Saturday | October 03, 2015
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Music to the ears

The music business in Hawaii is beginning to pick up, area retailers say.

Brian Kiernan, owner of Kiernan Music in Kainaliu, said that owning a music store, “being able to do what you love, is the most rewarding thing I’ve done.”

The local music community is loyal, providing his store with a steady amount of — in many instances — repeat business. He added that West Hawaii depends on tourists, and in the past year, he’s noticed “a nice upward trend.”

Kiernan’s shop represents local builders including Cody Seeler, Hokukano and Green Sand. It also carries ukulele and guitars built by Kiernan and his son, Derek.

“Prices range from $69 to ‘Oh my God,’” Kiernan said. His K-Side ukes, made mostly from koa, start at $1,500.

Kiernan said that tourists who know what they want are happy to pay top dollar. Some return to his shop every time they visit Hawaii Island, either to upgrade to a newer instrument, shop from his vintage pieces — Kiernan currently has for sale a 1936 Gibson L7 guitar autographed by Shirley Temple, or to have their instruments repaired.

Kiernan’s is the only fully staffed repair shop in West Hawaii. Kiernan and his son do everything from changing strings to complete restoration of stringed instruments.

The improving economy has had a cascading effect on the music industry here. Not only is he selling more inventory, but as more people seek out live entertainment, musicians get more gigs. More work means more repairs and more instrument sales to the professionals, he said.

“We’re the only place where you can get a pro job done on your instrument,” he said.

Kiernan’s business is not wholly reliant upon an improving domestic economy. There is “huge interest in Japan for American instruments,” he said. When the Japanese economy is doing well, as it is now, the collector market benefits and interest, especially in the high-end product he sells, increases.

Several of his customers are serious collectors, with at least 50 guitars and ukulele.

Kiernan does not currently offer lessons at his store, but is hoping to be able to host instructors in the near future.

After operating Hawaiian Ukulele & Guitar in the Alii Gardens Marketplace for two years, Robert Yates recently opened a second location in the Kings’ Shops at the Waikoloa Beach Resort.

“Opening any business to begin with is a challenge,” Yates said. The challenge is greater when opening a business, such as a music store, with existing “built-in competition.” To get the word out about his stores, Yates mostly relies on word-of-mouth. He said the Alii Gardens location has established a positive “local rep,” but business there has plateaued, thus the need for expansion.

“Any business not moving forward is falling behind,” he added.

He said he may be considered insane for starting a business during a “slow economy,” but sales at the Waikoloa store — opened less than two months ago, during the tourism “off season” — have far exceeded his expectations. He’s even had to move inventory from the Kailua-Kona location to keep the Waikoloa store stocked.

Yates said his stores are different from the others because of the instruments he carries. He is the exclusive Big Island purveyor of Kamoa and Cordoba ukulele. Kauai-based Kamoa crafts instruments from more traditional guitar woods, including spruce and maple, for a distinctive sound. Cordoba builds ukulele with the Spanish-style neck and heel for more volume and resonance.

Yates and fellow luthier — a stringed instrument craftsman — Sam Li also build and sell ukulele under the Hawaiian Ukulele moniker.

Prices in his shop range from $120 for an entry-level concert uke with bag, tuner and music book to $1,100 for a higher-end piece.

Yates said he “sells instruments” not just corner-store ukulele. “If you don’t want to spend the little bit extra for a playable instrument, go to the ABC Store and buy a wall hanging.”

In addition to musical instruments and accessories, Yates stocks the Kings’ Shops location with paintings by Holualoa artist Carl Koomoa, as well as jewelry made by his wife, Pat Yates, who also holds lei-making workshops at 10 a.m. Saturdays at the store.

Group ukulele lessons are held at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mondays at the stage outside of the shop. Hourlong sessions cost $10, which includes a small music book and $10 off an in-store purchase. Yates said he has instruments to loan if participants do not bring their own.

He also teaches private lessons at the shop at $15 per 30 minutes.

Anne Reece was operating an art store adjacent to Just Ukes, at its original location, behind Maui Divers on Alii Drive. When the music store owner moved off island about eight years ago, the shops combined and Reece took over. It wasn’t long before she realized that, though she knew nothing about ukulele at the time, instrument sales were “paying the bills.”

Just Ukes continues to offer affordable instruments — no art — at its Kona Inn Shopping Village and Shops at Mauna Lani locations.

Reece said payroll is her biggest expense of doing business in Hawaii. Between the two stores, Just Ukes employs seven part-time staff members. Finding workers, though, is no problem at all. Reece said that musicians dream of working in a music shop and selling their passion. She credits her “unbelievable team” with the company’s success.

In addition to good customer service, Reece said that people visit her stores partly because of the name. Tourists stop by to snap pictures of the sign — a maile lei logo she designed — or pick up a T-shirt, mug or can cooler.

The Shops at Mauna Lani presents free “Ukulele 101 with Aunty Tutu” group classes at 3 p.m. Wednesdays at the stage area near Just Ukes.

She said Just Ukes went through trying times about four years ago, but the local customers remained loyal and her suppliers were able to help by extending her payments due by up to 180 days.

She has seen increasing sales since the Christmas season, and, with the economic uptick even hopes of opening a store on Oahu’s North Shore someday.

“Not everybody plays ukulele, but everybody knows someone who does — or needs a T-shirt,” Reece said.

As do the other retailers interviewed, Reece maintains an Internet presence. However, they don’t see online-only merchants as true competition. Buying an ukulele online is different from purchasing other goods. They all sound different, Reece said. Many of her customers walk into the store thinking they want something just to say “they bought it in Hawaii,” but leave with something nicer, after hearing the difference between the instruments.

The ukulele Reece stocks are imported, though plans are in the works to begin offering handcrafted ukes made in Kailua-Kona by August.

The average instrument purchase at Just Ukes is about $225, she said, but entry-level models start under $70, while the locally made ukes will sell for $1,400 or $1,500 when they become available.