CD and digital sales are declining as music lovers turn to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, yet vinyl records sales have grown 260% since 2009.
We are in the midst of a vinyl revival.
Vinyl, more than any other medium, has a timeless appeal, it’s tactile. Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records, says that people have a strong connection to what vinyl means in their lives, it’s a lifestyle.
To help us dig further into why people have started buying vinyl again, the background of Third Man Records, we spoke with Ben Blackwell, who shared some amazing stories in today’s edition of Small Business War Stories.
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A summary of our interview with Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records is below.
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- I’d love to get a little bit of a history of how Third Man Records got started. I know Jack White was a big part of that, I’d love to hear a little bit of the story.
- What’s the origin of the name, Third Man Records?
- What’s been the arc of this vinyl revival that’s been going on for probably about a better part of a decade now?
- What’s interesting is it just occurred to me that that timeline really coincides with iPhones became ubiquitous, right? So it’s almost like the unlimited availability of music on your phone made it more desirable to be intentional a particular record. Do you think those two are related?
- You guys invested in a vinyl pressing plant in Detroit. Did you know that there was going to be enough demand to fill that plant?
- How do you balance tradition in what it’s like to make a record and innovation in terms of making the process of a record better?
- How does the color and material used for vinyl impact the quality?
- Do you see any other formats, maybe cassette tapes or maybe even reel-to-reel which has an audio quality that’s frickin’ ridiculous and thick. Do you see any chance of that having a revival like vinyl did?
- What are some of the oddest, wackiest things you’ve seen in this business?
- Can you tell me about a time when things went really sideways with the business?
- How do you balance the setup costs of your run versus the storage and working capital costs of having a warehouse full of inventory?
- How many people do you have today at Third Man, and how has that grown over time?
- What would you say is the number one lesson that you’ve learned about running a small, growing business?
- Where do you guys want to go in the next 10 years?
- How is Third Man involved in making a difference in Detroit, and how does that come into your decision to maybe have a pressing plant there instead of here?
- What are the differences in doing business in Nashville versus Detroit?
- Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you?
Third Man Records is a record label that’s really made a huge bet on vinyl. I’d love to get a little bit of a history of how Third Man Records got started. I know Jack White was a big part of that, I’d love to hear a little bit of the story.
Ben Blackwell: Yeah, so in the beginning, Third Man existed only on paper, and that’s in about 2001 when The White Stripes started signing deals with bigger record labels. In that process, the band created Third Man Records as an entity that licensed the band’s catalog to these other labels.
It was basically kind of an insurance policy. So that the major labels wouldn’t just own the masters in perpetuity, and that the catalog would revert back to the band after 10 years or so. That’s how it went from 2001 to about 2009.
In 2008, I get a call from Jack saying, “Hey, I bought this building in Nashville. Let’s start the label for real. The rights on certain number of The White Stripes albums have reverted back to us. And they’re out of print in United States. Let’s put those out.”
“Let’s get those going. Side note, maybe we’ll put out one or two new records. But really let’s just do The White Stripes catalogs, Third Man Records.”
What’s the origin of the name, Third Man Records?
Ben Black: So, Third Man goes back to when Jack started his professional career as an upholsterer. This is in the ’90s and the name of his upholstery shop was Third Man Upholstery.
Third Man goes back to a film by Orson Welles called the “Third Man.” Jack was a big Orson Welles fan, but he was also the third upholsterer to come from his block that he grew up on in Detroit. So it kind of had that double meaning and everything.
At Third Man Upholstery, everything in the shop was yellow or black, all of his tools. He had a big yellow delivery van and so we kind of carried the yellow and black to the label.
And come 2009 we’re setup and we’re putting out records with a completely different approach because of the Dead Weather. The Dead Weather forms and they write and record an entire album and we spent our first year basically selling that record and the singles off of it and them going on tour and starting a fan club.
We did not re-issue any White Stripe stuff for another year or so. That’s always been constant in what we’re doing. Every year or so we’ve got some big White Stripes re-issue or some archival thing.
