Running his tiny label is difficult, especially since he has to subsist on the slow-trickling capital of a cab driver. To make matters worse, Donovan lost the use of Dial's prime venue, the Peacock Lounge, six months ago. The Lower Haight club -- in which Dial held more than a dozen shows, including a six-hour, eight-band marathon last April -- was forced to close due to the encroachment of new loft condos. "It was something to do with the fire escape not being accessible," says Donovan. "But now, because of the sinking economy, these brand-new lofts are half-empty."
While it may be true that indie labels are a dime a dozen and generally run by flaky hobbyists, Dial is unique. Over the past three years, the tiny imprint has released a large amount of impressive, genre-bending music -- both in unusual musical formats and with striking homemade packaging. Proving once again that great music is worth digging for, Dial is one of San Francisco's hidden treasure-troves.
Donovan relocated to the Bay Area from the University of Maryland in 1996, following a stint as drummer for Teenbeat/Slumberland indie rock act the Ropers. He launched Dial the following year, issuing a small run of 7-inches by his four-track project, the Del-Velum. Soon afterward, Donovan and his college friend Mike Wiley borrowed money from their parents in order to put out more of the bedroom music they loved.
"It's a pretty hard thing to explain to your parents: "Well, we're not going to make any money; in fact, we'll be throwing money away,'" Donovan says from his Lower Haight apartment. "My mom would just say, "Sounds pretty dicey to me!' These bands had no plans to have careers in music. I thought I should start a label because this stuff is good as hell, and no one is going to do it. [It's] just dirty four-track recordings by artists who are making no attempt to get themselves heard."
Donovan quickly realized he was the only one of his friends with this mad desire. "Del-Velum was a solo four-track project, then it became a band. The rest of the band wasn't as excited about it as I was. Then the bass player was moving to Chicago, so I suggested recording an album for posterity at the very least. Everyone seemed into it, and then someone else said, "We've got to have a Sega tournament,' and I thought, "Nooo! You guys are killing me.'"
The Del-Velum full-length never materialized, but Donovan's interest continued unabated. Realizing his job at Open Mind Music wasn't lucrative enough, he switched to driving a taxi in spring 1999. With the Internet economy in full swing and cabs in large demand, Donovan earned enough money to release a series of 10-inch records cut by hand on a '60s lathe machine in New Zealand. (The company, King Records Worldwide, is known for its small runs of unusually thick vinyl.) The attractive, clear polycarbonate discs had a rough-but-warm, crackling-fireplace sound. One of the most stunning 10-inches was a self-titled release by a band called Rocket Science & the Nigger Loving Faggots; not surprisingly, it was the label's worst seller. ("I think that was because of the name," Donovan deadpans.) Far from being a hateful joke, though, Rocket Science's "Pink Is the New Black" features beautiful improvised noise, created by a now-defunct Mission District guitar/ drums duo.
The other standout 10-inch was a Blectum From Blechdom collaboration with OST, Bad Music and Butt-Prints, which came in homemade sleeves with actual butt prints from the female damaged-sample duo. Ironically, after the release, Blectum From Blechdom became better known and moved on to larger labels -- and a mention in the current issue of Spin.
"With someone like Blectum From Blechdom, they have so much help now from relatively bigger labels," Donovan says. "I wouldn't say, "Come on, you have to do another record for Dial.' The understanding is, "You guys are on your way, and that's great.' The business part is against my nature completely, and that keeps things small. I've been doing this for four years and I finally just got some folders." He points to a small stack of papers. "That's pretty much the whole label right there. I don't have any kind of business plan. Though I did get an invitation to join the Academy -- you know, the one that puts on the Grammies."
Dial business arrangements are all informal. In fact, many of the artists -- including solo electronics mangler Chris Douglas, who records as OST and Rook Valade, and Iran's Aaron Aites -- actually live in Donovan's neighborhood. "Most Dial artists have been friends of mine, which is kind of a questionable criterion. Sometimes I think, "They're all my friends; how good can it be?' But it is good."
The common thread among the artists isn't just their proximity; if there's a Dial theme, it's "man vs. machines ... man wins." Many of the musicians use electronics, but not to craft smooth, contempo computer sounds. In OST, Douglas treats his sampled beats and New Age synth sounds with utter contempt, while Mike Wiley's Marina project uses cheap keyboards and loops to make a synthetic racket that veers from spacey to ugly. The Church Steps, Donovan's own current project, combines muted acoustic songs with Douglas' laptop squiggles and drum machine clang. Even Rocket Science's Kyp Malone doesn't so much play his electric guitar as dismantle it.
"Yeah, I guess that's kind of a theme," says Donovan. "The first track on the Marina album is called "Mensa Theme,' and it's intentionally bad sounding, sort of to say that if you only studied mathematics and electronic gadgetry your music would sound awful!"
Though a few releases have come out on CD with conventional packaging, there are no more than 100 copies of each. And while several small distributors like Darla Records (which used to be housed three blocks from Donovan) have stocked Dial product, the label's eclectic sounds have largely gone unnoticed.
Andee Connors, assistant manager for Aquarius Records, says, "I was shocked to find out Mike was only selling like 50 copies of each release. The records are so good, I just assumed he was selling hundreds of them. It's easily the best label in San Francisco run by a cab driver."
"I don't get much feedback," says Donovan. "The records just mysteriously disappear over a long period of time. The majority of the e-mails I get say, "I'd like to buy that Blectum From Blechdom record,' and then they never actually order it!"
So why continue? "The best part about doing a label is when you get the idea to do something. When you conceptualize the record, the music, the title, the artwork -- that's the fun part. Then six months later the record comes out, and it's like, "waaa-woh' [he makes a sound like a dying goose]. It's anticlimactic. I'm always just dreaming of putting records out. If I had more money, I would put out tons more records."
Describing Donovan, Aites says, "Beyond his label, Mike's the kind of guy who's glad to step in and help out the musicians he likes with anything -- and I mean anything -- from rent to getting gigs to helping to realize ass prints on a record cover to, well, anything. Because Mike cares so much, the people that make records for Dial tend to care a lot too. I think that the musicians that do Dial records really want to give him something special."
Understandably, the financial altruism wears on Donovan. "I do fret over it. Money and the label -- I've been fretting over it. It's gotten a lot slower for cabs in the last six months. There's less money flying around. There was so much Wall Street money, so many cell phones, but there's less of that false confidence now."
Taxi driving isn't always the easiest way to finance a label, either. "One guy was begging me to let him smoke crack in the back. I refused, but when we got on the freeway, he smoked it anyway and spent the rest of the time in the back seat under his coat, screaming that the cops were coming. I've also gotten robbed at "proposed' gunpoint."
Despite the changing times, Donovan has five new releases planned this summer, including a Church Steps EP co-released on Flapping Jet Records. He's also planning to put out albums on tape, which is even more out of step with the times. The subsidiary will be called Folding Cassettes, and will consist of albums he painstakingly dubs by hand.
"I don't know what I get out of it," says Donovan, struggling to explain. "It seems like there's never enough time to get it done. I'm never really getting lost in it; I'm always trying to make more time for it. It's part of my real life."
Even with negligible sales, Dial's impact is significant. The tiny label turns up the volume on S.F.'s unheard music.