Tom Sturm Photo
Founder Jim Olsen outside the new Signature Sounds offices.
It’s been nearly two decades since Jim Olsen founded Signature Sounds, the Valley-based record label that’s grown from a DIY, spare-room labor of love into a successful business with two full-time and two part-time employees. Now, finally, it’s got its own stand-alone headquarters in downtown Northampton. The label’s offices moved to Noho in mid-September from their longtime location in Olsen’s Whately home, and now occupy the former Somatic Systems Institute building on Masonic Street.
Olsen explains that the purpose of moving was threefold: first, to reclaim his home space from the business; second, to situate the offices closer to the heart of the Valley’s ever-blossoming musical culture; and third, to establish a space that will also function as a smallish retail outlet for Signature Sounds’ wares and a performance space that will put on modest-sized events to showcase its artists and other regional talent.
“I started this business 18 years ago, and it’s always been in my house,” Olsen says. “That meant having a warehouse in my house, having two employees come to my house... and that collision of work and home life wasn’t always terrific.”
At first, Olsen says, it was convenient for him to work from home; having young twins Matthew and Amelia made it advantageous to be available around the house, but as time went by (his kids are 14 and in high school now), he began to look in the paper and ponder the possibility of moving the Signature Sounds office somewhere else.
“One day I was just walking down this street, and there was a big ‘rent me’ sign out front, and I said, ‘That’s a cool-looking building,’” he says. He goes on to explain why a space in Northampton was more appealing to him than a more anonymously placed (and likely cheaper) building in a more rural community: “My wife works in Northampton, and it really is the center of the local music community. I just wanted us to really be in the thick of things and for [the office] to be a great place to hang out. This is it.”
When I ask if the move is reflective of a desire to be more obviously associated with the so-called Paradise City, Olsen assents.
“Yeah. Yes, I think so. The problem with working out of your house is, you know, there’s no public image of it. We work so hard to promote our artists and really shine the light on them constantly, but at some point, after 18 years, we feel like, well... people should at least know who we are and get a sense of it.”
Olsen has another reason to open his own venue, having also been a longtime producer of live shows, mostly in Franklin County. The most notable is the annual Green River Festival, which this summer featured national headliners like Arlo Guthrie, Richard Thompson and Los Lobos.
“Part of the thinking is, why keep renting out all these other rooms when we can do stuff here?” he says. “And then I started thinking about it—having shows in our office. What other label has done that? I asked myself that question and I couldn’t think of one other label that’s done this, that’s actually invited the public into their space for live music shows. I feel like that’s something we can offer that’s not been done before.”
The owner gives me the two-dollar tour of the still-developing new headquarters, where they’ve knocked out some walls and put in a whole new wood floor to create their performance/retail space at the front of the building, to be called “The Parlor Room.”
“It’s going to be just a really intimate, living room-style performance space,” Olsen says, pointing to the low stage that’s backed by an old-style, almost vaudevillian curtain sporting the Signature Sounds logo of an old microphone, “and not just with our own artists. We’ll probably only do a few shows a month. It’s not going to be a bar—it’s really just meant to be a listening space. We also want to do other little events, to be part of the community. We want to be part of Arts Night Out, and every Saturday up through the holidays we’re doing this pop-up craft store thing with a local group called Knack—they make this really cool stuff out of recycled materials.”
Olsen, whose music biz origins can be traced back to radio, still hosts his weekly show The Back Porch on 93.9 FM (The River) Sundays from 9 a.m. until noon. It’s partly a promotional tool for his label, though it’s also a rich sampling of American roots rock from all sorts of places and eras.
“It’s sort of an odd fit with the way the station’s kind of mainstreamed out these days, but they still let me do it—I still have a following, I’ve got advertisers, so I’m still there,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been at that station for 28 years.”
It was through the station’s original manifestation as WRSI in Greenfield that Olsen planted the seeds of the Signature Sounds label with fellow DJ/programmer and Valley cultural icon Johnny Memphis, and—for the most part—in the name of charity and community support.
“It really grew out of the radio,” Olsen says. “Johnny Memphis had a show called Homegrown [which featured live on-air performances by local artists], and along about 1992, the two of us came up with the idea to put together these themed compilation albums, The Homegrown Collection[s], to benefit the Food Bank, and to promote the show and local musicians. We wound up doing three of those compilations, and in the course of that I met my partner in Signature, Mark Thayer, who owned the studio. We had fun putting those things together, and it just seemed like a natural thing that we should start putting out some more records. It was mostly a hobby, and kind of stayed one until about 2000, when we started to get a little more serious about it.”
