Jack White's Record Label: Old Sounds, New Tricks White's approach to the record business has been called a throwback and a harbinger of things to come. Most innovative companies in the business are digital in concept, but Third Man's approach is digital where necessary; tangible where possible.

Jack White's Record Label: Old Sounds, New Tricks

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Rock-'n'-roll guitarist and songwriter Jack White has been adding chapters to a career that bloomed with his founding of The White Stripes. He produced a Grammy-winning country album for Loretta Lynn and launched two new bands. He also moved to Nashville and opened Third Man Records.

As Craig Havighurst of member station WPLM reports, White's label has gotten praise for being innovative, even though most of its missives are decidedly old-school.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: In last year's documentary "It Might Get Loud," Jack White says he keeps creatively fit by contriving difficult situations, like wrestling with the shortcomings of a guitar others would discard.

Mr. JACK WRITE (Guitarist, Songwriter): I keep guitars that are, you know, the neck's a little bit bent, and it's a little bit out of tune, and I want to work and battle it and conquer it and make it express whatever attitude I have at that moment. I want it to be a struggle.

HAVIGHURST: Opening a record label during a decade-long slump in the music business sounds like the same kind of self-imposed dare. From his new Third Man Records offices in a renovated downtown Nashville warehouse, White explains.

Mr. WHITE: I consider it all an interesting trick, you know, to try to get people to actually buy a record now. It's a positive way of looking at a negative situation. I mean, people aren't buying records like they used to, so it's nice to try to figure out a way to make them do it. I mean, I would enjoy the same thing to own an old movie house, to try to trick people into coming in to see the movie, like having 3-D or Smell-o-Vision or, you know, Vibra-Vision or something, MacGuffins to get people interested, you know.

HAVIGHURST: The tricks at Third Man include a boutique storefront with Jack White's music and all of the label's records. Every release is treated as an event, and many label events get turned into releases.

Mr. BEN SWANK (Marketing Manager, Third Man Records): This is obviously the stage. I'll show you up here. It might be a little torn apart.

HAVIGHURST: Marketing manager Ben Swank, dressed in a slim, vintage black suit and tie, shows off the label's large, in-house photography studio. It doubles as a live venue and a recording booth sits immediately next to the stage.

Mr. SWANK: So every show can just go direct to eight-track.

HAVIGHURST: Make no mistake. He does not mean those ill-fated cassettes from the 1970s. Instead, it's a multi-track, analog reel-to-reel tape machine, state of the art for about 1968, with fidelity that some believe has never been surpassed.

Mr. SWANK: And the idea is if you come to the show, you're then eligible for a limited edition black and blue split-color vinyl of the show, and then a regular black vinyl will be pressed and sold in the shop and online. But the only way you can get the limited edition version is if you actually come here to the show.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: For example, this new release from North Carolina folk-punk icon Dex Romweber.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DEXTER ROMWEBER (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: It was taped here on a rainy night in February. Then, in keeping with the Third Man quick-turnaround philosophy, the record was available for sale by mid-March.

Mr. SWANK: We can technically have something recorded and on the street in about three weeks. It's kind of a way to make the vinyl more immediate and tangible to kids that are used to just having things right away.

HAVIGHURST: Romweber has also cut a single for Third Man, which marks something of a dream come true for Jack White. Romweber's 1980s band the Flat Duo Jets, with its lone-guitar and drum lineup, was a seminal inspiration for The White Stripes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: Growing up in southwest Detroit, White played and produced hard-edged blues and punk rock. He recorded himself and others from the moment he got his hands on a tape deck. Today, he says he's just doing the same thing on a larger scale.

He brought another theme from his hometown, where his day job was running Third Man Upholstery, with its motto: Your Couch Is Not Dead. Today, the record company's slogan is: Your Turntable's Not Dead. Third Man hasn't even released a CD and has no plans to. All 36 singles or albums so far have come out only on digital download or vinyl.

Mr. WHITE: Vinyl is the real deal. I've always felt like until you buy the vinyl record, you just don't really own the album.

HAVIGHURST: Jack White...

Mr. WHITE: And it's not just me, and it's not just a little pet thing or some kind of retro romantic thing from the past. It is still alive. I mean, the United Pressing Plant is two or three blocks away from here, and they're pressing up millions of copies of vinyl every year. And people are still buying them in droves.

HAVIGHURST: United has manufactured records for Motown and Music Row since opening in 1962, and these days, the old pressing machines are going full tilt. Third Man's director of production, Ben Blackwell, says he's back and forth to United on a daily basis as they collaborate on new color schemes for their limited edition releases. He describes how United workers slice hockey-puck-shaped ingots of colored vinyl in two or three pieces and then reassemble them by hand.

Mr. BEN BLACKWELL (Director of Production, Third Man Records): That puck with the label attached is fed into the actual record press. Approximately 20,000 pounds of steam pressure compresses that puck between two metal plates, which are the negative images of your actual record grooves. So when you have a record that has grooves, these pressing plates have ridges. It really is mystifying, and it's captivating, too. It's almost like you feel something in the room while it's happening.

HAVIGHURST: Third Man is an auteur's project for sure: Jack White produces all of the releases himself, including this latest music from 72-year-old rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WANDA JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible). That's when I get the chills all over me. Shiver down my backbone, a shaking in my thighbone. Shivers in my kneebone, shaking all over.

HAVIGHURST: White says he could tell he was swimming against Nashville's way of recording when he swooned over the first take of Jackson's song "Shakin' All Over." The veteran horn players wanted to fix mistakes. He was having none of it.

Mr. WHITE: The more we try to work on this and perfect it, the worse it gets. And that's what happens nowadays with a lot of people working on computers, that they can so easily fix things with their mouse and click on something and erase it and take out all the, oh, somebody coughed in the background, we need to take that out, or someone hit a bad note. Those are all the best moments. Those are all the best moments, and I think that's where music has taken a left turn and they need to go back, get back on the road, you know.

HAVIGHURST: White's artisanal approach to the record business has been called a throwback and a harbinger of things to come. In fact, Fast Company magazine ranked Third Man among the 10 most innovative companies in the music business. Most of the others were digital concepts, with music streaming from the so-called cloud. Third Man's approach is digital where necessary, tangible where possible.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

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