The Little Label That Could

The decorative theme of the Coconut Grove Recording Company's offices might best be described as Indie Label Unkempt. Framed posters and photographs of the company's handful of acts, as well as otherwise revered nonlabel artists such as Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, line the walls (or remain propped against them in the absence of a sufficient number of hooks) with no particular regard for symmetry. Scattered about the floor are boxes overflowing with demo tapes sent in by hopeful bands. Perhaps the most essential furnishing is a boom box positioned directly opposite the desk of Coconut Grove Recording Company (CGRC) general manager Peter Wetherbee, who keeps close tabs on the thing's remote control -- it has a tendency to disappear under stacks of paper or wind up on someone else's desk.

"We just moved into these offices," Wetherbee notes with a hint of apology as he cues up aka Detrimental Vasoline -- Giant Shirley, a soon-to-be-released solo effort by founding Parliament-Funkadelic rhythm guitarist Tal Ross. That explains the mess to a degree. Then again, the Coconut Grove-based record label is experiencing a severe case of unexpected growing pains. "Sometimes I have days when the last thing I'm able to do is just be able to, like, straighten a piece of paper," says Brian Rochlin, CGRC's product manager.

One could argue that the ultimate cause of the office mess is, oddly enough, a group that's based six time zones and a quarter of the globe away in Hawaii. CGRC recording act Hapa (actually a duo, Keli'i Kaneali'i and Barry Flanagan) blends contemporary pop with the traditional Hawaiian musical style known as "slack key" (see sidebar). To date the group's eponymous debut has sold more than 120,000 units (CDs and cassettes combined). The bulk of those sales has occurred in Hawaii, where last year Hapa dominated the islands' version of the Grammys by taking home six Hoku Awards, but the duo -- whose acoustic guitar-based, quasi-new-age sound has led them to be tagged the "Hawaiian Simon and Garfunkel" -- now seems poised for crossover breakthrough on the mainland.

CGRC owner Pan Courtelis concedes he had no idea what he was doing when he started the record label seven years ago. "It's almost like it's made complicated to keep the amateurs out," Courtelis says of the music biz as he ticks off just a few of its inherent intricacies: recording, manufacturing, publishing, federal copyright laws, and all the attendant levels of royalties. "It's very complicated," repeats Courtelis, "or at least it was to me."

It should be noted that the 38-year-old Courtelis is no novice when it comes to the business world. The son of prominent local real estate figure Alec Courtelis, Pan owns half of Venture Productions, an eleven-year-old film and video production firm located in North Dade that has a staff of 45. Even so, the younger Courtelis points out that starting a record label was the furthest thing from his mind when he went to Hawaii in 1988.

Blame it on the tropical drinks he was consuming, but the germ of the idea came when Courtelis first heard the stylings of Kaneali'i and Flanagan, who were playing in a bar next to the hotel where Courtelis was staying. "They sounded so different than any other Hawaiian music I had heard on the trip," he explains. "[Hapa's music] was just lilting and unique and very spiritual, and I just, you know, I was really relaxed and I guess open to the whole thing, being on vacation in Hawaii." During a casual conversation with the duo after the show, Courtelis learned their attempt to make a record had fizzled because of financial problems. Upon returning to Miami, he says, "I started to form the company, signed the guys up, and sent the checks over."

Courtelis's learning curve had begun. The next few years were marked by a series of false starts and mishaps with which any struggling band can empathize. "I didn't know what I was doing," Courtelis admits. "The guys were very hand-to-mouth, like most musicians are. They were always faced with the dilemma of having to do nightly gigs just to eat." An initial Hapa recording was made in 1989 but was quickly discarded. New tracks were recorded in 1991, and the self-titled work was finally released in September 1993, with an initial pressing of 1500 CDs. Kaneali'i and Flanagan, who distributed the CD themselves among the islands' record stores, wound up giving away half of the supply for free. Then came the onslaught.

Within a month of its release, Hapa was getting massive airplay on Hawaiian radio stations. The only problem was, CGRC already had run out of copies of the disc. Recalls Courtelis, "[Hawaiian] DJs were calling me at home [in Miami] in the middle of the night, saying, 'What's wrong with you people? This is the most incredible music we've ever heard, and we can't buy it in the stores.' DJs were even playing it on the air, going, 'Listen to this. Can you believe you can't buy this?'"

It took Courtelis 45 days to get more CDs and cassettes out -- this time with the help of a distributor. "I'm writing checks...and I'm going, 'God, I hope they sell this stuff [or] I'll be the proud owner of three thousand CDs,'" he remembers. "And that stuff was gone. So the next order was for like ten thousand CDs and five thousand cassettes."

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