Back To The Future: Lessons From 20 Years Of Signature Sounds
When Jim Olsen founded Signature Sounds Recordings in 1995 with Mark Thayer, he had no idea the changes that were ahead of him – and no idea that he'd be running a successful, national label with over 100 releases twenty years on. But he did… and he still is.
Guest Post by Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds Recordings
Like the rest of the industry, we’ve looked back to find ways to thrive in the future.
The idea of being a part of a community that led to the formation of the label has sustained us over time. Initially, that meant recording artists from the vibrant western Massachusetts music scene. Even as we became a national label with acts that toured the globe, we have strengthened those ties. As CD sales plunged, we opened a live music venue. In the back room is our office and in the front room is The Parlor Room, our 60-seat BYOB listening room. We present artists from our label as well as others from the folk and Americana worlds. Now, as downloads have peaked, we’ve taken that approach two steps further in taking over production of the Green River Festival, which sold out last year, and in presenting non-label concerts around town. It also gives us a platform for which to have our developing acts open for national artists and gain exposure and for the public awareness of the label locally.
In addition, we’ve backed artists over long periods of time. We’ve watched act after act develop musically and grow its audience. Lake Street Dive hit it big on their third Signature Sounds release ‘Bad Self Portraits,’ which reached #18 on the Billboard Top 200 last year. We were committed to them long-term from day one and that underscored their ambition and drive to make the best music they could possibly make. We’re about to release our fourth Eilen Jewell album, the wonderful ‘Sundown Over Ghost Town. She’s grown her fan-base since the first release, recently selling out shows in NYC and Washington, D.C. Our artists have often collaborated with one another, forming side projects and we’ve supported those artistic impulses. Two of our longtime employees, Flora Reed and Phillip Price, formed a band called Winterpills that is so good that we’ve released six albums on them; and they’re still with us both as artists and as staff members. We’ve focused on just a few releases at a time to make sure that we could sustain interest in our artists beyond the near term.
Now, having a back catalog of over 100 releases has made us a great resource for music supervisors and radio programmers. Building that community over time has paid dividends on the ledger. I certainly couldn’t have built a label this successful without a lot of help from friendly DJs, places like the Americana Music Association that have worked to bolster interest in acoustic music, and many others who’ve supported us over the years.
None of this is revolutionary but we have evolved into something more holistic than a straightforward record label, which was not far from how Mark and I started this whole thing anyway. Former Van Morrison sideman John Sheldon & The Blue Streak stepped into the studio to make the album ‘Boneyard,’ and James Taylor joined them on a duet in the summer of 1994. We released it in January, 1995 and Signature Sounds was born. We put it out on cassette and CD. We grew slowly—on step at a time, not overreaching our means. The label didn’t become my full-time job until 1997 and we didn’t have an office outside of my home until 2012.
I’ve immensely proud and humbled that we’ve thrived over 20 years, with our twentieth year our most successful to date. Most of all, I am thankful to be surrounded by such dedicated and wonderful artists, staff, and fans.