When you own the catalog, you have a special event like opening a pressing plant, let’s press the records that were recorded in the same neighborhood as that plant.
Was vinyl a big part of the label from the very beginning? What’s been the arc of this vinyl revival that’s been going on for probably about a better part of a decade now?
Ben Blackwell: Yeah. Vinyl has always been a part of this; it’s part of The White Stripes story. Their first releases are all vinyl 45’s. Everything they’ve ever done has been put out on vinyl, there’s never really been stuff that only came out on CD or digitally, things of that nature.
So, The White Stripes story is pretty much intertwined with the Third Man story as well. Like I said, this is a label that was started to re-issue their whole catalog.
As I see it, vinyl has been a “market force” since probably 97, 98, 99. And I was collecting 45s probably four or five years before that. It seemed to me that from ’99 until about 2009 things were pretty flat. I didn’t necessarily see any growth. I didn’t necessarily see any shrinkage in market. It seemed like it just remained the same.
I was operating on a fairly small level though, too. You know, when you’re doing singles by bands no ones ever heard of. The difference between 300 and 500 copies really in the grand scheme of things doesn’t indicate any larger market forces.
But coming here, in 2009-11, I started seeing an uptick. I remember the second Dead Weather album, Sea of Cowards, that came out in 2010. We hit a moment where we couldn’t press the records fast enough. There was a bit of a backlog at the plant.
The National was printing High Violet at the same time. For the first time, we could not press the number of records we needed fast enough. That was completely foreign to me. Like whoa, whoa, whoa, we can’t get the records?
We just need like whatever it was, 10,000. They said: Yeah it’s going to be a second. Whoa, really? That was kind of the first time I started hearing that more and more.
What’s interesting is it just occurred to me that that timeline really coincides with iPhones became ubiquitous, right? 2008 is when the iPhone, and 2009 is when it really hit the market in mass. So it’s almost like the unlimited availability of music on your phone made it more desirable to be intentional a particular record. Do you think those two are related?
Ben Blackwell: Well you’re got to keep in mind too how many people are really streaming at that point versus buying music. So I think even now, most people don’t stream music, at least via Spotify or Apple Music. They’re probably accessing YouTube and watching clips that way. It’s also odd to me that that time period, when we started the label, I went back and did the math or figured it out that the grand opening of Third Man was within one week of the Dow Jones industrial average hitting its all time historic low in the middle of the recession.
Which in many people’s minds would probably be a bad time to start a business. Some people might say it’s the best time to start a business. To start a record label, it’s never a good time to start a record label. It’s not a good business model. If you look at major labels or just any label, you kind of have to throw a ton of shit at the wall and see what sticks.
You know you start with 50 bands and if one of them gets big, that pays for the 49 that you lost. You know, I thought it was interesting when you said Third Man put a bet on the vinyl business and I was thinking in my mind, “Oh, that’s kind of a crude was to put it,” but the music business, yeah, it is all kind of, it’s bets and odds and hedging your losses.
Well I see it as a good thing. I mean, a bet is like your, I guess it depends on your interpretation of the word but I was thinking like you’re backing that trend or you’re putting your force and your … you know, betting that that’s going to work.
Ben Blackwell: Yeah. My dad is a compulsive gambler. So when you say, “to bet something,” you can take it a different way.
Got it, fair enough, fair enough. I guess you decided to invest in vinyl.
Ben Blackwell: Exactly, investment vinyl is totally fair. I’ll agree with that.
How could that investment have backfired? You guys invested in a vinyl pressing plant in Detroit. Did you know that there was going to be enough demand to fill that plant?
Ben Blackwell: The hedging of the bet, we can go back to that analogy. At the very least we knew our demand alone, if we just pressed our own stuff in the worst case scenario would be enough and would be appropriate to float that place.
That was not our intention, that’s not our intention going into it. The intention is really to be pressing for all kinds of people and lots of different, small labels, big labels try to be able to accommodate fast turn around times in really, really high quality.
