In the spring of 2018, Photo Finish Records badly needed a breakout. Inside its New York headquarters, founder/CEO Matt Galle and CFO Mike Marquis held a sobering staff meeting to discuss the challenges the company was facing since it had gone independent after operating as a joint venture first with Warner Music Group through Atlantic, and then Universal Music Group through Def Jam and Republic.
In 2016, Photo Finish opted for a distribution deal with Virgin Music — formerly known as Caroline — that gave it independent ownership of its catalog moving forward. That meant parting company — at least for the moment — with past breakthrough acts like 3OH!3 and Marian Hill that had been released under the joint ventures. It was ultimately the right move, even if the company was stuck in what Galle describes as a “rough patch” in the years following. He recalls, “We sat together and said, ‘Look, we need a hit because we’re not getting funded by anybody.’”
By October of that year, however, the tide had turned: The label scored a bona fide multiformat hit in “Trampoline” from Washington, D.C.-based electro-pop group SHAED, which Galle and Marquis had signed in 2017. The slinking anthem featured in an Apple MacBook ad and landed former One Direction star Zayn Malik on a remix, which helped propel it to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 1 on the Alternative and Rock Airplay charts and No. 4 on Mainstream Top 40. It has since netted 502 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to MRC Data.
None of this was the result of serendipity, but rather the tireless work of Photo Finish’s seven-person staff, as well as a reflection of a commitment to long-term artist development that stems from Galle’s and Marquis’ deep industry backgrounds. A Boston native, Galle grew up promoting local bands before founding Photo Finish in 2006 with Marquis to support rising acts in the early stages of their careers, in some cases before they had even signed with management or worked with a lawyer. The two executives run the label alongside their work as booking agents, previously with Paradigm and currently with Creative Artists Agency, where their long-term clients include Shawn Mendes, My Chemical Romance and Bleachers.
Since signing its new distribution deal with Virgin Music, Photo Finish has re-signed 3OH!3 and Hill to the label and curated an 11-act roster that includes The Maine, Handsome Ghost, CAL, Lakeview, AVIV, Elliot Lee, joan and singer-songwriter Ross Copperman, who has written hits for Kelsea Ballerini and Keith Urban. (Its alumni artists include MisterWives, ROZES, The Downtown Fiction and The Mowgli’s.)
As the label marks its 15th year, Galle wants to keep the roster small but ambitions large so Photo Finish can remain an indie with “major-label resources that can swing for the fences and hit home runs.”
How did you make the decision to go independent, even when it meant leaving behind your catalog?
Mike Marquis: A lot of it was noticing the changing landscapes of the major labels. Their attention and spends were associated with whatever was popping off at that moment, and there wasn’t a lot of attention to detail and career development. It seemed very singles and data-driven. For us, it’s not the same value system. It’s the difference between falling in love with an apartment but you’re renting it, versus deciding to buy your first property that you can fully make your own.
Matt Galle: We had some red tape with the majors. We were blocked from even putting songs on SoundCloud back then. We weren’t able to do a lot of those developing things that help grow artists, and that played into our decision.
Knowing that you’re focused on long-term development, how did you approach having a viral hit with SHAED’s “Trampoline”?
Galle: When it started to take off, I was like, “We need a calendar of things that are happening every single week for the next 24 weeks,” because we wanted to make sure we were improving our chart position as high as we could go. We did a bunch of remixes, and then [A&R representative/creative director] Drew [Kaklamanos] found the needle in a haystack: He got Zayn on a remix of it, and that really helped the song take off internationally.
Marquis: I remember saying, “This is a multiformat hit if we can get it, so we have to charge for it on all things.” That’s what we did with Marian Hill, who had a similar synch with Apple [with “Down” in 2017], so we learned a lot from that. The response was very much like, “Multiformat? It’s just a synch!” But eventually, we got there. We went hard with alternative radio first because we wanted the band to feel like there was more texture to it and that it wasn’t a pop hit. We were working so hard that we got to a moment where things happened that we didn’t plan, like [DJ-producer] JAUZ playing the song in his 2019 Coachella set. There’s nothing better.
From The Maine’s recent hit “Sticky” to Galle’s part in planning My Chemical Romance’s reunion tour as an agent, where do you start in extending an older band’s life span?
Marquis: There’s this element of it which is like, “What’s the big picture, and how does this fit into an overall plan?” The Maine is a good example. We’ve gotten them on the radio to the [top 20 on Alternative Airplay] for the first time in their career, but they’ve been able to maintain that career because there was a team of people trying to figure out how to make sure that their touring and all those things were always thoughtful.
What do you think is driving the current alt-rock revival on the charts?
Galle: Everything is cyclical. Different genres are going to be coming back around, or at least some elements of those genres with modern-day production and newer sounds.
Marquis: I’m knocking on wood. (Laughs.) A lot of people are missing live music because of the pandemic, and nostalgia. People are listening to music that’s giving them comfort right now.
How do you juggle your dual roles as agents who also run a label, and do those two roles feed each other?
