Jack White’s Third Man Records – Henry Ford production line or Willy Wonka fun factory?


Third Man Records (Credit: Carwyn Ellis)

Third Man Records’ Nashville emporium celebrates a decade in the city, Getintothis’ Cath Holland examines a unique approach to the shifting nature of physical music consumption.

On 18 July 1953, a skinny 18 year old walked into Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.

The home of Sam PhillipsSun Records, people could go in, record songs and take the product home. Become a star in their own living room.

But this young man was different.

Elvis Aaron Presley recorded two songs, My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartbreaks Begin, claiming the disc to be a gift for his mother’s birthday.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The rags to riches, from truck driver to rock n roll star ascendancy is now a tale of legend.

It’s got a real sense of romance to it, that story. It endures.

Flash forward many decades to the launch of Third Man Records by Whites Stripes main man Jack White in his home town of Detroit in 2001.

The record label was meant to re-release White Stripes’ back catalogue only, but as vinyl boomed and White’s passions overtook him  (‘An incredible sense of not knowing when to stop,’ he confessed in a 2017 CBS interview), Third Man became way bigger than his original intentions.

In April 2009, he built a warehouse in Nashville. Soon after came a record shop tacked on out front. The shop became so popular he added a novelties lounge including, notably, a recording booth.

Where you go in a record your song, for mere dollars.

The Nashville emporium as it now is, ten years on, has embodied the very essence of rock n roll record booth mythology.

The American Dream, if you want to go with it that far.

Business expanded so quickly proper toilets were fitted only recently, customers faced with the grounding reality of portaloos for the longest time.

Lavatory history exempted, the place was highly stylised from the get-go, the shop and Bertie Bassett-like figurine out front welcoming folks Sun Records-like yellow, a shade echoed inside, over and over.

It’s a playground and magnet for music nerds from across the world.

Willy Wonka comparisons are understandable, music fans are like kiddies in a sweet shop. Lots of Charlie Buckets, enjoying the wonders.

And customers report that Jack White flits in and out of the shop, like an ghostly apparition.

In a Wonka-esque nod, Third Man even hid 10 golden tickets inside an early record release. The lucky winners won a tour of the premises with the proprietor.

The shop has its own – yellow – money, co-owners Ben Swank and Ben Blackwell who run the place with White wear matching yellow ties like a pair of man-sized Oompah Loompas.

The recording booth, record listening booth, a MOLD-A-RAMA – which creates tiny, crude replicas of White’s guitar in red at a pocket money price – and toys, vintage pop culture knick-knacks helps create an experience around the consumption of buying physical music.

The shop centres around music being an event, something special rather than a thing lingering in the background, or an after thought.

 ‘Music is the last thing on (people’s) mind after their cellphone, Netflix, internet. I used to think, when music was number one on people’s lists I used to feel sorry for poets, and sculptors! Now I feel sorry for ourselves because of what we’re competing against,’  Jack White told CBS.

‘So when we see a teenager come in and buy a record, that lights us all up.’

Adding experiences to record shopping is more of a thing now, the world over. More incorporate catering of some description – have coffee shops and bars incorporated into their business models, say – but few go as far as Third Man.

The shop’s van – yellow, naturally – opens up like a ice cream van and drives around with a ‘menu’ of record releases.

There’s also a PA system inside so bands can plug in and do guerrilla-style gigs.

Third Man’s novelties lounge (Credit: Carwyn Ellis)

Novelties are part of the business’s identity. People are entertained and distracted by pretty and sparkly things.

There are no limits to the novelty aspects of releases for Third Man Records.

The Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby official sound track from 2013 was released on gold and platinum plated vinyl with handmade lazer cut birch wood sleeve. It’s an intimidating gaudy beast of a thing, and whether anyone who owns it dares play it or not is up for debate.

Limited editions are nice,  but bring a harsh reality into the magic. There’s stories of touts getting homeless people to queue at the shop to buy rarities which are then flogged on for fat profits.