It could have backfired. Although I disagree with the sentiment that a lot of people have when they say, oh vinyl is just a fad. No, fad is like mood rings or pet rocks or Rubik’s cube or something like that. This is a lifestyle. People have a strong connection to what vinyl means in their lives, how it integrates in their lives.
A war could start in the Middle East and oil prices could go crazy. That’s one thing I’m always cognizant of is that we are working with a petroleum-based product. The raw PVC pellets themselves. That’s on my radar, I see once in a while, pressing plants are really judicious in regards to when they up their prices. So usually it’s for every three price increases on the raw material and you’ll get one on the pressing plant end. So we’ll swallow these two, next one we’ve got to raise our prices.
Related to that, processes in the record pressing industry have gotten better. And waste has probably gone down significantly versus what it was like to press in the 1970s. How do you balance tradition in what it’s like to make a record and innovation in terms of making the process of a record better?
Ben Blackwell: The science of pressing a record has not really dramatically changed in the past 50 years. It’s the control of the processes that make it happen. So basically you’re taking raw vinyl and you’re squeezing it very hard. No one’s really improved upon that.
The timing, the heating, the cool down all of that stuff has been micromanaged to optimize quality, to optimize flatness. You don’t want a warped record, all that stuff. But ultimately the machines we use in Detroit, there’s a machine called Newbuilt, they’re Newbuilt Machines. That’s just basically taking the framework of an old machine that was built back in the day called a Finebilt. And using that model because it’s a tried and true model.
Lots of plants still use old Finebilt’s from the 50s and 60s today. People keep them maintained and keep them running. There has been innovation when it comes to controlling the process. A lot of the control levels used to be dials and gauges and all stuff and now it’s a touch screen computer. So you can adjust your timings by half of a second versus before you were probably eyeballing or looking at a stopwatch.
Record presses have differences, too. Every record needs to be compressed for 50 seconds before it comes off and cools off. From one press to another, from the same machine, the same record you could just have different tolerances. The best thing I’d ever heard someone describe about a record press is that they have personalities.
Got it. And the material can also make a difference, right? Because if you have colored vinyl that’s a slightly different consistency…
Ben Blackwell: Absolutely. At United there was one machine, I forget the specifics about it. A couple years ago asking about a machine they’re like, “that machine just doesn’t like colored vinyl“. I thought wow that’s pretty interesting understanding that as something in what seems like a cut and dry business of just manufacturing. That kind of almost voodoo attached to it, of yeah, it just doesn’t like colored vinyl.
Sounds like it’s like making guitars. Every guitar has a personality and even though the measurements are “the same…”
Ben Blackwell: Yeah…when you read little bits about people talking about Stradivarius violins or things like that, there’s no scientific reason why it makes sense. You can take the same wood from the same thing to all the exact same measurements but there’s something that’s not quantifiable…there’s something in the air.
Do you see any other formats, maybe cassette tapes or maybe even reel-to-reel which has an audio quality that’s frickin’ ridiculous and thick. Do you see any chance of that having a revival like vinyl did?
Ben Blackwell: I always go back to the idea the first time we see grooves on a flat disc. So, vinyl as we know it today, that shows up in world history from about the 1890s. Nothing of any other format that’s come and gone since then. I don’t think of vinyl coming back as some sort of trend, or a nostalgia for wanting the old thing. I think that’s part of it but there’s also so many old things that they could choose from.
People could be going crazy about wire records, they don’t. People could be going crazy about mini disc or ADAT, there’s all these other forms.
I think the exotic format is just a small percentage of it. I think there’s something about vinyl. Permutations of this questions end up in my arena often. I think that there’s something about, there’s just a perfectness that is almost heavenly let’s say. That just can’t be topped in regards to the appeal of vinyl records.
There are definitely things that could be more convenient. Obviously having an iPhone and being able to stream millions of songs at the press of a button that’s way more convenient than vinyl records. Just like flying from New York to Los Angeles is way more convenient than riding a bicycle, but people still ride bicycles.
A bicycle is two wheels and handlebars, and that format created in the 1800’s. That way of making bicycles, that very simple plot is still how bicycles are going to probably be made for all of time. So I think in terms of physical music vinyl records are the perfect way of doing that.
