Tucson entrepreneur finds his groove cutting records out of unusual materials

TUCSON – Michael Dixon has been interested in music for as long as he can remember. First, it was listening to his parents’ Creedence Clearwater Revival albums. Then, it was performing in bands that “weren’t very good.”

Today, the Tucson entrepreneur owns five music-related businesses.

Dixon has worked with such popular artists as Justin Timberlake, Lil Yachty and the Flaming Lips. But his biggest passion involves lathe-cutting records – sometimes on Plexiglas, sometimes on anything he can find: old X-rays, plastic plates, mirrors and even CDs.

A lathe is a rotating machine for sanding, cutting or etching a material. Dixon uses these machines – most of which were made in the 1940s – to make his records. Lathe cuts give up some quality and durability, he said, but an untrained ear would not be able to hear the difference.

“After a couple years of experimentation, I started to get kind of good at it,” Dixon said. “I’m obsessed with the machines. I’m obsessed with the technology.”

Michael Dixon prepares to cut a Plexiglas record on a lathe in his studio in Tucson. (Photo by Mitchell Atencio/Cronkite News)

Michael Dixon's biggest passion involves making lathe-cut records using unconventional materials. “Hopefully, it inspires other people to use trash – or at least be conscious of what they throw away,” he said. (Photo by Mitchell Atencio/Cronkite News)

Dixon uses a lathe – a machine that rotates a workpiece against cutting, grinding or polishing tools – to make records out of unusual materials. (Photo by Mitchell Atencio/Cronkite News)

According to the 2017 Year-End Music Report in the U.S. from Nielsen, total album sales were down nearly 18 percent compared with 2016, with physical album sales down nearly 17 percent compared with 2016. Despite that, the report said vinyl sales grew 9 percent year-over-year, with more than 14 million LPs sold in 2017.

In fact, vinyl sales have grown every year over the past 12 years, the report said.

The rise of vinyl LPs has led to a resurgence of interest in physical music, but many vinyl manufacturers require a minimum 500-copy run, which can get expensive. For artists who aren’t mass sellers, lathe cuts can be a cost-effective alternative.

After spending years running lathe cuts as a side business, Dixon quit a teaching job in Washington and moved into the record business full time.

Dixon will cut a record for less cost with more flexibility in materials that can be played on a turntable and in a disc player. Part of the passion behind Dixon’s work is the thrill of turning trash into treasure.

“I love to let trash determine the direction of the project,” Dixon said. “I love to take things like laser discs and old X-rays … and turn them into something people are going to want to keep.”

Dixon said it’s easier to gain access to a larger band or artist if he pitches a less traditional or eclectic idea.

Michael Dixon prepares to cut a Plexiglas record in his studio in Tucson. (Photo by Mitchell Atencio/Cronkite News)

“A lot of times, when I’m working with bands, I’m doing very limited things,” Dixon said. “I’ll set a number – 100 lathe-cut mirrors, 150 CD records … I pay (the bands) in artist copies. I’ll give them a third or a quarter.”

Dixon sells his records through his websites. He also works with record distributor Secretly Canadian, and he sells some of his records at Wooden Tooth Records in Tucson.

Wooden Tooth co-owner Jacob Sullivan said in an email that his shop has been carrying Dixon’s work since it opened in 2015. Dixon’s records are some of the first things customers notice in the store, he said, and several customers will buy the records for the art alone.

“I don’t think our record store would really feel like a Tucson record store if we didn’t carry (Dixon’s) releases,” Sullivan said. “We get a lot of customers who take a chance on one of his releases, without knowing anything about the band or artist, simply because they are such amazing pieces of art.

“Our local music section definitely has a good percentage of lathe cuts … which is a great testament to Mike’s involvement with the Tucson music community.”

Dixon’s passion for creating tangible art has led him to work with some artists on the world stage. He and his team cut records at Timberlake’s album-release party over Super Bowl weekend. The team used lathes to put one of Timberlake’s singles on Plexiglas, a novelty that has drawn other artists to work with Dixon.

Dixon’s other businesses include a record label, Soild Gold, that works with many Tucson artists. He collaborates with the artists on his label.

When Dixon came across hundreds of pristine Reader’s Digest books at a garage sale, he had an idea for his next project.

“I started thinking about how I could use the covers and ended up deciding I would do ‘Records Digest: Condensed Music,’” he said.

The project consisted of 5-inch records with four bands performing two songs, each two or fewer minutes.

With a lot of his ideas, Dixon said he has to learn a new skill to see the project through to completion. Dixon foil-pressed a title onto the front of the book, hand-bound each book and hand-numbered each product.

“I love learning new skills, and that’s part of the reason I do this record label and why I’m always trying to make something I haven’t made before,” Dixon said. “I’m never going to be a master bookbinder … but now I know how it’s done.”

The ability to save trash from ending up in a landfill is an added bonus for most of the art Dixon makes.

Michael Dixon shows a freshly cut Plexiglas record with his PIAPTIK label. He uses a lathe to cut records in his studio in Tucson. (Photo by Mitchell Atencio/Cronkite News)

“You can only make so much of a difference. … I’m not saving the world, but by making an art piece that is ‘up-cycled’ and made from trash, it at least does a little bit to keep things out of the landfill,” Dixon said. “And, hopefully, it inspires other people to use trash – or at least be conscious of what they throw away.”

Dixon’s expertise in lathes has led him to train and educate others in the machine work. A few times a year, people from around the world travel to his Lathe Cave in Tucson to learn about the art of a lathe-cut in a three-day camp. He teaches students how the machines work and how to cut a single, with many of them then going on to cut records themselves.

Dixon, who’s always looking for new opportunities, said his ideas often come from chance encounters or conversations with friends over beer.

“If it’s flat and it’s plastic, I’ve at least tried it,” Dixon said of the materials he has used. “As long as I can continue to make records for a living, I will.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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