Hawaiian Music's Future After Borders

Music Crunch: Borders’ closing means new challenges for Hawaiian music.

illustration: victo ngai

Beleaguered retail behemoth Borders, until recently the nation’s second-largest bookstore chain, this year liquidated all of its nearly 400 retail locations nationwide after years of lagging profits. Once host to a dizzying catalog of books, magazines and movies, the retailer was also a large distributor of music—much of it, here in the Islands, from local recording artists.

So how will the chain’s closing—10 Borders locations in Hawaii, alone—affect Hawaiian music?

“Smaller distributors, the ones who really specialize in catalog stuff—and by that I mean things that are more than two or three years old—are going to be hurt,” says John Aeto, a 25-year veteran of local radio and a former member of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts. “Walmart is probably the top music seller in town, in terms of a physical outlet, but they carry only the Top 10. Borders was the last, true place you could go to buy catalog music. And that’s really what’s now missing in the retail world.”

Of course, music sales are heading online, but it won’t happen fast enough for many musicians. Aeto says, “Some groups sell on iTunes and Amazon.com, but it’s really a small percentage—I’d guess about 25 percent have made the digital transition—and that’s really where the hole is.”

photo: odeelo dayondon

Not everyone is as concerned about Borders’ demise. “It’s not the end of the world,” says Leah Bernstein, president of Mountain Apple Co., a record label, publisher, licensor, producer and distributor of Island music. “We’ve lived through the closing of many big boxes: Tower Records, [most of] Sam Goody, Wherehouse, JR’s. Borders was just the last to go.” She says Hawaiian music sales are already picking up at small boutiques, souvenir shops and large chain stores such as Target.

On a recent visit to Target, however, we took a look at the selection of Hawaiian music, and many of the albums from our own 2004 list of the “50 Greatest Hawaii Albums” were missing, including Olomana’s “Seabird” and Hapa’s self-titled album. It’s also hard to imagine Target providing what Borders did for Hawaiian musicans: an intimate, informal venue in which to share their music, get audience reactions and press the flesh.

“The loss of Borders is exactly what that word implies: a loss,” says musician Robert Cazimero. “Borders always presented an opportunity for people to see our product, for us to perform, and to have people talk with us and ask questions. You always knew you could go to Borders to get that experience.”

For the time being, there are no easy replacements for Cazimero or other Hawaiian musicians like him.