Digital just seems meh. I do a little bit of A&R here for putting out records for new bands. People always say hey I want you to hear this or blah blah blah. Check out my band, can I send you a demo? My line, my stock answer to everyone is I’ll listen to whatever you give me on vinyl.
I’m not going to listen to a CD, I don’t want to listen to your YouTube link or your Bandcamp. Because I want people to actually put that effort in. We’re sitting here we’re recording this podcast on a laptop. Anyone can open up probably any laptop made in the past 10 years and it’s built in with recording technology. You can just set up, you don’t even need mics like we’re talking into, there’s a built in mic into that laptop and you can sing and holler into it and with two clicks of the mouse that’s a recording.
Now the fact that the bar for entry is so low is great in regards to democratization. But with democratization comes a lot of noise. When someone goes through the process of putting something on vinyl, self-releasing it or whatever, they understand. It’s almost like they mean it more.
Every band, artist you ever loved the first thing they did was a 45. Elvis Presely, or The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones or the White Stripes or Nirvana. I think to get further into it, the seven inch 45 is the perfect format.
LP’s I get, I understand that sometimes people have more to say in a context that expands outward. But for me seven inch is absolute perfection. You can do ten 45’s and take the best of those and make that an album, if you really are compelled by the LP or the album format.
What are some of the oddest, wackiest things you’ve seen in this business? I’m sure there’s no shortage of crazy stories.
Ben Blackwell: I’ve heard, I’ve not seen it but I had a friend of a friend who said they saw someone who was making picture disc’s, you know the format where there’s your vinyl with the grooves in it and underneath it is an image on the disc. Someone said they’d seen picture disc’s with human hair in them.
And that sounded really cool. I want to see that. Flaming Lips did a record filled with blood that I’ve got a copy of here. We did a trade. I saw someone was talking recently online there was some band did a sleeve that was covered in maggots.
Can you tell me about a time when things went really sideways with the business? What did you do, how did you recover?
Ben Blackwell: One that always comes to mind is when we started out, the first LP we did was The Dead Weather Horehound. We sold through 20,000 copies really, really quickly. Maybe in about four or five months. Right after that we were doing a White Stripes soundtrack to the documentary ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’ and we were doing LP for that. Double LP. We were trying to figure out what numbers to press on this Stripes title. It wasn’t very involved, it wasn’t very deep, we weren’t contemplating numbers or anything. It was just a very quick conversation.
Me at my desk there and I definitely remember Jack standing in the doorway here and saying, I said “well you know we’ve sold through 20,000 Dead Weather already“. He’s like, “let’s do 20k on the White Stripes, that should be enough to at least start“. Okay no problem.
What I hadn’t known or taken into consideration, I probably should have known was that we only had North American rights for The White Stripes title, but we had worldwide rights on Dead Weather.
Our initial orders for The White Stripes record were 10,000 and I’ve got another 10,000 sitting at the pressing plant. And the pressing plant calling me up saying, “hey you’ve got all these pallets here can you do something?” And I’m like, fuck what are we going to do, what are we going to do…
We only had one building and we had the warehouse next door, which could have theoretically accommodated what we had. I just felt this was a physical manifestation of a supreme oversight on my end.
So I was like, you know what, I’ll go find the storage space, I’ll go get the truck loaded, I’ll go unload the truck. I’ll go lock it up and that will just be this chain around my neck.
I was so bummed about it. I just felt, this was early on. The first invoice I saw for Third Man was the sleeves that we ordered for Horehound, that first Dead Weather record. The total came to was something like $75,000 and my heart I actually felt palpitations. In my head I am going “oh shit.”
I was coming from a label that I was running out of my bedroom where I was describing before the big question was do you press 300 or 500 copies. And I’m never getting a bill larger than $1,000. And when I saw that 7 5 followed by three zeros. I thought I had to pay it. I thought this was me on the line. Like if this doesn’t get paid it’s all my ass.