Galle: I wouldn’t have some of the artists I have as an agent if I wasn’t at Atlantic those first six years. If I wasn’t in the A&R meeting when [former Atlantic senior vp A&R] Aaron Bay-Schuck was playing Bruno Mars, who was unknown at the time, I wouldn’t have been his agent. If I didn’t meet manager Andrew Gertler hanging out around the building, he wouldn’t have thought of me as an agent to call when he found Shawn Mendes. We know a lot of A&R people, and when they have new acts, they call us.
Marquis: I’m a better agent because I understand the dynamics of how labels work and can speak to artists intelligently about things like radio. On the other hand, most people at labels have limited exposure to the inner workings of touring. The way we’re able to play those things off each other benefits us in both. To be blunt, it’s a tremendous amount of work. You have to trust your team.
Even with a small roster, you’re still a very small team. How would you describe the culture at Photo Finish?
Galle: People have titles and roles, but everybody kind of works on everything together.
Marquis: We try to remain egoless about who gets credit. Working within a major, we saw how much the staff’s job was to work for their boss, not so much for the artists. There was a lot of jockeying for who’s working on the highest-profile releases. Sometimes, that wasn’t what was best for the artists. We have a little bit of a different mantra, and it’s healthy for the artists because they have everyone thinking about them all the time.
Marian Hill and The Maine are among the Photo Finish acts touring in 2021. How has it been navigating the return to live events?
Marquis: In general, it’s just bananas. Everybody wants to work. Normally half of [our roster is] on cycle, requiring your time, and half of them are off making records. At the moment, everything is on everywhere. It’s exciting and I miss the adrenaline, but it’s a lot to manage. There’s going to be tons of business and it’s going to be an amazing year, and everybody might start to think that they’re bigger than they are. Next year could be a little troublesome because everyone is trying to take the next step, but there’s just not enough room in the market.
Galle: We have a lot of big on-sales coming up, and everybody is trying to get them up while people are buying tickets, with only so much money that somebody is going to spend. They’ll spend more because they haven’t seen anything in a while, but the following year, spending will bounce back to what it was.
Looking ahead to the next 15 years, what are your goals?
Galle: To continue to tick boxes of genres that we’re not in. We have two acts in country right now, and we have never been in that world before. We have Lakeview, a developing artist for almost two years now. And then we have Ross Copperman, an amazing songwriter-producer. We believe in him, and we want to double down on him.
More artists today are looking to own their masters. Have you had any recent discussions about making deals fairer to talent moving forward?
Galle: People come with terms where they want everything. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to weigh out financially how that makes sense when you’re putting six figures down on marketing at the minimum on these developing artists and they have zero going on. How do you weigh that out? It’s harder for us to estimate when we don’t have a Taylor Swift or Drake offsetting that.
Marquis: The way that we deal with that with our artists is that we explain it thoughtfully and upfront. We are transparent about the economics of record deals and explain what it all means, but also why we’re able to bend on some things but not on others. The one thing that’s changing for us is that the terms, in general, are shorter. But even if we’re doing a shorter-term deal, we believe they’re going to want to continue with us.
In today’s red-hot market for catalog sales, are you ever tempted to build up your catalog and then sell it?
Galle: People have reached out to us a lot in the past three years. It’s flattering, but we’ve only been growing our catalog that we own 100% for six years, so we would have that conversation seriously five or 10 years from now. It’s interesting to hear what kind of numbers they’re throwing out, but nothing has wowed us yet.
5 Key Albums
The Photo Finish releases that have had the biggest impact on the charts.
Want (2008) — 3OH!3
Certified gold by the RIAA, 3OH!3’s second album spawned the No. 7 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Don’t Trust Me.” Want reached No. 2 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart and peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard 200, where it spent 51 weeks — the longest stay among all of Photo Finish’s titles.
Streets of Gold (2010) — 3OH!3
Streets of Gold was Photo Finish’s first and (so far) only top 10 album on the Billboard 200: It debuted at No. 7 in July 2010. The album’s lead single, “My First Kiss” (featuring Kesha), reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 two months prior.
Act One (2017) — Marian Hill
Hill’s debut, Act One, included the top 10 Pop Airplay hit “Down,” which was also RIAA-certified double-platinum. Released in March 2017, the set reached No. 5 on Top Rock Albums and No. 3 on Alternative Albums.
Melt: Deluxe (2019) — SHAED
In December 2019, SHAED released the deluxe edition of its breakout 2017 EP, Melt, which included the Zayn-assisted edit of its hit “Trampoline” and a remix by DJ-producer JAUZ. The rework hit No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums chart for a week in January 2020.
XOXO: From Love and Anxiety in Real Time (2021) — The Maine
In July, the Tempe, Ariz.-based pop-rock band’s eighth studio release reached No. 22 on the Alternative Albums chart. The Maine will support All Time Low on the touring festival Sad Summer Fest, which is sponsored by Journeys. (Marquis is also a partner in the venture.)