You don't keep a tiny independent record label afloat for 15 years without being quick to adapt to new marketplace realities. That's one of the reasons that 24 Hour Service Station, a bedroom operation based in Wesley Chapel, is still standing. In 1994, when Marshall Dickson — a local record store manager and DJ — started the imprint with one act, Rosewater Elizabeth, he pressed CDs and cassettes, delivered them to local indie outlets and pimped the product in any way he could imagine. He eventually set up a deal through an independent distribution company, but none of his acts ever broke out with significant sales.
To coin a phrase: My, how things have changed.
These days, Dickson runs 24HSS with his fiancé Sonshine Ward and consultant Michael Cornette under a substantially revamped model. It's still a record label that signs and markets new product by mostly Bay area bands. Geri X, The Beauvilles and Car Bomb Driver are among the acts on his roster. But the company also includes 24 Hour Distribution, which acts as a conduit to major online retailers like iTunes, Rhapsody, amazon.com and a slew of smaller ones. 24 Hour's middleman to these consumer delivery systems is a San Francisco-based firm called Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA).
The upshot: Acts affiliated with 24HSS get their product on a plethora of "e-tail" sites. But it's not just Dickson's signed acts. He has a roster of smaller labels that go through his portal — roughly 20 imprints that total around a hundred artists. They range from a U.K.-based label that specializes in a form of Island dance music called soca, to an outfit that distributes ambient sounds of trains, waves and waterfalls to help people sleep.
"I'm definitely dealing with volume, trying to get as many lines in the water as possible," Dickson, 39, says. "Hopefully, we'll end up getting a lot of bites."
That hasn't happened yet. But Dickson says his digital downloads, from which he makes pennies, are steadily on the upswing, and expects that his 24HST enterprise will continue to provide him a living, if not make him well off. "You find something you love and call it work," he says.
Dickson has embraced this brave new music world — he understands he didn't have a choice — but admits that the whole thing is in major flux. Online retail is full of opportunity, but fraught with something akin to chaos. "From my point of view and the artist's point of view, it's a better world in a sense," Dickson says. "The gates are open. But it's a worse world in that the gates are open but the fence is down and everyone's rushing the stage."
It's crucial that indie artists and labels do whatever possible to stand out amid the clutter. That routinely entails exhaustive online outreach in an attempt to make the music go viral. Sure, talented artists can try and try and never see the light of day, but Dickson maintains faith in the new musical meritocracy. "It happens organically, not because an A&R man chose you and you're on MTV, but because you're good," he says. "It takes longer to get there but it's more genuine."
Indie online distribution provides one major advantage to artists: They make roughly 50 cents on a dollar with downloads, compared to a fraction of that if they happen to be on a major label. It also offers advantages to 24HSS. "With digital, once you have the mastered recording, there is no real overhead," Dickson explains. "No damaged copies, no returns."
He says that 24HSS still provides recording budgets — albeit small ones — for the acts on its roster and even presses a limited number of CDs to be sold at gigs. But by and large Dickson's day-to-day workload take place in cyberworld. One of 24HSS's major jobs is to promote the product: distribute "sell sheets," bios and press materials; reach out to critics and bloggers and other tastemakers by sending them promo material and links to mp3s. "For instance, we might give away a song to 850 people and 150 people buy it," he says. "We can live with that."
Even though Dickson is functioning in a far different fashion than even a half-decade ago, he's still an A&R man, still choosing the acts he signs and distributes. He accepts unsolicited submissions and samples most all of them. "There's so much chaff you gotta get through," he explains. "But it's really just a matter of clicking a link. You can feel [if it has potential] right away. You're looking for bands that have a good website, 30,000 friends and four or five albums out but can't break through, rather than a band with 14 friends and mom's calling them for dinner."
A line on Dickson's resume helps him navigate the new paradigm: For eight years, from the late 1990s into the 2000s, he worked for Sony Music in marketing, sales and graphic design. "I came in just as the big spending was ending," he says.
Even though Sony considered his running 24 Hour Service Station a conflict of interest, Dickson kept it alive on the down-low. When it came to digital awareness, he was way ahead of the curve at Sony. "I bought a CD burner and was downloading music in the office," he says. "I'd say, 'Y'know, the new Pearl Jam is out there [online],' and people would say, 'How'd you get this?' I was on the cutting edge of what was happening in digital transfer. I was totally on board with Napster. I realized that the genie was out of the bottle and you couldn't put it back in."
After Sony laid him off, Dickson resumed running 24HSS fulltime. "I learned from what the majors did wrong," he says. He has also learned to have patience. Not long ago, the now-defunct Rosewater Elizabeth's 15-year-old debut album, which the label still makes available digitally, recouped its costs. Any future sales are pure profit.
Visit 24 Hour Service Station online.