A big transition for the valley’s music scene

Iron Horse Music Hall gets new nonprofit owner, while the Green River Festival changes hands

NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — Last month, the Northampton, Massachusetts musical ecosystem was churning with major change.

On Oct. 12, the recording company Signature Sounds announced that the Green River Festival had been sold to DSP Shows of Northampton and Ithaca, N.Y. And the Parlor Room, now a nonprofit, recently bought the legendary, but long-defunct, Iron Horse Music Hall.

Northampton has long been a center for a kind of music that has too many names; you just have to know it when you hear it. Some of those names: folk, alternative, adult album alternative (AAA), Americana, singer-songwriter, indie rock, indie-everything-else.

Music fans who live in southern Vermont have for decades benefited from this thriving scene only 45 minutes south, eagerly driving down to hear performances by a host of local and touring musical stars.

The person sitting at the center of the musical ecosystem has been all-around nice guy and music impresario Jim Olsen, 65, who started his career as a popular radio DJ on WRSI-FM in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1984, when the station played all kinds of music with few playlist rules. He was a full-time DJ there until 1996.

Then, in 1995, Olsen, with sound engineer Mark Thayer, moved on to scouting and developing new artists and recording them for their own label, Signature Sounds.

Their plan with Signature was to record and support the burgeoning acoustic music scene in and around Northampton. It has since proudly produced and released more than 180 albums of singer-songwriter, Americana, modern folk, and rock music.

"I'm looking for great, original voices," Olsen told Music Connection in 2015. "I want to hear someone doing something different or has a unique outlook, a unique voice, someone who doesn't sound like 30 other things. We're looking for great songs, great songwriters. I find great music because I'm a fan."

Signature Sounds' roster includes Chris Smither, Eilen Jewell, Brennen Leigh, Birds of Chicago, Rachel Baiman, Matthew Fowler, And The Kids, Winterpills, and Twisted Pine, among others. Alumni artists include Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter, Mary Gauthier, and Lori McKenna.

Signature moved from Olsen's home into new offices in downtown Northampton in 2012. Then, in the same building, he opened The Parlor Room, an intimate 90-seat live-performance venue presenting concerts several nights per week. In 2015, Signature started an artist development and management wing to work with talented new artists.

Growth of a festival

Olsen became involved with the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, which originated as two separate events that were held just a week apart in 1986 at Greenfield Community College. The Franklin County Chamber Of Commerce sponsored their first Upcountry Balloon Fair on one weekend and then WRSI held their fifth anniversary party the following weekend.

In the following years, music soon became primary and the two events merged and eventually became the Green River Festival. Olsen became festival director in 2013 under the Signature Sounds Presents umbrella. It is now, minus the balloons, a three-day event with camping located at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Greenfield.

With multiple stages of music, this outdoor festival draws thousands of people who sometimes happily dance in the rain because there is no shelter or bake in the heat for a similar reason.

Every summer, the Green River Festival - called one of "50 essential summer music festivals" by The New York Times - presents a world-class lineup. Some of the well-known performers have been Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Arlo Guthrie, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Taj Mahal, Jon Batiste, Brandi Carlisle, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and Steve Earle.

According to Olsen, the festival just became too expensive.

"It got to a point where it felt, as an organization, we had taken it sort of as far as we could," Olsen told The Commons. "There was a lot of change over the last few years, obviously, with the pandemic and moving from the college to the new site. It's been a little bit of a difficult ride there."

After the pandemic wound down, the festival found that inflation could put it out of business.

"The amount of inflation on everything was incredible," Olsen said. "The price of everything went up by half. The nature of the festival business is that you pretty much rent everything. You rent the stages. You rent the port-a-potties and the golf carts and all the stuff that takes to run the festival. So when the prices go up tremendously, it really hurts."

Talent also costs more.

"With the musicians, it's more expensive to tour, so they've raised their prices," Olsen said. "We like to get musicians from all over the country, and even book international world music. And the prices for everything just went up quite a bit. It made for a challenging environment."

Another challenge was the rise in the number of music festivals in the immediate area.

"There have been a lot of changes in the marketplace in terms of new venues opening up and new promoters moving in," Olsen said. "There's just a lot more activity. And you know, there didn't used to be so many festivals on the summer calendar. Now every weekend there are festivals all over the place. It's a very competitive environment."

