Here in Portland there is a Tender Loving Empire. Now, this is for real. Meet Brianne and Jared Mees. A Portland couple who created Tender Loving Empire. It’s the sunshine embrace of creative power. It is all things. Are you an artist with something you absolutely must share with the world, right now? Are you a musician who wants to put your CD in a store? Are you looking for new music? Are you looking for affordable art? The perfect gift? The Tender Loving Empire just opened it’s heart to you.
Okay, but really folks. Brianne runs the retail shop. It’s a consignment store. Everything – and I mean down to the fimo robot – is handmade. Jared focuses on the record label, and he handles the screenprinting orders. The Tender Loving Empire store is in ActiviSpace on the corner of NW Lovejoy and 18th Street.
I stop by on a Monday evening at closing time. Jared is in the screenprinting studio working on a big order of orange bandannas for Oregon State University. He stacks them in a rack to dry and washes out the screen. He has band practice. His friends hang out waiting for him to finish. Brianne shows me the store. It’s full of artwork. It’s a little shop, but really, every imaginable handicraft is there. It’s all there in the Tender Loving Empire.
“We learned from Jared’s music, it’s really important to have people supporting your project. The store was a way to open our arms up and promote and support independent artists on a lot of different levels. As it stands we have 170 different artists and crafters. I just wanted to include everybody. I wanted everybody to be a part of it and feel promoted. Our vision grew from a small comics and music imprint in the backroom to something everybody could be involved in. I get to sit in the shop and people bring projects they’re really excited about. Then I see a customer come in and get really excited about it. It’s more like a community exchange than just a retail store.”
I ask about a band in Portland that is worthy of mention and Brianne is about to pop. There’s so many bands and musicians she’s going to explode. There’s no way to contain all that love in one woman. She tells me, “We wouldn’t have signed all the bands on our label if we didn’t really love them. My biggest bias is my husband’s band, Jared Mees and The Grown Children. They always have a good time when they play. They have a lot of sing-alongs and everyone’s happy when they leave a show.”
“It’s really important for me, that when people come in here they feel really welcome. Besides all the nitty-gritty details, I tend toward making Tender Loving Empire feel accessible. I hate marketing for anything that is like: ‘I’m hipper than you are, so you have to buy my products so you can be like me.’ I pour myself into the more human aspects.” I ask about the customers. “We have the people who are really into indie music. People that are excited about shopping in the independent music section. We have the random Pearl District woman who comes in to buy earrings. Most of our customers are younger – anywhere from high school age to their thirties. We kinda marketed towards that – really youthful and colorful and cartoony images.” The average price of a product is twenty dollars. “We try to keep it really reasonable. I don’t want to carry anything that I wouldn’t pay for.”
Even with hundreds of bands in Portland, Tender Loving Empire will carry any CD or vinyl record that an artist brings to the store. “We don’t go pick and choose who we carry musicwise. We just say whoever has a CD and wants to consign it with us, cool, we’ll see how it goes. And 95% of what people bring us is really quality. It’s amazing that we live in a city where there’s so many talented musicians.” I ask about how the record label makes money. “Half of our music sales are CDs and the other half is digital downloads. It’s on iTunes. You can buy it from anywhere. We get quite a few orders from overseas. It’s all over the world. We go through CD Baby, and they do all the digital distribution for us. They give us the report and bi-monthly checks – two or three times a month sometimes, it depends on how much we’re selling.”
Tender Loving Empire makes it easy to get to know new music in Portland: a CD compilation of twenty bands for only $5 dollars. It’s called “Friends and Friends of Friends”. There’s Vol. 1, and Vol. 2 comes out May 16th (they’re still finalizing the list of bands). Brianne assures me, “The store takes care of itself – just selling art on consignment. The screenprinting helps Jared and I survive, and both of them combined take care of initial investments we’ve been making in the record label. It all takes turns supporting itself. We kinda diversified without meaning to. It’s a way to branch out to a wider audience. Somebody can come in that just wants to buy a card and find their favorite music.”
“With ‘Friends and Friends of Friends’ we’re really not trying to make a profit. We definitely make our money back, but its more about promoting the bands.” Tender Loving Empire packages the CDs in post-consumer waste paper, and of course it’s recyclable. “So we’re not putting more plastic out – and in the age of so much music being digitally distributed, we wanted to go for a boutique feel. We want someone to feel that this is a piece of art – in a really concrete way. This hand-silkscreened look lends itself to that a little more.”
Finn Riggins is the first really serious band signed by Tender Loving Empire. “Their project has done the best so far, but we’ve also been carrying their project the longest. Finn Riggins is constantly touring. They played over 200 shows last year alone. They’ve been doing really well nationally. They’re selling CDs and T-shirts and digital downloads.”
I ask if there was a business plan. “We really didn’t know what we were doing when we started … at all. We just jumped off blindly and learned from scratch. I’ve learned some accounting, and we’ve learned to balance being business partners and being married.” Brianne learned that the important thing is just getting people involved. “It’s really amazing the amount of people who can take some ownership of it – from the interns, the artists, the bands, to the customers. We provide a place for people to get paid to do what they love – and just for people to come here to have a good time supporting independent artists. That’s why people more to Portland. It’s a rich artistic culture, and in a little way, we’re contributing to that.”
“I think what we do differently and well, is bring it all together in a cohesive way. There’s so many things you can do – but people really want something they can do. We can help their creative endeavor rather just selling them our stuff.” I ask about the future and Brianne says, “I would like more people to be involved.”
Tender Loving Empire
1720 NW Lovejoy #109
Portland, OR 97209