells shirts, stickers, hats and other “band stuff.” A dedicated PR professional helps them communicate with fans. In 2010, their eponymous debut album was named iTunes Reggae Album of the Year.

If you want to see them, October is The Green’s home month, with two concerts scheduled mid-month at the Republik on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu. Check for details.


Mountain Climbing

The Green records its music under the Easy Star Records label but market, as many local artists do, through Mountain Apple Co. The trio that runs Mountain Apple – founder Jon DeMello, president Leah Bernstein and VP Shelly Coscina – is the main force behind the international popularity of Hawaiian music. As technology has transformed the music business, they have changed Hawaii’s world of music production, recording, sales, marketing and distribution, while winning countless awards for themselves and the many artists they serve. Mountain Apple is the largest privately owned record label in Hawaii and distributes music, licenses songs and manages talent worldwide.
Lucky for Hawaii and the world, Jon DeMello and Israel Kamakawiwoole connected and made IZ an international icon for “Over the Rainbow” and other recordings. And though the company has recorded hundreds of albums, the work of Mountain Apple only begins with the recordings. “As our retail world changes and music stores disappear, we have to find new ways to reach the most important person, the buyer,” Bernstein says.

Though most fans of Hawaiian music are buying digital downloads – selling a million downloads of songs by Mountain Apple artists is the new normal – many buyers still want the joy of pulling the clear plastic wrapper from a new CD, and reading the liner notes unique to that artist and genre while listening to the music. So making it easier for potential customers to find CDs is a big part of their job.

DeMello is usually in the studio, but Bernstein and Coscina are regularly on the road, finding new places to distribute music, whether it is in Hawaii, on the mainland or in Canada, Asia or South America. Their guerrilla marketing has introduced Hawaiian music into Foodland and Times supermarkets, restaurants, Longs, Target, Walmart, Walgreens, Whole Foods and 7-Eleven, as well as into military exchanges and museum shops. At events, like the annual Prince Lot Hula Festival at Moanalua Gardens, when there is no booth selling music, Mountain Apple’s crew totes the table and the tent and brings out the CDs, new releases plus oldies and goodies. “We reinvent ourselves every day,” Bernstein says.

But many of the old ways still work, too. Showing up at a corporate headquarters in Michigan in the middle of winter, armed with flower lei and macadamia-nut chocolates, is still a magic marketing tool for Hawaiian music, Bernstein and Coscina agree.

In the end, the music must connect emotionally with people – whether through a CD, a digital download or a live performance. It’s not hard to find visitors who love Hawaiian music. On a recent visit to Waikiki, I came across two couples visiting from Montana who were making a beeline from the hotel elevator to a primo table by the band at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach’s Kani Ka Pila Grille.

As they settled in to pupu, Longboard Lager and an evening of music by Cyril Pahinui, they took time to tell a reporter about their love for Hawaiian music. No, they are not from the Islands, yet they plan their mainland vacations to coincide with concert tours of Henry Kapono, Led Kaapana and Willie K, or one of Milton Lau’s Slack Key Guitar Festivals. Marty and Gail Dover say, “We drive as far as Seattle and Portland to listen to the music. We had our honeymoon here in Hawaii and this is the music that makes us happy, makes us feel at home.” With a nod to their friends, they added, “Every trip we make new converts.”


New Idea to Sustain Hawaii’s Music

Kuuipo Kumukahi understands the challenges of the music business.

She has been performing since high school and still plays several gigs a week. She also records often, has won numerous Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, and works with the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Artists and the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Yet, she says, she still works at her “day job” as director of a facility for ARC, the Association of Retarded Citizens.

The four-time president of HARA says the academy has no official statistics on the local music business and its role in the overall economy. But, she says, the industry’s importance is reflected in the success and popularity of the Na Hoku awards, which are produced by HARA, and the success of Hawaiian music in the Grammy Awards.

Kumukahi has some thoughts on funding and growing the music industry. “Each May, HARA sponsors the Mele Mei, with a month of almost daily workshops, free performances and concerts. We work with (tour operator) Kintetsu Japan. They bring big groups for the events,” she says.

In fact, Kintetsu brings groups to Hawaii all year and is only one of the many companies bringing in tour groups from Japan, Korea and other markets. The people come for hula and the music. “It is a package, the music, the dance, only from Hawaii,” Kumukahi says.

Her newest idea: a contribution of $1 per visitor from each of the hula and music tours so musicians can be paid. Not big money, but a little something for their work. The money could also fund programs to teach music to Hawaii’s youth and help them learn to survive in the music business. HARA could manage the funds, she says. “I am willing to take on whatever kuleana is necessary to make it happen.”

Categories: Arts & Culture, Lifestyle