Executive Profile: Jim Olsen, Signature Sounds President


The ultimate destination for independent-minded folk, Americana, roots and rock artists around the Northampton, MA area, Signature Sounds Recordings grew out of the studio under the same name. Jim Olsen has helmed the ship for two decades, recently marking the occasion with a series of shows and a celebratory album. E1 Entertainment handles their North American distribution.

Radio Roots
I started in college radio at Ithaca. I was always a huge music fan and record collector, although not really a musician. After I graduated in 1980, I had a series of radio jobs around New England and landed at WRSI in Greenfield, MA in 1984. It was an unusual station. It played all kinds of music with few playlist rules. The station’s gone through a lot of changes over the years, but from 1984 to 1996 I was a full-time employee—the program and music director.

About 1992 or 1993, we had a local show called Home Grown, and the host of that and I were good friends. He hit upon the idea of making some compilation CDs as a fundraiser for the food bank. I had gotten to know a guy named Mark Thayer, who had a studio called Signature Sounds, and we thought of Mark when it came time to record. By the time we’d finished the second compilation, we’d grown on the idea of starting what we thought was going to be a local record label. For a few years, I kept my radio job and did this almost as a hobby. It slowly evolved into something more.

Nurturing Artists
We consider ourselves an artist development company. We hire artists we see potential in: young or haven’t attempted to bring their music to a wider audience—we tend to stay with our artists. That’s pretty unusual these days.

Parlor Games
For years, we were based in my house. In 2012, we moved to Northampton. We also opened a club called The Parlor Room, a 90-seat listening room that presents music two to five nights a week. We do all kinds of music, not just acoustic.

There was never a plan to have it. I was walking past a building with a “For Rent” sign. I loved the location and thought it was an interesting building. It was more space than we needed, so we wanted to find another business to share it with. Then, we realized it wouldn’t take much to turn it into a venue.

The Parlor Room has a finite, intimate capacity and we’re comfortable with that. We’ve also started presenting shows in other venues and theatres around the area, so when an artist is too big for our room we can present them elsewhere.

The Breaks
Not having any experience in the business before, it was much trial and error at first. We made our share of mistakes. We ran up credit card bills but were lucky enough to catch a few breaks early on and find our audience. Every so often, something great happens. Josh Ritter or Lori McKenna or Lake Street Dive comes along. They’re artists who grow big, international audiences and that helps our brand.

Artist Connections
Our artists are the best talent scouts. They tour and befriend other artists, and oftentimes will recommend someone we’ll check out. Before we know it, they become one of ours as well.

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