So with those 10,000 copies, I just thought they were going to sit in that storage space for 15 years. Then the vinyl revival happened and everyone kept on reordering. That happened in 2011. Probably by 2013, definitely by 2014 we’d sold through them all.
And that kind of informed further which was, shit if you can have the space to store it, it’s going to sell. So that’s definitely influenced our decisions or our thoughts and ideas behind warehousing and storage spaces and pressing numbers.
But you have to think about working capital too, right? How do you balance the setup costs of your run versus the storage and working capital costs of having a warehouse full of inventory?
Ben Blackwell: One release to the next it’s completely different. So you have to try to have accurate gauges. We keep everything in print too. Sometimes it might be easier if we said we’re only pressing this one time and we’re only doing X-amount of copies. That might spur people to buy more records on the front end but ultimately you just have to be really, really aware of what demand is. And that demand is constantly fluctuating, and you have to be constantly hustling to try to get those records where they need to be.
I’m fond of saying you can always repress a record but you can never take copies back to the pressing plant and get a refund. I usually try to err on the lower end of things, on releases where the sales numbers might not be so evident upfront. On something like a Jack White-related release we err on the high side so you’re not stuck without copies for any period of time.
How many people do you have today at Third Man, and how has that grown over time?
Ben Blackwell: We’ve got 30 here in Nashville, and I think another 40 total in Detroit. We started initially, we started with two. Two people, that was eight years ago.
What would you say is the number one lesson that you’ve learned about running a small, growing business?
Ben Blackwell: I don’t know if it’s a lesson as much as an approach which is you have to remain flexible. Any ideas that you come in that are hard, fast, intractable are ultimately going to be the ones that end up holding you back.
I think of flexibility as the key to making anything work. I don’t know if I have a specific behind that. I usually use it describing a space we have here. We have the room we do our live performances we also do art shows and we also do panel discussions, and we also show movies.
So we’ve got all of that, if we just said “no, this is just the live room and we only do live performances here,” there would be so much that we would never enter our orbit. And I think that’s for the worst. The same with how you run the shop. We can sell this, we don’t have to have too many rules per se.
When we started out, it was we’ll only sell our own records. And that’s still, for the most part how we operate, but then someone had the idea, like what if we set up a shelf in the shop that’s a rotating cast of different labels. Labels we love. And we’ll order releases from them so people, not only looking at Third Man stuff but somewhat curated in regards to what we bring in.
You’ve gone even a step further because you encourage bands that are coming through town to record here, right? I saw it in your Detroit shelves. There’s a section that was bands that are coming through and recorded a 45. How do the licensing rights work for that? If somebody’s signed to another label and they want to do a 45 with you how does that work?
Ben Blackwell: Yeah. We are just trying to promote. It’s different from one label to another. A 45 is usually pretty easy to make happen. When we’re talking live records that can be a lot more. There’s a lot more cooks in the kitchen, a lot more concerns. But for the most part people get it. The live record it’s mainly meant to promote the band, in conjunction with us reaching out into our fan base in the world that we inhabit.
Do you guys do all that with the pure analog process?
Ben Blackwell: What we do here is we record primarily direct to acetate. From mixing board to lathe. We can cut to tape if someone is scared from recording. Because when we record direct to disc there’s no overdubs, there’s no redo, there’s no edits. So if people are like, “I want to be able to edit…that first song might be a clunker,” then we’ll be able to edit it out we can record to tape.
We’ll be set up to do that full analog process in Detroit as well. Very shortly.
You’ve been wildly successful as really one of the best things to happen to music and live music in the last 10 years. And I say that 100% honestly. I have many, many of your records and so do my friends. Where do you guys want to go in the next 10 years?
Ben Blackwell: Well I think you know the pressing plant is a very big step for us. Just in terms of investment and support to do that. That’s for the entirety of the vinyl industry and folks that like vinyl and want to be making it.
For us as a label, I think for the first few years, most everything we did was around being the outlet for what Jack’s creativity brought to the table. That’s great and that’s enough to run a label, but we shouldn’t have to rely on that. We should be able to, if Jack’s not putting out a record this year, we should be able to just say, that’s fine. We’ve got other things in place, we’ve got other artists that are equally successful in their worlds. The goal is to just become Third Man Records, not Jack White’s Third Man Records.