Signature Sounds’ first individual artist release was an album by John Sheldon and Blue Streak, and subsequent releases focused mainly on what Olsen refers to as the scene surrounding “folkies of the time,” including Jim Henry, Salamander Crossing, Erica Wheeler and Louise Taylor. The label grew from there, still focusing at least partly on folk but also expanding into other areas of pop and roots rock. The turn of the millennium brought the signing of more prominent artists, including Richard Shindell and Erin McKeown, who, though Olsen recalls her as being “unknown at the time,” had a debut release that did exceptionally well.
“After that,” Olsen recalls, “we got Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, who both did really well for us, and then Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna came along, and we were kind of off and running at that point.”
Though he exudes an air of calm, almost carefree relaxation, Olsen seems to have remained very aware of the fact that the definition of what a record label is and does has changed dramatically over the last 10 years in the wake of the digital/mp3/iTunes revolution. Signature Sounds retains some level of traditional physical distribution (through New York-based Koch Distributors, which also handles labels like SST and Red House Records as well as current releases on the labels owned by Ani Difranco and The Allman Brothers Band). But much of its recent efforts have been dedicated to cataloguing digital files, ensuring their availability on pay-per-download sites like iTunes and negotiating their inclusion in streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.
“It’s actually a lot easier,” says Olsen of the digital distribution process. “It used to be the name of the game was, how many stores can you get records into, how many records can you ship? And if they didn’t sell, all those records came back at you. You were buying shelf space, essentially, at Borders, at Barnes & Noble—which is an incredibly inefficient system. I don’t miss any of that at all; it made our financial picture so unpredictable.”
The convenience of not having to move nearly so much physical product around or calculate big budgetary question marks like the cost of pressing records or CDs and the number of returns, postage and other unknowns is a boon to the continued solvency of smaller endeavors like Signature Sounds. Olsen applauds the on-demand pricing that’s grown naturally out of the digital market—the lag-time in payments that could occur with pre-digital pricing and distribution could occasionally produce bizarre circumstances in which even too much success could kill you.
“The cash flow gets crazy,” Olsen recalls. “You’d hear these stories of labels going under when they had an artist catch fire, because suddenly you’d have a demand to press 2 million records that you wouldn’t get paid on for nine months—if you got paid at all. So in trying to feed it [on credit or loans, for example], you could put yourself out of business.”
The tradeoff for this convenience, of course, is that now “shelf space” is unlimited and available to everyone. In some ways, this is a democratizing occurrence in the music industry, and many independent artists have benefited from the relatively accessible digital distribution platforms. Still, searching for any one artist can be a little like finding a needle in a haystack these days, and more and more it seems that digital distribution sites are being infiltrated by agents of the Hollywood record business through “featured” artists and “promoted” tracks. These front-page exposures clearly aren’t sitting there for free, and so, in a way, premium “shelf space” is once again creeping back into the system; unpromoted artists and tracks quickly become tenants of virtual basement shelves in a vast catacomb of byzantine Web page architecture.
Fortunately for Signature Sounds, as Olsen points out, its income comes from many more sources now and is much more diversified than it was in the bad old days.
“In addition to your iTunes and Amazon downloads, you have your streaming services,” he says, “and though they don’t pay fantastic, it all adds up. And again... you’re not really doing much.”
Olsen speculates that the “shoe everyone is waiting for to drop” is if and when Apple starts its own digital streaming service along the lines of Spotify or Pandora. He sees such a move as inevitable and, like many in the music business, believes the Silicon Valley company that’s managed to wrench 80 percent of the music business away from New York and L.A. has dragged its feet on this media frontier. There is a growing trend, he argues, toward using these digital manifestations of on-demand radio, and even though Apple has monopolized the bulk of the download-for-fee market, iTunes is gradually losing market share to these fast-proliferating streaming services.
In light of all these infrastructural changes to the biz, Olsen carefully characterizes the bulk of Signature Sounds’ function in the modern era as “a touring artist promotion mechanism.” The label focuses almost exclusively these days on artists—especially younger, newer ones with lots of energy and career years ahead of them—who are committed to touring and creating their own scene. It’s a strategy that pays off in more ways than one.
