COURTESY OF GUY SIBILLA
"I think it's important, especially for local artists, to own the rights to everything they make," said the 22-year-old singer Raiatea Helm. "It's what you worked hard for. You made it."
At the Helm of success
2005 Grammy nominee Raiatea Helm is following in her dad's footsteps as she reaches new heights with the help of her family and her own label
ABOUT 21 years ago, Zachary Helm recorded an album with his group, the K'Kai Trio. Despite high hopes, and some suggestions that Helm said his producers opted not to follow when marketing the album, the recording got little traction.
Fast forward a generation, and Helm's daughter, Raiatea, is having a much better time. Her sophomore effort, "Sweet & Lovely," has sold about 40,000 copies and was nominated for a 2005 Grammy. Raiatea is back in the studio recording another album, which her producer and sound engineer, Dave Tucciarone, said is her best yet.
Although Raiatea's success can be chalked up to many things, not the least of which is her exceptional talent, there's one thing that Zack and Raiatea agree has been key: in the case of "Sweet & Lovely," the Helm family produced the album themselves as the debut release of their family-owned label, Raiatea Helm Records.
Zack Helm says his motivation was simple: Having seen his opportunity lost, he wanted better for his little girl.
The logo for the family-owned label, Raiatea Helm Records.
"I didn't want my daughter to go through what I went through," Zack said. "It really was not what I wanted."
Raiatea says she hopes to inspire other Hawaiian musicians to do the same.
"I think it's important, especially for local artists, to own the rights to everything they make," said the 22-year-old singer. "It's what you worked hard for. You made it."
"It makes me feel independent to know I own my own company," she said. "It makes me feel good. And it helps me encourage other young artists to do the same."
Tucciarone applauds the decision.
"It's a very smart move," he said. "You're not getting involved in any situation where you can be compromised."
COURTESY OF GUY SIBILLA
Zachary and Raiatea Helm performed at the Hawaii Women's Expo at the Neil Blaisdell Exhibition Hall in September 2005.
The Helms didn't always set out to own their own record company. In fact, Raiatea's first album, "Far Away Heaven," was recorded for Rip Tide Records, which financed the project. That album was anything but a flop. In fact, it won two Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, for female vocalist of the year and most promising artist. And it made Raiatea enough money to split off from the label and create her own.
The task wasn't easy. Zachary sought out help from family and friends on how to produce a record. He assembled a list of the best Hawaiian music producers and sound engineers, distribution companies and studio musicians. The Helms ultimately tapped veteran producer Dave Tucciarone to act as producer and engineer. The Helms chose the Mountain Apple Co. as the distributor.
Central to the project, Zack said, was Raiatea's mother, Henrietta, who secured rights from songwriters and handled the accounting. The latter chore meant making sure that enough money was coming in from royalties to cover the expenses associated with "Sweet & Lovely."
COURTESY OF GUY SIBILLA
Raiatea Helm, adorned with orange lilies, sang at the Neil Blaisdell Concert Hall with the Honolulu Pops Symphony in November 2005.
Zachary Helm reckons the whole project cost about $32,000 to $34,000, counting the manufacturing costs for the first 5,000 to 10,000 CDs.
"But then we made our money back real quick," he said. "That was paid back with the very first royalty check we received" from "Sweet & Lovely."
"The thing that was wonderful about Raiatea's album is that the public embraced it so quickly," said Leah Bernstein, president of the Mountain Apple Co., the record's distributor. "It's hard not to love Raiatea."
Bernstein said she's impressed with the acumen that the Helms have shown while creating their label. Choosing Tucciarone to work with them, she said, was especially wise.
"He is one of the best producers Hawaii's ever had," Bernstein said.
Now the Helm family is using money from "Sweet & Lovely" to pay for Raiatea's third album, which they project to release in February. Raiatea said she has no plans to stray from her signature, old-style Hawaiian falsetto. But she is working with Tucciarone to create a sound richer than the one on her previous album.
"I'm not going to change my style," she said. "I'm just adding a little more here and there."
Tucciarone said the album could be an even bigger hit than "Sweet & Lovely."
"On this one she's singing even better, and she's challenging herself with new material," he said. "But she's also a very old soul, and she's challenging herself with old Hawaiian music as well."
The benefits of Raiatea owning her own label go beyond her merely having creative control and getting to keep all of whatever her records earn, Tucciarone said. She is also inoculated from the risk of getting ripped off.
COURTESY OF THE HELM FAMILY
Zachary Helm, daughter Raiatea and wife Henrietta enjoyed the moment at the Grammy's in February.
A decade ago, Tucciarone said, he saw more than one musician get fleeced by an honest-seeming partner in a recording that hit it big. In addition to the financial losses, such deals take an emotional toll, Tucciarone said.
"It's the last thing you need as an artist," he said.
Of course, Zack and Etta Helm are more than simply executive producers for Raiatea Helm Records. Zachary often performs with Raiatea. And her parents and brothers, Carlton and Curtis, traveled with her to the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles in February. This sort of thing keeps Raiatea in touch with her roots, Tucciarone said.
"Her family values keep her planted firmly on the ground," he said.
Raiatea displays this grounded maturity when talking about the Grammy ceremony. She seems neither overly nonchalant or starstruck about the experience.
"What are the chances for a 21-year-old to have an opportunity like that?" she said. "To go to L.A. and to see people you grew up listening to? To see them up close and personal?"
But, she added: "They're just regular people. They just make a lot of money -- millions."
Raiatea might not be a millionaire yet. But her prudent attitude toward reinvesting her earnings could well make her one in time. While Raiatea has bought her own townhouse on Maui and a Volkswagen Jetta, she doesn't have much use for expensive bling or a big SUV. She would rather reinvest in her company.
"You make your music; you have a chance to make something big of it," she said. "It's business."