Mike Dixon is a very busy man, between owning five companies and working for the record label Joyful Noise out of Indianapolis. He’s a man on a mission and that mission is to help independent bands release their music on lathe cut vinyl records with minimal monetary investment. With the popularity of vinyl records growing by the day, factories can’t keep up with demand, and Dixon’s here to help with that.
By definition, lathe cut records are very short run vinyl records made from plexiglass, one-at-a-time, in real-time, rather than through a traditional industrial manufacturing operation. If traditional records are the equivalent of a mass produced gift shop poster, lathe cuts are the original artist’s silkscreen print.
Dixon began his record label, People in a Position to Know, nine years ago while he was teaching high school in Olympia. He originally ordered short run records from New Zealand’s lathe cut godfather Peter King. He acquired a lathe cutting machine when the orders from King started to take too long.
“I started to wonder if I could do it myself, so I began buying broken lathes on Ebay, but getting them working was outside my technical expertise,” Dixon confesses. “So I found a guy in Seattle who had a fully-functioning 1940’s Presto 6N, which are the types I use almost exclusively now.”
After about a year of experimentation, Dixon had both the machines and process figured out. He amassed 11 different machines for his lathe cutting operation—most of which, he says, he now uses on a daily basis. He enlisted his friend, John Farmer, to make their needles out of tungsten tig-welding rods, which scratch the grooves into the plexiglass discs. “It’s extremely experimental and DIY,” Dixon says.
What began as a hobby to release his own music and his friends’ music on lathe cuts has now become a full-time job. He relocated to Tucson two years ago and put his 13-year teaching career on hold to work on the project with the help of five employees at his shop downtown.
“I basically took a chance and quit my teaching job to make records full time,” he says. “Since then I’ve made records at SXSW, Sundance Film Festival, Pitchfork Paris and month long residencies in L.A. and Paris with my company Mobile Vinyl Records.”
Leaving a steady paycheck for a small niche art business was a big leap for Dixon. “The teaching job was the only thing keeping me in Olympia and I knew I could cut records from anywhere,” Dixon says. “I had been to Tucson quite a bit and always had a great time. I knew a lot of people here through Golden Boots, who I’ve released over thirty records for. Tucson seemed like an affordable place to live with a great music and art scene.”
Making a vinyl record through the traditional channels is an expensive and laborious task. Vinyl production worldwide is operating way above its capacity at the moment. Expensive materials, expert knowledge and antiquated machinery have led to supply shortages and quality problems. Vinyl’s manufacturing chain is divided into many small parts. It’s complicated and requires a lot of work by hand, both in the actual pressing plant as well as with the other steps in the production. There are only two companies in the world that produce lacquer mastering discs and the ruby needles that cut them. PVC pellets–the raw material used for the production of records–are only produced by five companies.
With major labels returning to the format they once had a hand in destroying when CDs hit the scene, they are now flooding the market with vinyl reissues. Although a majority of consumers have given up on CDs for streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify, there are still a significant number of people that miss the days of having something tangible to hold in their hands. Even cassettes have made somewhat of a comeback.
One of the main advantages to lathe cuts is a quicker turn-around time. Right now Dixon and his label are turning records out in about two weeks as opposed to a pressing plant that takes up to six months. Minimums are also much smaller: most pressing plants won’t do less than five hundred and initial costs are high because there’s a lot of set-up involved.
“They have to cut the lacquer master, and pay to get the molds done. Someone at the factory has to put the molds on a press and stamp out the records themselves,” Dixon explains. “What we do is take a piece of plexiglass, cut the master into it, package it and send it out.”
Dixon has another record label called Soild Gold with Dimitri Manos from Golden Boots, which specializes in vinyl record releases in 1970’s bootleg style packaging. They have released records for bands like Floating Action, Eric Slick from Dr. Dog and Labryyynth.
Dixon also spends his time presenting for his The Science of Sound project. Here, he goes to schools and libraries and talks about the history and science of recorded sound, leading kids in hands-on activities. Attendees get to record their voice onto a vinyl record and make a DIY record player out of a cactus needle and a piece of paper.
Despite being busy with those others business and labels, PIAPTK recordings, his primary record label and passion project, is working hard to release unique records for bands that Dixon loves. They treat physical music formats as an art form with unusual packaging, experimental records with multiple holes and CD/Vinyl hybrids that are playable on a record player and in traditional CD players.
Dixon’s democratic treatment of the vinyl format means smaller bands have the opportunity to release more imaginative, unique, and, therefore, rewarding albums to fans.