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Dan Rutherford looks like the cat who just ate the canary, like he knows something no one else does. He's had this look for a few months, ever since he returned from South by Southwest at the end of March.
Now it's a blistering hot afternoon in early June. Rutherford and Adam Lancaster, who together own Morning After Records, and the imprint's primary sound engineer, Andrew Vastola, are gathered around a table on a rooftop patio overlooking downtown Denver. Clad in a hot-pink polo shirt, with pillow-combed curls framing his face, Rutherford leans back in his chair, lights up one of his trademark clove cigarettes and starts explaining what his smug grin is all about.
"Basically, what's happening with the Photo Atlas record, No, Not Me, Never, is that Morning After and Stolen Transmission -- which is a joint venture of Island run by Rob Stevenson, who signed the Killers, Fall Out Boy, Sum 41 -- are entering into a partnership to re-release the record, which should be out later this summer," he reveals. "It's a great opportunity, not only for Morning After, but for Photo Atlas, with better distribution channels and more marketing money. That's the one negative of Morning After, that we have a limited budget; we can only do so much."
Still, it's done plenty in less than two years. Led by the savvy, ambitious Rutherford and bolstered by a trio of talented acts -- Photo Atlas, Hot IQs and Born in the Flood -- on its roster, Morning After provides a textbook example of how a small, independent label can gain national notoriety on a shoestring budget. Granted, Rutherford has benefited from some fortuitous opportunities -- early on, Hot IQs landed slots on tours supporting such emerging indie acts as Tilly and the Wall, and Tegan and Sara -- but he's also conducted a pair of successful retail and college-radio campaigns that culminated with Hot IQs' debut, An Argument Between the Brain and Feet, registering at #73 on CMJ's Top 200 chart, and Photo Atlas's No, Not Me, Never peaking at #36.
And at the same time he's worked to build his brand, he's helped raise the profile of Denver music. Along with hi-dive owner Matt LaBarge and the club's booking agent, Ben DeSoto, Rutherford put together back-to-back Denver-centric parties at SXSW in 2005 and 2006. He also arranged for his bands to appear at some pretty high-profile industry parties at this year's festival, and one of those slots paid off in a major way. Sharing the bill with Head Automatica and Nightmare of You, Photo Atlas turned in a breakthrough performance that became the talk of Austin. In addition to being namedropped as "buzzin'" by the Hits Daily Double website, an MSN Music correspondent included the outfit in his Best of SXSW blog.
"The closing band of the night was the Photo Atlas -- they're officially my new favorite band," wrote Gurj Bassi. "HOLY. SMOKES. I like to think it has nothing to do with the free booze. This band is flipping fantastic. They're so good it makes me want to spit profanities non-stop as if I have Tourette's."
Bassi's hyperventilation was warranted. From the moment Photo Atlas hit the first chord until it played the last note and left the stage completely drenched with beer, waves of frenetic energy rolled through the crowd, as though a toaster oven had landed in a packed wading pool.
"South by Southwest paid off," muses Rutherford with a laugh. "We busted our asses. That night, as soon as Photo Atlas finished playing, business cards were just being thrown at us. One of the people tied with Stolen Transmission tracked us down the next day at Gallery Lombardi. We handed her a record, which she handed off to Rob Stevenson. She called me the following Tuesday and was like, 'I can't believe how good this record is.'"
Soon after listening to No, Not Me, Never, Stevenson -- the executive vice president of A&R for Island Def Jam, who formed Stolen Transmission with former Spin scribe and assistant editor Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl -- reached out to Rutherford. "Really, the way the record sounds is a big, big part of it," Rutherford explains. "The fact that we didn't have to go back and rework anything, I think that's what made Rob so stoked about it. As he and I started talking -- he comes from a longstanding indie-label background -- he was like, ŒI understand that you're an indie label; I'll back off if you want.'
"But we're here to help our friends," Rutherford continues. "Our ultimate goal is for them to be able to quit their jobs and do what they want to do. And what they want to do is be musicians; they want to tour and live that life. How could we pass that up?"
Morning After didn't. After being flown to New York, where he met Jay-Z and L.A. Reid (who reportedly said, "I don't know what the kid is saying, but the beat is hot," of the Photo Atlas disc), Rutherford spent the past month finalizing the terms of the agreement, which will infuse his label with money for marketing and put the promotional muscle of Island Def Jam behind No, Not Me, Never. Depending on how the record does, the parent company has the option of upstreaming Photo Atlas. And the other members of Morning After's roster will benefit, too: As part of the deal, all of the label's future releases will be distributed nationally through Fontana, Universal Records' indie branch.
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