“Live shows are among the few places where actual CDs and LPs are still selling really well,” he says. That reality further helps to shift the responsibility of moving physical product to artists and/or tour managers, leaving the home office more time to focus on managing the ever more critical Internet market. “Physical distribution is about the 20th thing on my list right now. It used to be number one.”
A recent success story for Signature Sounds is a Brooklyn-based band called Lake Street Dive, which, like many an indie band before it, has started to generate buzz thanks to its dedication to producing videos. One such video, a cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” was shot on a street corner in Boston and posted to the Web among Signature’s other offerings. While the video doesn’t boast much in the way of production value (and, in a way, that’s the point), the performance is an impressive stand-up bass, trumpet and trap-kit rendition that also showcases the group’s exceptional vocal arrangements, including a stellar lead vocal by singer Rachael Price, doing her best MJ.
In a true Internet Age Cinderella story, the video began to attract notice thanks to the praise of random celebrities whose texting thumbs should, at this point, probably be getting royalty checks from Olsen & Co.
“Kevin Bacon tweeted about it,” Jim says with the smile of someone holding at least three jacks with a possible full house, “then Ryan Seacrest, from American Idol, tweeted about it; then Bonaroo [the Tennessee-based outdoor music festival] posted it to their Facebook and tweeted about it—long story short, 300,000 hits in a week on YouTube, and we sold a few thousand albums in that week.” As of press time, the video for “I Want You Back” is up over 400,000, and the bump seems to have extended to some of their other YouTube videos as well (see it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EPwRdVg5Ug).
The concept of the “viral video” remains a mystifying thing, when even relatively obscure releases by South Korean rappers can snowball globally into half a billion views (see “Gangnam Style”), and Olsen claims no more clairvoyance into the phenomenon than anyone else.
“It has to be organic,” he says. “You can’t force it, can’t game it.”
He says the same of the music licensing game. Though he’s had success in placing a number of his artists’ tracks, thanks in large part to receptiveness by music supervisors like Go Music’s Gary Calamar (who’s secured music for Showtime’s Dexter and HBO’s Six Feet Under and True Blood), the success tends to be random.
“The placements fall out of the sky,” he says with a bewildered look. “You can only work it so much.”
Still, artists like McKeown and Winterpills have had songs that have played on the silver screen or in TV rooms around the country, and Olsen also gives a nod of thanks to Grey’s Anatomy, which he says has been good to the label, “as it has to a lot of people.” He credits his pull with licensing folks as being just another byproduct of having been at it for so long that Signature Sounds has built up a reputation in the industry at large as a source for quality material.
“We’ve become a sort of... filter,” Olsen says, agreeing that an analogy to a literary agent in the book publishing industry wouldn’t be far off. “We’re a trusted source in the music industry, and there just aren’t that many of those anymore. The biggest argument for being on a label these days [for an artist] instead of going it alone is that a label has some cachet, some recognition that just helps you get your foot in the door.”
Having put out something in the neighborhood of 120 albums, Signature Sounds has obviously worked hard to build that recognition. In addition to the currently sizzling Lake Street Dive record, it’s working recent releases from the “newgrass” string quintet Joy Kills Sorrow, cheeky swing-twangers the Sweetback Sisters, grit-folk veterans Chris Smither and Peter Mulvey and Austin songstress Caroline Herring. They’re also excited about a new record they’re working on with Valley up-and-comer Heather Maloney, who offered a fabulously done-up impersonation of British bad girl Amy Winehouse at Northampton’s annual Transperformance. Maloney pegged every detail of the sultry, retro-flavored chanteuse at the end-of-summer event, and dished out an inspired set surrounded by slinky, sharp-dressed horn players and decidedly R-rated poet laureate Richard Michelson.
At the end of our interview, Olsen leads me out through the front door and sits down on the stoop outside the new offices—a feature he appreciates as least as much as the additional office space that mp3 technology has afforded him. Though Signature has yet to hang its first gold record on the wall, its entire entryway is covered with dozens of its promotional posters that have been laminated onto backing boards, and it’s evident he can still look at one of them with the interest and appreciation that comes from a happy memory. His black Lab, Lucy, clambers up next to him on the top stair and he scrubs her neck affectionately, looking every bit a man who’s discreetly tickled to finally have a front porch.•