FEATURE: From the Table to the Lathe: Inside the Empire: Third Man Records and a Glorious Return to the Past




From the Table to the Lathe


IN THIS PHOTO: Third Man Records' store in Nashville/PHOTO CREDIT: Third Man Records

Inside the Empire: Third Man Records and a Glorious Return to the Past


WE are told that the traditional record shop…

is dying and becoming a bit of a novelty. Whilst it is true most high-streets do not boast a decent record shop; there are some pretty good ones if you know where to look. I go down to Brighton, to Resident, to get a good fill of all the latest vinyl and those classics I need in my collection! London has Rough Trade East and there are some good, smaller alternatives in various boroughs. It is hard to find a record shop, even in the city – a shop selling music, full stop, is starting to feel like a bit of a treat! I am fascinated by records and traditional vinyl because you can almost feel that creative transition from the writer scribbling at the kitchen table to the vinyl lathe coming out and all the manufacturing taking place – before it is minted, shrink-wrapped and dispatched to the store! Look at the cosmic universe of Third Man Records and you get something vintage yet forward-thinking. Look at the store to see the roster of artists under their wings. You can look at the official website and get all the latest happenings from the American enterprise. It was founded by Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather) and he balances running its bases and performing. White is promoting his latest album, Boarding House Reach, but can be found at one of Third Man Records’ bases in Nashville and Detroit.

One need only listen to Jack White speak and he is all about keeping things pure and simple – a man who does not care much for modern technology and taking an easy course! Third Man Records interests me as a business and idea. It started life in Nashville, after Jack White moved out of Detroit, but sort of returned home soon after – there is one base in Nashville and another in Detroit. The reason behind this, according to White, is to ensure it would survive. In Nashville, if someone is on a billboard and is successful; there is applause and people are pleased – the opposite is true in Detroit. There is more cynicism and a more blue-collar approach to such celebration: people shoot straight and it is harder to win the collective around. After successful and profit in Nashville; a store/base was opened in Detroit and things are getting bigger and better. White is signing new names to his label and covering a range of genres; vinyl is being produced and sold at the rate of knots and people come from all around to visit the Detroit or Nashville store. This article, published by Vulture last year, explores the success of the Third Man Records label and the artists being signed. First; it took us back to the very start:

In March of 2009, when Jack White, Ben Swank, and Ben Blackwell opened Third Man Records’ headquarters in Nashville, they didn’t have grand ambitions to invade the city’s already-bustling music scene. Their plan was to absorb Tennessee’s rich music history while they began to press and distribute White’s and his colleagues’ records…

…Third Man had existed on paper since 2001, but for the first eight years they didn’t have a home base, and White had been focusing on his own music. In 2008, though, the White Stripes went on hiatus (they ended up breaking up officially in 2011), and White gained back the rights to his earlier recordings. “Licensing was starting to revert back to him at that time and we kind of thought, Oh well, we can actually do the label and start reissuing some stuff,” Swank says. By the end of that year, White, Swank, and Blackwell had decided to start the label in earnest”.

The article looks at the multi-dimensional aspect of the project and how it offers an all-in-one service for musicians and the buying public:

“…They bought a building in an industrial zone, just south of Nashville’s downtown, and set up an office, a storefront, a recording studio, and a live-performance space. Ben Blackwell, White’s nephew, moved down from Detroit, and Ben Swank, White’s longtime friend, moved from Toledo.

Their first official releases included several singles by White’s other band, the Dead Weather, a single by Kentucky-based garage rocker Mildred and the Mice, and a single by New York singer-songwriter Rachelle Garniez, along with some White Stripes reissues”.

Maybe the Nashville location is gathering more heat and interest – a bigger, better-known music scene and loads of local talent who can come to the studio and record. Looking at documentaries and interviews Jack White has conducted; he talks about the way Nashville is packed with eager musicians – if he needs a fiddle player for a song being laid down in the studio; he can ring them up and they can come down!


IN THIS PHOTO: Third Man Records' Detroit base/PHOTO CREDIT: Third Man Records

Detroit is starting a resurgence but is not the thriving home of Motown and Garage that gave us some of the world’s best music.  There is a definite ethos and personality associated with the Third Man Records name, for sure:

For the artists, signing to Third Man, which is still most famously associated with Jack White’s projects, provides an opportunity to stand out from the Nashville crowd. While still sticking to their country roots, they can tap into different scenes, and fans, outside the region. “I think if Joshua signed with somebody else, it would be great, and it could be good for his career, but it wouldn’t be as exciting,” says Swank of Hedley’s decision to sign with them”.

