Music

The Fascinating Rise Of Third Man Records As The Most Influential Vinyl Label In America

Getty Images/Third Man Records

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.

The Same Boy You’ve Always Known

“The day we opened our doors, I think it was within a week of the Dow Jones hitting its historic low,” recounts Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records, on the company’s precarious start. “A vinyl record label in 2009, ‘OK, great business idea. Lemme know how that works out.’” Like the band that first launched Jack White to fame, the label started with a modest, borderline naive vision.

“Third Man shows up on paper in 2001,” Blackwell, who handles most of Third Man’s manufacturing and distribution, told me over the phone. “Doesn’t have any employees, doesn’t have any office space, it’s basically just a legal entity to kind of help protect the band. The deals [The White Stripes] signed weren’t terribly traditional. The band basically gave those labels roughly 10-year licenses on their albums, under the guise of Third Man Records.”

Fast forward to 2008: White regains the rights to his catalog just as he’s planning a Tennessee exodus. “So Jack looks at this building he has and he says, ‘Hey, let’s start up Third Man as a real label, not just as a paper corporation, and let’s just press the White Stripes catalog on vinyl. That should be enough to keep a record label running,” Blackwell said.

Between the idea’s conception and its launch on March 11, 2009, The Dead Weather formed and finished their debut. On Record Store Day a month later, the band put out a 7” as TMR001 — establishing Third Man as a big fish in a small (but growing) pond just a few weeks in. “And that kind of pivots the first year of the label immediately,” Blackwell said. “We don’t do any White Stripes reissues, we do this Dead Weather record, Jack has this idea for the Blue Series, the Vault starts in July 2009. All these things come pretty quick.”

In past interviews, White waxed rhapsodic about “happenstance” factoring into TMR’s early days, but obviously it’s much easier to wing it like that when you have his cultural cachet. A grand opening isn’t so risky if it doubles as the announcement and debut of his newest band. An idea isn’t a boondoggle if you can set up a late night interview about it. You’re not just another indie if you can land a Jay Z vinyl edition.

But as Tidal illustrates, star power alone doesn’t ensure success in the current music climate. The crux of the matter is that workaholic, once-in-a-generation musician Jack White is the crux of the matter. He produces and mixes for the label, performs on its songs, curates the artists, art directs, and possibly upholsters the office furniture. Plus, he’s the P.T. Barnum figure whipping up a frenzy.

“We can talk about the intensity of Jimi Hendrix’s playing, and how unbelievable it is. But make no mistake, the man was full of gimmicks. He was setting his guitar on fire, playing with his teeth, dressing in marching band outfits,” White told Uncut about his operating ethos. “What some people call a gimmick, others will call art.”

And so, while vinyl gimmicks have been around for decades, nobody has utilized them like Third Man, from the superficial (a peach-scented LP) to spectacular (a record playing in space!).

The label’s more notable endeavors inspire both awe and incredulity:

*A 7” that must be sliced out of a 12”, dubbed the “triple decker
*1,000 records distributed via balloon launch
*Lazaretto 3-speed Ultra edition with tracks underneath the label
*The world’s fastest record: recorded, transported to the pressing plant, pressed, and available at Third Man in under four hours
*A liquid-filled record
*A 3-RPM LP

The novelties may get the headlines, but the company really does skew serious. For every Insane Clown Posse x Mozart troll job, there’s a holy grail like Elvis Presley’s first recording. For every Stephen Colbert goof there’s an effort to start kids on vinyl. The Vault, a paid subscription for limited, exclusive releases, started years before streaming platforms would take that approach to woo stans. The Rolling Record Store emerged in conjunction with festival culture to hock limited TMR wares to attendees. The Nashville space records live performances direct-to-acetate because that process is “as honest as it gets.” Outside of vinyl, there are poetry readings, art film screenings, fundraising initiatives.

“These aren’t efforts that are classic moneymakers. Or even general moneymakers. A lot of them are just for passion and for continuing and expanding culture,” Blackwell explained.

With Ben Blackwell and TMR’s other executive, Ben Swank, at his side and a commitment to doing things “for the culture,” White built the Nashville site into a destination that was drawing some 300 daily visitors. Just five years into the enterprise, TMR had the top-selling vinyl of 2014 with Lazaretto. The LP sold 40,000 copies its first week, the biggest vinyl opening of the Nielsen Soundscan era. As of this writing, they’ve pressed over 400 titles on roughly three million pieces of vinyl.

