On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, his government cost-cutting plan emerged, and one of its proposals was the elimination the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a ludicrous stab at cost-cutting, since the NEA accounted for 0.003% of federal spending in 2016. But it exposes an unavoidable truth about art in a capitalist society: It needs money and resources.
The fact is, much of the art that we remember is the result of a financial arrangement — from the Medici family bankrolling Italian Renaissance artists in the 15th century to Apple paying for Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video in 2015. But it’s thought to “cheapen” the culture if you look at it through a commercial lens (See: the entire ethos of the grunge movement).
Jack White has operated at this nexus throughout his career. By design, he has been an avatar of the tension between art and commerce, presenting ideas about hype and marketing as integral parts of his music. And his company, Third Man Records, has become the most influential and instrumental label in the vinyl surge of the last decade by expanding on that approach.
It’s why the vinyl objects TMR sells often require more publicity than the music housed within. Critics say it makes a mockery of the format or caters to vinyl tourists, but, well, it’s no more crassly commercial than digital stunts like the visual album or surprise drop. Maybe there isn’t so much distance between Third Man Records and PC Music.
While the music industry is ripping up and starting again as the ownership society crumbles, this kind of stunt approach has become necessary for survival. At a time when rock and the album have oft been declared dead and doomsayers see a vinyl bubble burst on the horizon, a rock star with a rock-centric vinyl label is embracing this principle to not only survive, but thrive. Here’s how Jack White mixed star power, timing, fanciful vinyl fetishism, and pious reverence to create a vinyl empire as singular as he is.