And even without those challenges, producing a festival is stressful, Olsen said.

"You're responsible for the whole thing," he said. "You've got camping. People are there for three days, but it is really a 10-day process. You've got to build it and get it going, and then tear it down again."

By 2022, Olsen was struggling to cope; the festival was no longer fun.

It was getting to the point where he "really wasn't enjoying it."

"That was a real reason to look to pass it on," he said. "It's been 37 years, and I just want to make sure that it keeps going."

He had a few offers for the festival.

"We didn't put it on Facebook Marketplace," he joked. "But I know other festival promoters around the Northeast, and there were a couple of them I thought might be interested."

But none of them actually made an offer.

"It's not the easiest business to place a value on," Olsen said.

"John Sanders, the main principal of DSP, I've known for many years," he said. "He's been coming to the festival for many years. And a few years ago, he started whispering in my ear, 'If you ever want to sell, we'd be interested in it.'"

And they were. Olsen declined to say how much DSP Shows paid for the festival.

"DSP is just the best fit," Olsen said. "They're very familiar with the local market and the culture of what we do. They respect it and they honor it and they just want to move it forward."

If everything gets rented, then what did DSP really buy?

"There are very few actual physical goods that are included," Olsen said. "We have a couple of storage units worth of stuff that DSP now owns, I believe."

When you buy something like the Green River Festival, "you're really buying intellectual property," he explained. "You're buying an email list, and Facebook followers, and all that kind of stuff. We've had a very loyal customer base that's been coming every year. That's really what you're buying."

"The Green River Festival is the premier live music event in Western Mass., and we are honored to be entrusted with ensuring it continues for many years to come," Sanders said in a press release.

Olsen and Signature Sounds will remain involved as a sponsor and will host one of the stages.

"So it doesn't feel like completely cutting the cord and walking away at all," Olsen said.

Buying the Horse

Then there's the sale of the long-lamented Iron Horse on Center Street, which in its heyday often booked two shows a night, every night of year. It closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 and never reopened.

Olsen donated the Parlor Room to a nonprofit in January of 2023. It was the nonprofit that bought the Horse.

"The Parlor Room itself was always kind of a labor of love," Olsen said. "It's a very small room. There was never a whole lot of money to be made there anyway. It was sort of a nonprofit all along. But when we came out of the pandemic, there just wasn't the same enthusiasm amongst our staff and crew to keep it going."

The nonprofit was able to buy the Iron Horse, with its all-important liquor license, in September 2023. It plans to reopen the concert hall, with food and liquor, in early 2024.

"So when we were approached about this nonprofit idea, it seemed like a really good one," Olsen said. "So we donated the Parlor Room to the nonprofit and they've done a nice job running it. They started a music school. It's been very good."

The Horse's former owner, real estate magnate Eric Suher, who was forced by the city of Northampton to unload the place or have the liquor license revoked, said his decision to sell to the Parlor Room was helped by the nonprofit status, which allows for a number of funding sources not available to a for-profit buyer.

"I never thought that would have happened in my wildest imagination," Olsen said. "But here we are."

He sits on the advisory board, "not even the board of directors," he said.

"I'm essentially a nonvoting board member of the department because the fact that I donated the room just seemed like a potential conflict of interest," Olsen said. "They're completely their own organization."

Signature Sounds itself is thriving, and it remains Olsen's baby. But he still sits at the center of the musical ecosystem, which he had a big hand in creating, and he hasn't given up booking musical talent for the area.

"The record label is still going strong," Olsen said. "We are still releasing recent music and working with a great roster of artists. We're still producing some concerts around Western Massachusetts in places like the Academy of Music and the Shea Theater."

Signature Sounds has started doing some some concert promotion and still produces the Arcadia Folk Festival at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton, as well as the Back Porch Festival at multiple venues in March. "And I'm still involved with the Green River Festival," he said. "I'm just not running the show."

Olsen said he is sliding towards retirement - but he's not there yet.

"One of the nice things about this age is you're able to work remotely," he said. "It's given me some flexibility. It kind of makes the perfect sort of moving-towards-retirement job, but it's not a retirement job."

It's still great work, he said.

"I love working with artists," Olsen said. "I've got a great staff. I see no reason to stop at this point."

This The Arts item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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