The music is made in Oregon, so it only makes sense for it to be captured in digital, disc and cassette format here, too
Across the state, a collection of paradigm-shifting entrepreneurs is bucking the system. By turning their backs on the notion that the music industry revolves around metropolitan destinations such as Los Angeles, New York, and London, these ambitious music-lovers are bringing fans exactly what they want. By staying local, Oregon record labels are creating a culture and community that not only houses hometown musicians, but also puts our region on the map as a destination for those seeking cutting-edge musical experiences.
Three of the most successful Oregon-based record labels started organically. One label-owner had a particular passion for a band, another worked as a recording engineer, and the third was a musician who turned a love of music into a full-fledged record label and distribution operation.
For Tyler Davis, owner of Jacksonville-based The Ajna Offensive—a label featuring a number of international metal, experimental and neo-folk artists—inspiration struck early. He lived and breathed the music.
“I released my first record when I was in high school back in 1987, so I started out from an idealistic, not-for-profit, doing-it-for-the-fun-of-it sort of approach,” he explains. “I had already been trading punk and hardcore tapes and records with people all over the world so I had an easy “in” when it came to the transition over into selling records.”
His early ambitions paid off. Though his presence in Jacksonville is relatively under the radar, The Ajna Offensive is sending sound waves across the globe.
“The post office ladies and I get along famously,” he jokes. “I think my label is still responsible for a good portion of their annual volume and intake. They are definitely looking forward to the day when I start doing my customs forms and postage online, as there are inevitably customers who end up behind me in line!”
This year his offshoot label, Unseen Forces, was awarded vinyl rights to the soundtrack of the new Evil Dead film, something he describes as “a rather epic score for someone of my stature.”
His vision for the future includes producing more aspects of the business from the Rogue River valley. “We’d love to start pressing vinyl locally, which would then bring a few more jobs to the area and spill over into a good deal of work for a local printer,” Davis explains. “It would also mean more business for companies that deal with shipping freight around the world. I’d prefer that to outsourcing my vinyl manufacturing to the Czech Republic for evermore.”
Sound engineer and proprietor of Portland-based Badman Recording Co., Dylan Magierek, was already running a successful label operation before deciding to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
“I started recording bands in the bedroom of my rented Haight-Ashbury flat back in the late 1990s,” he explains. “One of the recordings with a group called The Cherries went so well that we decided to make it the first release on Badman. I had been working for Universal Distribution for some years and was familiar with getting albums into stores and promoting them there. Engineering really led me right into having music for the label and allowed me to further develop the craft of making records.”
Though Badman Recording Co. has a storied history of influential releases from its San Francisco days—including Mark Kozelek, The Innocence Mission and Hayden—the label really seems to have hit its stride upon relocating to in Portland in 2005. Magierek credits a portion of the newfound success to the area’s rich culture.
“In San Francisco, Badman wasn’t really considered a local label since they didn’t—and probably still don’t—have that kind of belief in a “local” movement. Portland does, and it’s fantastic,” he explains. “Since Badman moved to Portland, we focused on some of the remarkable artists in the area and signed STRFCKR, Lovers, The Builders and the Butchers, and Weinland, and we recorded together at [Magierek’s] Type Foundry studio.”
Magierek is quick to offer sage advice to fledgling local acts: “Touring is one of the most powerful tools a band has for developing an audience. Playing shows is one of the few ways of getting noticed that a band can control completely on their own, and they need to take advantage of it. It was really satisfying to promote a band like STRFCKR from the onset, and help them develop into an international band. Badman did that… through some unique promotional efforts, great songs, an intriguing name and loads of touring.”
Portland’s Tender Loving Empire also encourages its myriad artists to hit the road. After all, owner Jared Mees is a musician himself. After years of pounding the pavement in his own band and moving to Portland in 2006, Mees decided to take the reins and start both a record label and retail shop in order to spread the music he and his friends played to the masses.
In what he calls “serendipitous, spontaneous, and inspired,” Mees and his wife Brianne worked service-industry jobs and set aside every iota of cash they could for a full year before diving into the business full time.
“We found ourselves with an excess of cash, which we were able to couple with a small loan from my folks to open the first TLE store,” Mees recounts. “We aimed to sell the books, comics and music we were creating with the label, as well as from tons of different artists and crafter friends that we admired from LA, Colorado, and from our new Portland friends.”