After launching the Third Man brand in Nashville in 2009; it has flourished and extended to Detroit, Michigan – one wonders how far it can go. I suspect, because White started life in Detroit and is based in Nashville, he will want to remain at the two sites. Maybe there is an opportunity for a New York base (The Bronx?) but I will come back to the expansion/diversification side of things later. I have a Third Man Records-produced 45 R.P.M. – it’s a Jack White single of Would You Fight for My Love? with a B-side of Parallel (written by Dean Fertita and Brendon Benson; his old Raconteurs band-mates) – and it is a wonderful thing.

It was recorded down in Nashville back in 2014 – when White was promoting and recording his second solo album, Lazaretto. The song was recorded at Third Man Studio and shows all the purity and work that goes into it. You can practically hear all the players in the room in perfect harmony. It is not a digital fest of technology and hugely edited notes – it sounds like a live performance one might expect from a Jack White show! Look at the documentary at the very top of this piece and the excitement one can feel from Adam Savage! When you walk through the door at Third Man – whether Detroit or Nashville – and you get a swathe of yellows and blacks. What impresses me about Jack White’s store-recording studio set-up is the fact one can get a tour around the site and see all the cool Third Man merchandise. There are T-shirts and badges and, most importantly, all the cool vinyl from artists under the label’s banner. It is like the coolest record shops out there but, unlike any other, it has a sense of style, vintage charm and quality most do not! The best part of the whole place is being able to cut a record live!

You can go onto a small stage and, as you are performing, engineers and employees are cutting the vinyl and getting it ready for completion. One can watch an all-in-on-spot process: from the live recording happening to the recording and cutting. Once the performance(s) are complete; the record is processed so it transforms from an honest piece of vinyl to a beautiful piece of art with a label – the record company and song-title etc. – with the hole in the middle; packed and packaged into a nice sleeve. None of that high-priced studio trickery and not having anything physical at the end! You get to see how music used to be recorded; relying on analogue equipment and getting the most natural performance. There is an option to recall in a smaller booth or on a stage; you can see the record going through a factory and ending up boxed and ready to dispatch. Whilst it might take a time to get the final product onto the shelf – or to the artist themselves – the joy of seeing everything come together, physically, is something lacking from modern music! I would love to see Jack White look at the reaction Third Man Records – with its store and loyal following – is getting in the U.S. and think about a London base. There are British artists on the label and, by adding a store/base here; it would be a great way to discover possible label-inclusions and get people talking here.

There is nothing that comes remotely close in London, or the U.K., right now. We have some great record shops but they are either quite small or only do the actual selling side of things. Artists are self-producing and choosing a D.I.Y. route over paying high studio prices. I can only imagine what the usual vibe is like in a modern studio – not a lot of soul and there is always the artist is not usually pressed for time! Instead, if there was a Third Man base here; you can get buy all the cool products/merchandise but get a chance to record something without all the digital interference and the rush of getting it right the first time – pushing the artist to up their game and helping to create a fantastic piece of work. It would help rejuvenate the British record store scene and be a huge boon. For music lovers like me; we can see how music comes together and get a much better idea of the recording process and all its manifestations. I listen to so many digital tracks but, even when I hear a record, I do not think about how it is made, what engineers/producers do and the actual physicality behind the record. All the lathes, machinery and workers; the effort and love that goes into making a single slice of vinyl – this is the sort of brilliance and love missing from modern music.

If we can inject that back into music, just a bit, it would encourage more people to get into music and take a bigger interest regarding music’s roots. We are becoming more obsessed by technology and making life ‘easier’. The interactive and social aspect of music is dwindling and, as I shall explore later in the weekend, we are less involved with live performers. I feel like a Third Man Records store/base in the U.K. would be a great move. In any case; the success and growth of the brand is an amazing story. I have never seen anything where one can buy music and see it go from recording to manufacture in the same space! Maybe it is the vinyl-heads and obsessives who drool over all the cogs, grooves and smells of somewhere like Third Man Records. I feel we need to move away from all the digital soullessness and start connecting with music in a more instant and physical way. Have a look at the documentary at the top of this piece – if you have not already done so – and see what you could expect if you were to head to Nashville/Detroit. The possibility, however remote, of seeing that idea come to life in the U.K. is enough to get the mouth watering. I mentioned a Jack White song, Would You Fight for My Love?, earlier and stated how much I enjoyed hearing its Nashville-recorded sounds. If we twist that question to the desire for a Third Man Records over here in Britain; I could pose it to everyone who loves music and provide a…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Third Man Records' pressing plant/machinery/PHOTO CREDIT: Third Man Records

VERY easy answer for that one!