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Signature Sounds Recording Co. opens Northampton office and performance space

  • Jim Olsen, owner of Signature Sounds studio which recently moved to Northampton from Whately.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Signature Sounds, Masonic Street Northampton.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

When Jim Olsen started his acoustic record label, Signature Sounds, in 1995, he had a couple of artists on board, and he ran the business out of the basement in his Whately home.

Seventeen years later, Signature has released over 50 albums of modern folk, singer/songwriter and Americana music, earning good marks in the industry for the quality of its records — and Olsen has finally moved out of his basement.

The label is now situated in downtown Northampton, with a colorful sign outside its 32 Masonic St. office, and Signature plans to use part of the new space as an occasional performance venue, one that Olsen says can offer “a living room feel.”

“We’re really excited to be part of the downtown community,” Olsen said during a recent interview. “It’s a great opportunity for us.” As a performance space, he added, the new site “is going to be a super-intimate experience, more intimate than the Iron Horse and just about any other room in town.”

That said, Olsen notes that Signature “is not going into the nightclub business.” Renting the Masonic Street space, which formerly held a yoga business and before that a furniture store, was part of a long-term goal to give Signature Sounds a more physical presence, expand its storage space, and bring the business closer to Northampton’s busy music scene.

But once he and his co-workers checked out the inside of the Masonic Street building, they saw that with some renovations and additions — adding a hardwood floor and overhead lighting, building a small stage and improving the acoustics — they could turn part of the structure into a modest but comfortable performance venue, both for artists on their label and other, predominantly acoustic groups.

“It’s really a listening room,” Olsen noted. “It might be for 50 people, it might be more than that. We’re really not sure yet ... [but] it’s not intended to be a profit center for the business. We’re not trying to compete with the Iron Horse or anyone else. Right now we imagine holding two to three events a month.”

Home base

Olsen founded Signature in 1995 with sound engineer Mark Thayer, who had a recording studio geared for acoustic and jazz players in his then-Palmer home. Since 2004, Thayer has run the recording part of the business from his home in Pomfret Center, Conn., and the studio is also rented by artists not affiliated with the label.

From the start, Olsen and Thayer envisioned the label as a home for the Valley’s burgeoning acoustic music scene as well as a launching pad for other up-and-coming artists, particularly singer/songwriters. Some of the label’s early regional players included Mark Erelli, Brooks Williams, Jim Henry and Salamander Crossing. Meanwhile, acclaimed songwriters like Josh Ritter and Erin McKeown released their first records with Signature before moving on to bigger labels.

Over the years, Signature has branched out to include more-established musicians such as Chris Smither (of Amherst) and singer/songwriter Lori McKenna, while also hosting groups like Winterpills, Valley folk-rock favorites, and Crooked Still, a folk/bluegrass quintet known for its instrumental skill and unusual arrangements.

But these days, Olsen says, the digital revolution is continuing to transform the music industry, which means part of Signature’s traditional job — getting its artists’ CDs into record stores — has become a smaller part of its business.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself albums,” he said. “You can record and release a lot of records on your own, at minimal expense, and you can make digital downloads a big part of your sales.”

Aside from Signature’s own sales of downloadable music, Olsen estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the label’s CD sales today are through the company’s website, wwww.signaturesounds.com, from Amazon.com and from musicians selling their albums at concerts. The rest “come in dribs and drabs from whatever record stores are left out there,” he said.

Given that, he sees his label’s main role as continuing to handle the production and promotion aspects of musicians’ albums — “That’s the piece that’s really hard to do if you’re a working, touring musician,” Olsen said — as well as serving as an ambassador of sorts in a music world overwhelmed with product.

“I think a lot of [record buyers] today are looking for filters,” he said. “We’re sort of a trusted source for music if you like the kind of thing we do ... we work with artists who complement the ones we already have, musicians who share a common philosophy and some basic genres.”

Live performances

Olsen says featuring live performances at Signature’s new location will also help promote the label’s artists, as well as some of the side groups they may be involved with. He’s been producing shows for years, both as the talent buyer for the Green River Festival in Greenfield and under the Signature Sounds Presents label; most of those concerts have been in Franklin County. But now, he says, the label can stage shows, on a more intimate scale, right in Northampton.

“You can consume music in so many different ways today — you can hook up your DVD to your flat-screen TV and look at Mark Knopfler’s nose hairs if you want,” he said, with a laugh. “But there’s nothing like being in a room where you have that intimacy and you’re live in your hometown.”

Logistically, he adds, it will also be easier to have a set place for shows, rather than trying to rent concert space elsewhere, as he’s always done.

He’ll be meeting with Northampton planning officials and the building inspector to determine the seating capacity for concerts at the Masonic Street building. Signature plans to put in folding chairs for shows and adjust the number for certain bands — removing some, for example, if they want to have a small dance floor.

No performance schedule has been set up yet, though Signature is planning to host its first shows in late November. The label is also presenting a show on Nov. 18 at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls featuring bluegrass singer Tim O’Brien and the folk/country trio Red Molly.

In addition, the label plans to rent its performance area out on occasion to other organizations, such as a group that makes holiday crafts from recycled materials. “We’re still just seeing what the space wants to be,” Olsen said.

In the meantime, just having a more visible presence in the region is a plus, he said. “It’s a benefit I didn’t fully consider until we did it. ... We’ve always tried to spotlight our artists as much as possible, so promotion of the label in the public eye is sort of a secondary consideration. But this gives us a showcase for all the work we’ve been doing as a group effort.”

And though working out of his home kept overhead costs down over the years — and let him keep an eye on his twin son and daughter when they were younger — Olsen says he’s also thrilled to have a new place to do his job.

“You work for 17 years in your basement and see if you’re not ready for a change,” he said, laughing.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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