Talking Story With Ryan Hiraoka

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Ryan Hiraoka is a Na Hoku Hanohano award winning recording artist and music producer from the Big Island of Hawaii. Born and raised in Honokaa on the Hamakua coast, Ryan has always been a small-town boy with big dreams.

Ryan has produced music as Rubber Slipper Productions (RSP) for many of Hawaii’s top recording artists such as Bruddah Waltah, Ilona Irvine, Sudden Rush, Pomai Longakit, and Damon Williams. RSP has helped to launch the careers of Big Island recording artists such as Maelan Abran, Mark Saito, Preston Lee, Micah De Aguiar, and Rappa Nui. Ryan is currently making a name for himself as a songwriter and has co-written songs for national known performers such as Katie Herzig, Brian Fennel, and Richard Harris.

When and why did you want to start playing music?

I started off with Gary Washburn’s music program in Honokaa [the Honokaa High School Jazz Band]and picked up the bass in seventh grade. By ninth grade, we were doing gigs with a blues band.

That’s a fast course in music!

[Laughs]

Who were some of your early music influences?

I started off with Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing. He’s an awesome drummer and helped produce Kalani Pe’a’s Grammy award winning album… and my late friend John Hart… a guitar player from Waimea. We just snuck into bars and played music! [laughs]Ducking the Liquor Commission. [laughs]

A couple of high school friends and I then formed a reggae group called Kane O Kaleo. We got to open up for a lot of the big-name groups on the island like The Mana’o Company.

Let’s talk about your songwriting process. How do you put together a song?

I kind of just hear it as a whole. I do all the music myself when I record. I kind of hear a melody.

What about the inspiration?

Since the beginning, I’ve gotten known for love songs. The mind-blowing moment [for me]was at the Songwriting Festival when Jason Bloom, the songwriter for Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, gave a songwriting course about not letting the truth get in the way.

That really opened up my writing, so now when I write songs, I realize it can be true to something you’ve seen or have been inspired by, not just your personal experience… maybe from the outside looking in.

I do a lot of reggae music because that’s the pop scene here. My taste is more of a R&B sound, but now it’s storytelling with a country music aspect to it.

Tell me about your first song on the charts, “Fighting For Love.”

I used to think, “What am I going to write?” I then took the approach with this song, what if I sat down and did an island reggae song with Alicia Keys… what would that sound like? We did a video for it and it started a trend for me.

Tell me about your company RSP?

It stands for Rubber Slipper Productions. That’s my music production and record label. I wanted something local people would get… “Rubbah Slip-pahs.” Everybody now calls me RSP.

My goal from the beginning was to be a musician and do this for a living. I went to UH Hilo, but halfway through they cut the program and changed it to a performing arts course. I bounced over to UH Manoa… it took me another two-and-a-half years. Every week in my senior year I’d buy a new book on music business, management, marketing… how to start your own home studio. That was my senior project to myself. One of the key things I learned was branding.

My thing from the start was, “I’m not going to let anybody have hands in my pockets.” So, I do everything… twenty years in the game now, I have a decent idea about what’s going on.

How is the music industry changing promotion for artists?

When I first got in the game, it was all about trying to get yourself a distributor because you had to get [product]into the stores. You couldn’t do that on your own. There were like two or three major ones at the time in Hawaii, and you had to spend like thousands of dollars to put out your first album.

When the music stores closed, and CDs started to disappear, everything changed. My mindset had to change too. Where before I was trying to be a salesman and sell a product… now I am the product… the music is a byproduct of you the artist… you have to sell yourself as some musicians do.

Isn’t that hard for some musicians to accept?

If you’re anti-social media, you have to still think about that physical product, the CD, that you’re going to sell at your show. It’s different… if you’re strictly a live performer, CDs do well… on the other hand, for me, I’m more of a digital image… now that I have a family, I’m hardly ever at shows. I make royalties off of Pandora and Spotify and iTunes and all the digital market stuff.

When I got on Pandora, it’s hit and miss. You can submit a song and they’ll give you ten “no’s” before you might get a yes.

When I got picked up on Pandora, the song trickled into a bunch of different playlists from bigger artists like Common Kings who just opened up for Bruno Mars. So, when their fanbase grows, my fanbase grows. Now it’s “let’s work together because your fans are my fans and my fans are your fans so let’s grow that genre.” So whatever genre you’re in if you grow the genre everybody benefits from one person being successful.

How do you balance being a father and a musician and finding time for creative moments?

Like everything else, you just have to find time — you have to make time. I know a lot of writers that have books full of songs, but when I work on music, I’m working towards a goal. I don’t have a whole lot of unreleased music other than what I’m working on at the time. People always ask me, “What do you play in your car?” and I say. “Me.” I’m always listening to something that is unreleased and critiquing it. It’s that same approach, whether it’s a single or an album, I’m always working towards a goal. From a business standpoint, the longer you take between releases, the quicker you are forgotten. It’s that kind of market now. Whereas before you could write an album a year… now you’re lucky if you can go three months without a new song.

If you had one message to give your fellow musicians, what would it be?

Be true to yourself. Do what you love to do. For me, music was the only option. There are day jobs, but music is a career.

Discover more of Ryan’s music via his website: http://ryanhiraoka.com


Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photo: Steve Roby

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