I think we are on our way to do that. Last year with the Margo Price record, which is a record that Jack didn’t perform on, he didn’t produce, his name’s not on it. You know that’s a great example of a project that has nothing to do with Jack. Third Man is the label that signed her and supports her. So ideally we have more successes in that realm. We have the Lillie Mae show today, and she’s definitely well on her way. Also artists like Craig Brown and others. And when Jack’s stuff comes out, it’s obviously going to be a big seller.
Jack keeps coming up with more interesting stuff. I have the live acoustic record he did in Idaho…
Ben Blackwell: Absolutely. I think he said at that point, he was so invigorated by those shows he’s like, “man I wish I would have done this 10 years ago“. Like he’d never thought or just always got other things that are at the forefront of his mind that he never thought let’s just do a small acoustic tour.
That’s how I feel about this podcast. This podcast has reinvigorated my own energy with my business…I get to many so many great people doing interesting things.
Ben Blackwell: Awesome! When you meet someone that you have a good conversation with or that has good ideas or interesting ideas, you walk away and immediately makes you think, how do I apply this to my life? How does this energy that this person has, how can I take some of that and infuse it into my life? That’s a good example of what we’re trying to do with these other artists.
Let’s talk a little bit about Detroit. So you’re from there…Do you split your time between Nashville and Detroit or do you live mostly in Nashville?
Ben Blackwell: I live in Nashville 100% and go up to Detroit for work, to check on the plant and other things going on there. Maybe once a month, probably not more than that.
I’d never been to Detroit until this week and I’ve heard the stories about how it had a really rough time. How is Third Man involved in making a difference in Detroit, and how does that come into your decision to maybe have a pressing plant there instead of here?
Ben Blackwell: Yeah, there’s already a really great awesome pressing plant here in Nashville. I don’t think Nashville needed a second plant, first off. And Detroit is where we’re from, and Detroit is a place where you drop in 40, 50 jobs in Detroit. $15 minimum wage starting, benefits, proper living wage. That’s a big deal. It’s not building a new car factory but for those 50 people, that’s a life. That’s a livelihood.
I think the people who choose to live in Detroit have this indomitable spirit of survival. It almost felt to met like what you would have encountered in 1800’s Arizona in the old west. People who were willing to deal with the shit and like make stuff happen… So what’s it like to do, what are the differences in doing business in Nashville versus Detroit. In terms of both the business community, how you relate to other businesses and the government?
Ben Blackwell: Absolutely. I couldn’t put it better myself regarding Detroit’s people. It’s all positive, across both cities it’s just different.
In Detroit, I think we were immediately on the radar. Probably because of the success that we’ve experienced in Nashville. In Nashville, starting out I think we were under the radar for a while. We were not really catching anyone’s attention. Which was not bad or good, it’s just how it was.
There’s a lot of music, there are a lot of record labels. So it wasn’t anything that they had never seen before. But to open a manufacturing pressing plant in Detroit. That caught people’s attention. And we’re in the same building as Shinola. They already have a ton of attention focused on them.
So it seems like in Detroit, it’s a little more unique in Detroit. But ultimately it’s all the same family here. So Detroit, Nashville doesn’t seem that different from the interior of how we operate or what works. The environs and the surroundings might be a little different or the regulation and red tape but ultimately it’s all the same really.
Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you?
Ben Blackwell: Yeah you can find us. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook all that stuff is pretty the first search result for Third Man Records will be us. And keep buying vinyl records. I’ve got three mouths to feed at home.
According to Blackwell, vinyl is not a fad, it’s a lifestyle. Third Man Records invested in vinyl from the beginning of its revival because vinyl played an important role in the story of The White Stripes.
This investment is paying off with a retail store in Nashville and a record pressing plant (with an attached store) in Detroit. The company is creating jobs, creating music, and is starting to create its own identity outside of being known as Jack White’s Third Man Records.
If you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, please leave them below.