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."

Courtelis says he eventually dished out more than $100,000 before the CD turned a profit for Coconut Grove Recording Company, which at the time was essentially Courtelis and his laptop computer. "What I said to myself was, 'If I get all my money out and then make a little money, then I'm going to hire a proper record person and have an office somewhere.'"

Enter Peter Wetherbee. Last August he was working as label manager for Axiom Records (a New York-based subsidiary of Island Records) when he noticed a small classified ad in the music industry trade magazine Billboard. The ad began, "Wanted: Fearless Leader." It then listed all the qualities Courtelis was seeking in someone to head CGRC, including experience in negotiating contracts, publishing, A&R, and hands-on production work. "I looked at it and said, 'I know how to do all that stuff,'" Wetherbee says now. "But then I talked to Pan on the phone, and it was a Hawaiian group and it was a company in Miami, and I was like, 'Well, sounds pretty cheesy.'" But something clicked during the conversation between the two, and Courtelis persuaded the skeptical Wetherbee to come down for an interview.

"I was very happy at Axiom," contends Wetherbee, who had been with that label for four years. "I never thought I would do anything else. That was my life and it was definitely sort of a mission. We had all these ideas about changing the world and fighting the horrible mechanisms of the music business, a lot of ideas I still hold and would perpetrate happily."

However, the lure of taking a fledgling roots-music-oriented label to its next level was too strong for Wetherbee to resist. "This was a great opportunity for me . . . to get away from major labels," he explains. "We're not just an ornament on this huge, monolithic company. We're flexible enough to actually do something with music and maintain a kind of integrity with what we're doing throughout the process, instead of just taking something and having to sort of glom it into this structure that's pretty inflexible and has a lot of yucky elements that are products of this huge corporate, capitalist mentality. I'm very aware of how silly I sound when I talk about that kind of stuff, but it's true."

Wetherbee hit the ground running. Even before reporting for work at CGRC last November, he lined up a mainland U.S. distributor for Hapa's CD and entered negotiations with Jef Lee Johnson, a Philadelphia-based guitarist whose resume includes work with Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, and Aretha Franklin, and whom Wetherbee had lobbied Axiom to sign. "I always thought he was the ultimate person to sign," notes Wetherbee, "because he's got a very engaging, accessible music, and he's funky, and he's really smart, and all that kind of stuff." Johnson's CD, a funked-up power trio work entitled blue, was released this week.

By January, Wetherbee had succeeded in signing the aforementioned Ross; the guitarist's first solo effort in twenty years was recorded at Criteria Studios and is set for release next month. Rochlin joined the CGRC staff in February, and the label's roster since has grown to include Haitian rasin band Kanpech and Boston-based funk guitarist Steve Rossiter. The company also has cut a development deal with local Afro-Cuban outfit Shank. Obviously there are no preconceived notions of how a CGRC act should sound. "The major-label A&R team can be told, 'All right, we want a female folksinger in the vein of this who does that,' and that's what they have to go out and find," muses Rochlin. "For us it's like, if something really just kicks our ass, if the music speaks and speaks loud, then that's what we're interested in pursuing."

Wetherbee says the relative smallness of CGRC -- excluding Courtelis, who also is busy running Venture Productions, the full-time office staff totals just three people -- works to the label's advantage. "You can spend a sensible amount of money to make a record, use your brains in terms of how you market and promote a record, and then everybody makes money, including the artist," the general manager explains. "In the major-label context, there's like this 'Throw a lot of money at it [mentality].' And if you do that for ten or twenty records, if one of them hits, it pays for all the rest and then you're fine. We can't afford to do that." The bottom line, according to Courtelis: "Ten, twelve thousand units pays for everything. In many cases, that's the first or second order from the distributor. Which requires a lot of work from these guys [pointing to Wetherbee and Rochlin] who each wear, like, five hats."

In addition to producing and promoting, those duties include haunting local clubs for potential acts. "There's a lot of great stuff down here," observes Wetherbee, who cites Manchild as a personal favorite. "And it's a little bit untapped, in terms of the local record companies. There are very strong genre areas, but there really isn't anybody like us who is wide open, who could sign an alternative band or a very traditional ethnic kind of band from one culture or another."

However, the nature of CGRC's approach puts a limit on how many more projects the label can take on. "We could put out twenty records next year if we licensed a lot of existing records and just sort of plugged them into our pipeline," says Wetherbee. "But there is a philosophy at work, in terms of maintaining what we're doing, and keeping track of it, and doing it correctly, instead of just going for the quick buck."

Looming over everyone's head is the work that will be required on behalf of Hapa, whose success has fueled CGRC's growth. The band's contract -- which started out as a simple handshake between Courtelis and the group -- was renegotiated in December 1994 and now calls for five more albums, as well as one solo project from each member. A followup to Hapa is due by the end of the year. In the meantime, the first CD is beginning to have an impact beyond the islands: The duo made an appearance at this year's South By Southwest music festival in Texas; the CD has been included in the in-store listening stations of national chains such as Tower Records and Barnes & Noble; and the group recently concluded its first tour of Japan. "Nobody really had the audacity to assume Hapa would be so successful," shrugs Wetherbee. "They were caught by surprise.

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