By Patrick Prince
By the time this year’s Black Friday rolls around, Nashville-based Third Man Records will expand and open up a record store hundreds of miles away in founder Jack White’s hometown of Detroit, with Motor City-centric releases ready for its inventory.
The person who runs the day-to-day operations for Third Man is Ben Blackwell, not Jack White. White, the guitarist who found fame as the leader of the rock duo White Stripes, is busy with a plethora of musical projects and creative commitments. He leaves the dirty work to Blackwell. And under Blackwell there have been many exciting releases, promotions, events and launches, including an ingenious flexi-disc balloon launch for Record Store Day 2012, where Third Man premiered a yet unreleased Jack White track, “Freedom at 21,” as a flexi 45, tied to helium balloons and released over Nashville. Quite the excitement ensued.
Ben Blackwell was kind enough to answer some quick questions about the popular record label/store’s history and current goings-on.
Goldmine: What was Jack White’s vision when starting this record company (in 2001), and how exactly has it lived up to that vision?
BEn Blackwell: I don’t think there was one singular big vision. The idea was really just to reissue the White Stripes catalog on vinyl.
GM: Why the name Third Man?
BB: The name comes from Jack’s upholstery shop, Third Man Upholstery, which was based on the fact that he was the third upholster to come from the block he grew up on in Detroit, and ties in with the Orson Welles film.
GM: How many records/releases does the company put out on average per year?
BB: We average a little more than a release a week at Third Man and an average release is about 5,000 copies.
GM: Describe briefly your direct-to-acetate recording capability?
BB: Using a 1955 Scully Lathe from King Records, we record folks direct-to-acetate … no overdubs, no redos, no starting and stopping. We’re the only venue in the world where a band can record live to vinyl in front of a crowd. We’ve done records using this process with The Shins, The Kills, Melvins, Mudhoney, Jack Johnson and others.
GM: Your new releases come in CD format — like The Dead Weather, for instance. Will the CD format ever be eliminated at Third Man? However, have other formats such as cassettes, 8-tracks, etc., been considered for release — even as a specialty thing?
BB: I hope to eliminate CDs sooner than later, but, dammit, folks keep buying them. We’ve considered other formats as well. It just has to make sense and not be purely a goof.
GM: Describe your feelings about the flexi balloon launch for Record Store Day. Was it a success, and why? Will there be another?
BB: Flexi balloon launch is one of my proudest moments here at Third Man. Leaving record distribution up to atmospheric conditions is just the kinda crazy thing that I love focusing on. It was an unmitigated success. I don’t know if I’d have the heart to retry it though.
GM: What record release has been the biggest seller over the years?
BB: It’s only been out for a little over a year, but we’ve sold over 209,000 copies of Jack White’s “Lazaretto” LP.
GM: For those who have not visited the Nashville record store, does it sell only Third Man releases?
BB: Yes, we only sell TMR music at our store. But we also have a novelties lounge, listening booth and a wide assortment of merchandise and sundry goods.
GM: The lounge (shown above) has a record booth. Please explain how this booth operates and how it is popular among customers.
BB: The record booth is a 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth (shown below), the likes of which used to be found at arcades, fairs and the observation deck of the Empire State Building. You get two minutes to make as much noise as possible and it’s presented to you on a one-of-a-kind 6-inch record. Neil Young did a whole album in the booth. The crowd loves it and it’s the only one of its kind open to the public in the world.
GM: Is Third Man’s record pressing plant attached to the record store, or is it an another location? Do you own that plant?
BB: We press all of our vinyl at United Record Pressing approximately two miles down the road from us. We do not own the plant.
GM: What record is your favorite Record Store Day release?
BB: My favorite Record Store Day release was our liquid-filled record (the 12-inch single version of Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines”) … such a fun, leaky day! I mainly like this record for the disclaimer sticker we put on the packaging.
GM: Many of your releases — especially the RSD releases — are on 180 gram vinyl. Is the extra thickness to a record really worth it?
BB: I think 180 gram records are worth it because they’re less susceptible to warping in the mail and help eliminate possible feedback from speakers to turntable. Heavy things feel better.
GM: Does colored vinyl — or other novelties — help the sales of a record? Or does it depend on the artist?
BB: Yes, novelties very often help sell a record. The sign on the door here reads “Third Man Records and Novelties,” so we are always well aware that gimmicks can always help move the needle.
GM: Explain how Light In The Attic Records and Third Man Records teamed up to introduce vinyl records to children. Will children catch onto vinyl and record players the same way others have?
BB: We’ve been making turntables for over five years now. I think younger children are the best ones to preach to about vinyl. They’re honest and clearly should love it.
GM: Finally, how did Third Man get into book publishing, and will it continue?
BB: We’ve dabbled with books as part of our subscription fan club, the Vault, and only about a year ago started to make them for proper commercial distribution. And, yes, they will continue for a long time.