It’s a rise that led author Nick Hasted to call White “music’s King Canute, determined and inventive enough to actually turn back the tide.” And the team would agree: The video announcing Third Man’s pressing plant (more on that in a bit) boldly declares, “From the label that made vinyl important again.”

“I used to try to be very unassuming and humble about it,” Blackwell said, “But who would you look towards, Warner Brothers brought vinyl back? Would you say Sony got you to buy a turntable?”

Effect & Cause: The State Of Vinyl

Vinyl was undoubtedly on the upswing before Third Man came onto the scene — the first landmark moment in the rebound was arguably when 2008 sales almost doubled 2007’s. But when White’s operation launched, it brought a new visibility and a narrative beyond “Oh look, they sell records at Urban Outfitters now.” Few did more to spread vinyl awareness in the ensuing years, and the impact rippled across the industry, from Sub Pop’s attempt at a TMR-style release (which was a complete disaster), to Ryan Adams’ recent vinyl booth single (a couple years after Neil Young recorded an entire album in TMR’s booth), to the emergence of subscription record club Vinyl Me, Please.

Whether Third Man sparked the vinyl surge or simply benefited from it is almost beside the point. The chicken or the egg, it’s getting eaten.

In 2016, 13.1 million vinyl units sold in the U.S., marking the 11th straight year of sales growth and the most annual vinyl sales in the Soundscan era. In 2015, The New York Times reported that more than half of vinyl customers were 35 or younger. Even turntable sales are going up. You might say vinyl is thriving.

But you might be wrong. In recent years, Stereogum’s Michael Nelson has become vinyl’s resident “don’t believe the hype” man, warning of a coming contraction. He’d point out that the 13.1 million figure amounts to just a 10% increase over 2015 sales, making it the lowest year-over-year growth since 2006. (2014 saw a 50% increase, 2015 saw a 29% bump.)

“At best, sales will be maybe one or two percent higher by the end of 2017, but they could just as easily be one or two percent lower,” Nelson wrote over email to me. “It will officially be a mature industry. The growth phase is over.” Not only that, but he thinks all signs — like brick-and-mortar sales vanishing as supply increases — suggest sales will “crater rather than ride out that plateau till the end of time.”

But industry insiders like TMR’s Ben Swank and executives at United Record Pressing have a sunnier outlook, expecting sales to flatten at worst. From their perspective, the real existential threat has been the choked supply line.

The vinyl press is an endangered species. When the format bottomed out in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, there was no incentive to make new presses or repair old ones, so when the surge hit, it was powered by creaky machines from the first go-round. There are only a couple dozen operational plants in the US, and even when new ones opened, it just meant they were using presses from some other plant that shuttered, so capacity rarely increased.

As soon as vinyl became commercially viable again, there was a bottleneck leading to long queues that favored AOR staples and major labels, pushing smaller parties to the back of the line and annihilating their release schedules. Even with plants cranking out discs 24 hours a day, clearing 30-40K records a day, the pipeline was gummed up. An anonymous indie label employee captured the frustration when the squeeze was at its peak a couple years ago: “Every time I see a headline about Jack White’s latest gimmick, it’s kind of maddening. While he’s making records ‘in one day,’ normal customers can go weeks not knowing the status of their orders.”

“The downside of having a face of the label is that face will get unfairly attacked or blamed,” Blackwell told me. “Nobody is saying ‘Aw the head vinyl guy of Sony is clogging up all the pressing plants.’ Nobody knows who that guy is! I don’t know who that is and I probably deal with him. It becomes ‘Jack White is clogging the plants. It’s his fault, he’s doing crazy, liquid-filled records.’ No, it’s not. Everything we’re doing is making it so everyone else sells more records too.” And Third Man wasn’t even immune; in 2014, the label couldn’t get Lazaretto to distributors on time because of the overcrowding.

Around that time, after a decade of the humble vinyl press being ignored by innovators and investors, the prospect of making new ones became financially palatable. So of course Jack White and the Bens were among the first to pursue the option, eventually stumbling upon German startup Newbilt, who was making new presses. TMR eventually teamed up with Detroit-based luxury goods maker Shinola to buy a building for their Detroit plant (another one of those pesky financial alignments) and purchased eight Newbilt machines.

The factory, which opened on February 25, is nothing short of a vinyl wonderland. It’s expected to produce 5,000 records per eight-hour shift.

And it’s attached to TMR’s just-opened second store and has a window allowing customers to watch the entire pressing process.

