Changing its tune: The Parlor Room, now 10 years old, to transition to nonprofit model

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 11-13-2022 7:54 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In 2012, Signature Sounds, the acoustic music record label, set up shop in Northampton after Jim Olsen, the label’s president, had largely run the business from the basement of his home in Whately for 17 years.

Taking over a former furniture store on Masonic Street, Signature also turned part of the building into an intimate performance venue, The Parlor Room, that Olsen thought might stage a few acoustic shows per month, in particular for up-and-coming artists and musicians on the Signature Sounds label.

Much has changed since then — and as it marks its 10th anniversary, The Parlor Room has long since become a busy center for acoustic and other styles of music, with two, three, or more shows every week for a good part of the year.

Yet in the wake of the pandemic, during which Olsen says The Parlor Room was closed for 600 days, the club is looking to revamp its operating model to create more long-term sustainability and to become more of a community music hub, rather than simply a performance venue.

Starting Jan. 1, the Northampton locale will become a nonprofit organization: The Parlor Room Foundation and School of Music. While live performances will remain a centerpiece of its mission, the organization plans to offer a wide range of music classes and workshops, jam sessions and open mics, classes in recording and live sound engineering, and more.

“This is a small room, and the [financial] margins have always been pretty small as well,” Olsen said in a recent interview. “The pandemic showed us how tight things can get.

“We’re kind of a no-frills place,” he added. “We don’t sell food, we don’t sell alcohol, and we treat our artists fairly … so there can be a very thin line between success or failure.”

As a nonprofit, Olsen notes, the new-model Parlor Room can apply for grants. More importantly, the organization is introducing annual memberships — nine different levels, with increasing levels of benefits and perks based on the size of the contribution — to increase overall funding. They’ll also be seeking sponsorships from the regional business community.

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Many music clubs, Olsen says, don’t survive past about 10 years. He notes that two long-running acoustic venues in the Northeast that have a comparable vibe to The Parlor Room — Club Passim in Cambridge and Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York — have had success using memberships, offering music classes, and becoming community music centers rather than simply concert sites.

“That’s the model we’ve been looking at,” said Olsen. Though The Parlor Room has been used for various community events over the years, “the goal is to expand on that.”

Welcoming community

A key figure behind this new vision is Chris Freeman, a singer and multi-instrumentalist with the Americana/folk-rock group Parsonsfield, formed in 2011 in Connecticut. Freeman, who now lives in Northampton and does booking at The Parlor Room, remembers the band’s first sold-out show was at the club in early 2013.

“It was such a great experience, such a great vibe, this feeling that we were really supported, that we were sort of welcomed into this musical community in Northampton,” said Freeman. “I wanted to move up here.” (He and his wife settled in the city last year.)

Playing at The Parlor Room a number of times, and also making several records with Signature Sounds, “was a huge part of [our band] finding our footing,” he added.

Freeman, who will now serve as president of The Parlor Room Foundation, says his interest in turning the venue into a nonprofit comes in part from his own experience as a working musician, when mastering the logistical challenges of putting together a tour, and also marketing Parsonsfield’s music, could seem like daunting tasks, especially early in the band’s career.

“Those are the kinds of things we’d like to help musicians with,” he said. “If we can just give them a taste of that through a couple of workshops, then they can get started and learn more on their own.”

The details of what kinds of classes and lesson will be offered are still being worked out, but Freeman and Olsen envision it starting with musicians offering a workshop at the venue in addition to their gig.

Northampton singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, for instance, held a songwriting workshop last month at The Parlor Room, and singer-songwriter Dar Williams, the former Valley resident, will lead one in December.

Freeman says he’s also looking at hiring local musicians to lead some of these sessions — he may teach some himself — and to offer a range of group classes, for musicians of different skill levels, on a range of subjects, from how to improve on specific instruments to how to improvise and jam with other players.

“There are a lot of possibilities,” he said. “What I’d eventually like to see is something happening here every day. We could have open mics, we could have drop-in sessions for local musicians to perform for Sunday brunch while people have their morning coffee.”

Freeman says some of these lessons and workshops may also be staged at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence, so that there’s no conflict with a band or artist getting ready for an evening show at The Parlor Room.

The Parlor Room Foundation now has a small board of directors, including Freeman, and Olsen is serving as an advisory member. Olsen says his staff at The Parlor Room and record label is helping Freeman get the nonprofit up and running, but that Freeman will oversee its day-to-day business, including decisions on adding more staff further down the road.

Looking back on his own experience losing gigs during the pandemic, Freeman says he was struck by how The Parlor Room and Signature Sounds helped dozens of musicians by staging an online concert series during the worst of COVID-19; it raised over $100,000 for artists shut out from live performances.

“That’s the kind of community model we want to build on,” he said. “And we want to keep being a place where developing artists can really find a welcoming audience and lots of support. It feels really good to see artists play here and have them listened to, to help build their self-confidence, to be part of this larger musical community.”

More information on The Parlor Room can be found at parlorroom.org.

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

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