White’s solution to the problem is an interesting one, auctioning some limited editions on eBay with bids regularly exceeding the original prices. To cut out the bad boys, and putting any extra profit back into his business and artists instead. But some music fans accused him of exploitation.

He does not like that.

He squared up to his critics on Third Man’s messageboard.

‘Fan exploitation? Really?’ he wrote.

‘If you don’t want it, DONT BUY IT. And if you do want it, don’t act like you DON’T want it. Get in line like anyone else, hunt for it like anyone else. You act like we bury them in tunnels in Vietnam for God sakes, you can get one randomly in the mail if your lucky, in line at a store if you’re lucky, in your hometown if you’re lucky, etc.

Who is guaranteed a rare hard to find record? Only Vault (TM’s subscription service) members and their quarterly subscriptions. There’s luck in every other version.’

Create a demand then get the hump when people want your product. There’s a certain type of logic in there somewhere, if you dig deep enough.

Completionism is pointless: every band has only three great albums

That aside, there are serious releases to enjoy without bells and whistles.

The label releases records at the rate of one per week, rarities and contemporary recordings from legendary artists and releases from fresher meat – Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynne are listed alongside the awesome Margo Price.

All bases are covered.

And Third Man Records has a live room, the blue room as it’s known, the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities.

Technicians visible through tinted glass at the right time of day and angle from the live room, wear lab coats with TM branding on the back.

Live music performances from a range of specially invited artists are lovingly recorded. These live albums are a bloody beautiful listen, so much that glow-in-the-dark fancies or eBay dalliances are forgiven.

Artists welcomed into the Live at Third Man fold range from American staples White Denim, Melvins, Father John Misty to the UK’s Ultimate Painting.

Keeping music at its core, Third Man branches out into different areas of creative expression, hosts spoken word events, film screenings and the like.

The publishing imprint Third Man Books puts out poetry, art, speculative and children’s fiction, including White’s very own We’re Going To Be Friends.

It played a blinder a few weeks ago, making its first British signing, Benjamin MyersThe Gallows Pole. The much lauded winner of the Walter Scott Prize last year will be published in the US in Nov/Dec 2019.

Wrapped Up in Books: Getintothis’ monthly column for all that’s vital in the written word

And yet, Third Man always pulls it back to the music, and origins. No matter how unusual and crazy paving the route.

‘Something….gimmicky…beautiful, anything to bring the attention of people back to the physical product to get away from invisible music…disposable music,’ White told CBS.

When White says gimmicky, he isn’t joking.

In 2015, an acetate recording of the first songs Elvis Presley ever recorded was sold at auction for a not inconsiderable $300,000 to a mysterious, unnamed bidder.

Who turned out to be none other than Jack White himself.

The purchase led to a single of the recordings on 78rpm 10 inch vinyl, released in 2017. Tough to enjoy at home unless you’ve got a vintage radiogram handy.

But if you think that’s hard going, how about this?

Glorifying in the obscure, White released a limited series of White Stripes singles in a three inch singles format, only playable on minature record players from Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai.

You’ve got to admire that pure imagination.

Make no mistake though, White’s ambitions for his empire are big and serious, and actually pretty revolutionary. A shrewd businessman is at the heart of the fun stuff. Two years ago, he bought the first vinyl presses in US for thirty five years and put them the original Third Man in his hometown of Detroit.

There are two German Newbilt custom made presses for pressing seven-inch records, six for pressing 12-inch records.

‘One day I want this place to be like what I heard about Henry Ford wanted for Ford Motor Company which was, you pour your raw materials in this side and out of the other side of the factory pop out cars…we’re close now. The only thing we’re not doing is plating and printing the sleeves,’ he told CBS.

Things coming full circle, and the combination of music with a magical, novelty twist seemingly without limits.

Willy Wonka did chocolate in-house OK but it’s a brave idea few other businesses try in the real life and the 21st Century to boot, but it might just work.

‘There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination,’ sang Gene Wilder in the 1971 film version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, ‘living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be

Anything you want to, do it.

Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.’




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