In addition, a handful of new vinyl plants opened in the US in the past couple years, while United Record Pressing, one of the nation’s highest volume pressers, just moved to a new facility that should increase its output by 50%, to roughly 45,000 records per day.

From Blackwell’s perspective, the sector is turning the corner. “The past year or six months, I’ve noticed and I think other people would agree, that the ‘Oh my god turnaround times are so bad, shit is so crazy we can’t get our records fast enough,’ is diminishing. That is no longer the case across the board.”

Let’s Shake Hands

According to Third Man, those eight machines are the first new presses added to the market in 35 years. On its face, increasing industry-wide capacity seems like an obvious positive. More presses means more supply and less of a traffic jam. If supply goes up, prices potentially go down, more units sell, and the “luxury product” complaints subside.

But remember, despite the breathless coverage, vinyl’s so-called resurgence accounts for a very minuscule proportion of the total music sold, and an even tinier sliver of the total music consumed. So skeptics like Michael Nelson might see this as a small sector overextending and/or flooding the market. What if the new plants aren’t filling enough orders to operate at full capacity, do prices increase? What if supply outpaces demand? What if the added capacity is just gobbled up by the biggest players?

The (presumably) deep pockets of Jack White and Shinola would (presumably) insulate them from such catastrophic forces. And now that they control all points of the production chain, they’re an even rarer beast still. This can be a frightening prospect for competitors, who might worry Third Man will make a run at apex predator status and start saying things like “scale.” But they’ve struck quite the opposite tone in press releases and interviews ahead of the Detroit plant’s launch.

“The goal is to try and help smaller labels, independent artists, people just trying to get started,” Blackwell said of the Detroit strategy. “Those seem to be the folks that have been pushed out when vinyl got hip. So we’re trying to help bring those folks back in, to lower turnaround times, and make everything accessible. It became a little bit of a let’s put our money where our mouth is, let’s be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

To that end, they’ll continue fulfilling some orders at United (TMR was URP’s third-largest customer), ensuring that there are spots in their Detroit queue for smaller parties. In addition, the plan to become embedded in the local scene brings with it an expansion beyond the label’s rock focus, with plans to press “all genres across all eras” of Detroit’s storied music output: Tamla reissues are already done, and techno records are on the agenda.

So while it’s tough to place Third Man in the context of the wider industry because of their unique positioning and origin story, this latest move certainly seems like a model for how others in the vinyl sector might balance expansion with localization.

“Vinyl is still a small world… new people are getting involved, but it’s getting a lot more regional,” Blackwell said. “Anyone who asks me about pressing records, I’ve said press close to you. If you at all have the ability to walk into a place and place an order, do it. It is going to be far more streamlined and rewarding. And that seems to be slowly where things are headed.”

Conclusion: Music As Physical, Music As Community

There is no logical reason to buy a giant disc of music in the year 2017. It just doesn’t make sense. And by extension, there was no logical reason for Third Man Records to flourish the way it has in under in a decade.

“We have almost no consideration for profit and I think that’s why we are highly profitable,” White once surmised in an interview with The Guardian. “People always told me over the years: ‘You have such a mind for business and marketing.’ That’s hilarious because I never ever think about it… When you stand for things, people come to you.”

Perhaps this, more than anything, explains vinyl’s renaissance and Third Man’s vaunted status. It was never about the “analog warmth” and “audiophile” remasters, or the crackle and surface noise. It’s about fleeing the malaise of the cloud in search of something to hold in your clutches, and Jack White was one of the first to realize that. As he said in 2011, “It’s kids getting real records in their hands and listening to them, and starting a whole new trek down some other path that’s not digital, not invisible, not disposable.”

For years he’s been wary of the brain-scrambling power of digital music, and the label is his attempt to create a salve for, and exploitation of, this modern affliction. His emphasis on music as physical, on listening as an active behavior, on music as industry, on the power of tactile art to distract from digital distractions — it’s as much a beautiful respite from the modern environment as it is a sales pitch.

It’s Jack White the huckster and Jack White the historian, downplaying the label as “a McGuffin” one minute then describing it in the most aw-shucks terms imaginable the next: “The overwhelming goals of my life are to create community, create family, create scenarios where things get better and last a long time. Create them!” As he spins yarns about the ceaseless spinning of the black (or red, or scented) circle, Third Man’s Wonka-visionary determines and deviates from vinyl’s fate.

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