Now, after nearly ten years in operation, Tender Loving Empire has expanded from a quiet label into a veritable cultural force: each year it releases a successful community-based compilation, Friends & Friends of Friends, and its retail store in downtown Portland also includes a screen printing studio—perfect for producing his roster of band merchandise in-house. Alongside CD, vinyl, and cassette releases from Tender Loving Empire’s roster, the shop houses art, jewelry, and knick-knacks aimed toward Oregonians and tourists who have fallen in love with the local creative community.
“The combination of store and record label was and still is pretty natural,” Mees explains. “The store gives a face to the record label and sort of defines or re-defines what a label is for the average person walking in off the street.”
Tender Loving Empire’s downtown store and label offers the local creative community a way to augment personal incomes in a meaningful way, one that the Mees’ and their team hope increases their quality of life and helps them on the path toward self sufficiency and true “professionalism” in their chosen craft—be it music, visual art, or other expressive form.
Tender Loving Empire seems to have found oft-unattainable success in an era of shaky economies and an uncertain music industry. Jared and Brianne’s enthusiasm for and commitment to their passion is infectious. In fact, the company plans to introduce an entirely new and intriguing project to their repertoire in early 2014.
“Everyone at TLE is really excited about our side project Generous that we’ve been working on slowly but surely for the last two years,” Mees explains. “It began out of the desire to be able to sell all our music in a dynamic pay-what-you-want manner. There were no tools that would accommodate our needs…so we decided to build one that would! Generous is a pay-what-you-want social selling platform that generates money for a charity of the seller’s choosing with each transaction. In a few months when we launch the beta version, anyone will be able to go the site, set up an account and begin selling anything—digital music, physical goods, services, experiences, virtually anything that doesn’t have a set or static price—on a pay-what-you-want basis. [We] think it has major disruptive potential for not only the music industry but other industries as well.”
Oregon is a hotbed for talent and inspiration, and a supportive community comprised of loyal fans and music industry professionals has fostered independent record labels as they continue to make the state their home base. The digitally-savvy global community has made some local labels even more successful due to the unusual camaraderie in support of Oregon’s music scene.
Mees elaborates: “The web has turned a once impenetrable fortress dominated by a select few corporations into a much more open, available and affordable landscape. Our artists are excited to release music on an independent label with independent roots, ideals and aspirations. Money is important to us all obviously, but it’s not the most important thing and I think that’s what really is attractive to our artists. We’re at their shows, we’re in their inboxes, and we pay royalties accurately and on time.”
Are you hungry to hear the latest from the musical masterminds from our home turf? Click below to explore a sampling of Oregon-based record labels of all types.
Metal, neo-folk, and experimental international acts
A diverse mix of indie rock and alternative – including a wide range of Portland-based artists
A roster of artists from folk and Americana to indie rock, with a particular focus on local performers
Northwest hip hop label operated by Terrance Scott, aka the inimitable Cool Nutz
Portland-based experimental and indie featuring local artists almost exclusively
Hardcore/emo music based in Beaverton
Indie rock label steeped in community that also operates a retail store in downtown Portland
Cassette Tape Revival
Forget vinyl! The US is currently undergoing a cassette tape revolution and the once-obsolete (if not slightly embarrassing) plastic recordings are again in fashion. A slew of new tape-based labels have sprung forth from Portland’s warehouses, practice spaces and basements. Read below for details about a few of the Portland-based labels who distribute their roster’s tunes on the lost format—many with accompanying digital downloads for contemporary listeners.
Notable Artists: White Fang, BOOM!, Love Cop
Notable Artists: Au, All Tiny Creatures, Pattern is Movement
Notable Artists: Nucular Animals, Witch Mountain
Notable Artists: Old Light, Wooden Indian Burial Ground, Graves
Notable Artists: Regular Music, Mattress
1859’s new music blogger, Meredith Frengs Wales, has been an Oregonian since 2001. Wales leads a double life as a high school English teacher by day and a passionate music fan outside the classroom. Meredith parlays her past experience as a radio promoter and marketing professional into discovering–and sharing–the incredible musical offerings of our fair state. When she isn’t teaching or writing, Meredith spends time show-hopping with her musician-slash-journalist husband and exploring all the history and culture that Oregon has to offer.