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Alternative modes of sales are sweet music to isle ears


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POSTED: Sunday, November 09, 2008

The mix of music and maca-damias has proven a sweet one for both performer Raiatea Helm and Hawaiian Host Chocolates.

"Christmas Medley," a 14-piece sampler of macadamia-nut candy, is enjoying renewed popularity with the addition this season of a three-song CD by Helm. The lead song, "Where I Belong" was written and recorded for the project. Next comes "Maile Swing," from "Sweet & Lovely," a finalist in the 2006 Grammy Awards, and finally "Poi 'Awa'awa" from "Hawaiian Blossom," a 2008 Grammy nominee.

Rosalie Romo Char, marketing manager of Hawaiian Host, said the partnership grew out of Hawaiian Host's sponsorship of Helm's "Hawaiian Blossom" tour earlier this year.

The candy sampler has always been called a medley because it contains an assortment of chocolates, so the addition of music was a natural, Char said, although it was a first for the company.

Adding the CD has had a significant impact on sales and brought about a "heightened awareness" of what was basically an everyday product, Char said. "We've had to reorder the supply because the reception has been so wonderful."

For a century, the accepted medium for the sale of recorded music was what is now called "hard copy"—from the early days when a cylinder held a single song, through the 78-rpm record, to the age of vinyl and up to today's CDs.

Sales have been dropping for years, though, given the widespread problem of illegal downloads and Internet file-sharing. Sales of CDs have continued to wobble, even with illegal downloading curbed by federal prosecution.

In recent years, recording artists and their labels have been able to capitalize on another revenue stream—sales of legal downloads of single recordings—but the crafting of a complete "album," with annotation, artwork and a carefully chosen set of songs, remains at the core of the musicians' craft, for Hawaiian artists perhaps more than most others. But these days, the market often doesn't support those efforts.

The demise of traditional "brick-and-mortar" outlets like Tower Records have added to the problem, forcing musicians, their labels and distributors to think outside of that CD box and reach for creative solutions.

Warren Wyatt of One Hawaii—the company that released the group One Right Turn's albums at a mere $9.98—says agressive pricing is what's needed in this difficult market.

Wyatt estimates production and shipping costs for a CD to be about $3.50—retail prices of $15 to $20 are simply what the public was willing to pay.

"There is the artists' royalty, publishing royalty, manufacturing, shipping and distribution fees, but $9.98 is fair market value," he said. Further, it's an incentive to buy the full album, with its packaging, rather than download individual songs for as little as 59 cents each. He predicts that $9.98 is "the price point where music is headed."

The group and the label worked together to reduce costs. The group, which owns the publishing rights to all the songs, agreed to take 75 percent of standard royalties. Packaging in recycled materials instead of plastic "jewel boxes" resulted in a lighter product that reduced shipping costs and elimnated breakage.

"We have an artist that understands what we're doing," he said.

Mountain Apple Co., one of the largest local labels, has been one of the most ambitious. President Leah Bernstein said the label produces customized CDs for several upscale hotels, which gives them as amenities to guests. Mountain Apple artists are also featured in specially labeled CDs used as convention favors or corporate gifts by local companies.

Mountain Apple "has always marketed to the visitor as well as the military, because they fall in love with this place so instantly," Bernstein said.

For several years, the company has put also together albums that were point-of-sale items at Starbucks locations. "We could actually track the fact that people were discovering (the artists on the Starbucks' albums), and coming to our Web site, or going to Borders' Web site or Amazon, and our sales were increasing."

Mountain Apple's most recent special project, "Christmas Aloha," was released last month exclusively at WalMart.

"People ask us what are our 'tricks' are, and our 'tricks' basically are we have good music that people want to buy, and so stores want to carry it because it sells. ... Not all music sells, and stores have to have on their shelves what's selling in order to stay in business."

With that in mind, she added, the growing business of selling individual songs online allows Mountain Apple to make back-catalog rarities available on iTunes that would not be commercially viable for reissue as conventional "hard-copy" releases.

"Wherever people shop, and however we can get 'em the music. That's our goal, just make it convenient for 'em."

Michael Cord, president of Cord International and HanaOla records, is also using today's technology to move classic recordings. For more than 15 years, he has leased the out-of-print catalogs of defunct local record labels, then restored the recordings to state-of-the-art quality for reissue on CD. Cord's business model involves minimal production costs and has generated a catalog of classic Hawaiian music that practically sells itself, he said.

"We're lucky enough to have a niche market and a catalog of amazing vintage recordings. We have the real deal Hawaiian music that people love. Everybody still wants to take home a piece of Hawaii—a souvenir if you will—and most find that a compact disc can do that for them. The music is an easy portable memory. Ultimately I think it's about price point. People don't mind parting with 10 bucks."

Cord also benefits from the fact that most of his reissues come with thick booklets of historical information on the music and the artists—information a buyer wouldn't get with a download, but important to his core market.

Singer-guitarist Helm is anticipating that wherever the "Christmas Medley" chocolate box goes, increased sales of her two albums will follow. The special box sleeve directs buyers to her Web site, where they can sample her entire catalog.

"I'm Hawaiian. I play Hawaiian music," Helm said. "This is Hawaiian Host. It's from Hawaii (so) let's make the connection."