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Jack White Returns: Record Store Day at Third Man Records

on April 20, 2014, 7:36pm
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I’m not the first to suggest that Jack White is music’s modern day Willy Wonka and Third Man Records is his Chocolate Factory. When I received an invitation to tour the Third Man HQ ahead of his latest Record Store Day stunt, I truly felt like Charlie finding his golden ticket. That stunt — if you don’t already know — was to create the “World’s Fastest Studio to Store Record,” where White would record his new single direct-to-acetate live at Third Man, rush the masters to United Record Pressing (URP) to go through the pressing process faster than anyone else had done before, and have the record in the hands of customers at his store in just a few hours.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

Located just a few blocks away from Third Man, URP is the largest vinyl record pressing plant in the United States and enjoys a great partnership with White’s label. Third Man was their third biggest client in 2013, just behind Universal and Sony. Together they’ve created a multitude of innovative vinyl releases: the liquid-filled vinyl, the triple decker, the tri-color, the 3 rpm, and more. It’s been a fruitful partnership for both parties, and together they push the boundaries of vinyl regularly. Naturally, this year’s Record Store Day stunt was no different.

Friday

12:00 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

Third Man doesn’t allow press behind the scenes at Third Man often, so it was a rare treat to peek behind the curtain and see the full scope of their operation. We congregated in the storefront and were met by original Third Man employee – one of two, now expanded to 17 – and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell. He led us through the hallway and into the offices. We went directly to the room where the live cutting would happen the next day and learned all about the intricate process. It’s the only place in the world that can record a live show directly to acetate. The room also houses their new Rupert Neve-designed mixing board, a stark contrast to the ’50s technology of the cutting lathe.

Blackwell then led us across a former alley and into their new extension of the building next door, which they bought and annexed near the end of 2012. The large warehouse-type room is stylized like a ’50s hotel and has all the touches and flourishes you’d expect from Jack White. Each “hotel room” is an office that houses a branch of the Third Man operation; the ground level is their mail-order hub, and the rest of the warehouse is used for storage space. The one takeaway Blackwell wanted us to have was that anything that can be done under their own roof gets done. They ship their own records, create all their graphic design work, control their online presence — really, everything you can imagine is done in their Nashville offices. The only thing they can’t do in-house is record production, though that’s where their partnership with URP comes in handy.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

After seeing their new offices, we circled back around to the blue room through the back porch, which was large and beautiful, complete with grills, bathrooms, and a unique area of the floor filled with tri-color records of the past. (A huge upgrade from the early days of Third Man shows, where it was just an alleyway leading to a seedy backstage area.) We then got to see the office’s main lounge, complete with an array of taxidermy and a kitchen area that they call “the hospital kitchen.” The area looks like an old ’50s-style soda fountain, and the hospital part comes from the red crosses on the wall. In the corner of the lounge is White’s office, where the door reads: “John A. White, III Family Dentistry.”

Everything in the entire building was handpicked by White: the colors, the designs, and the concepts. It was as eccentric as it was impressive. Everywhere you looked, there was an interesting flourish, from wooden records in door frames to pillows stitched with album cover art. It was all uniquely Jack White, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.

1:15 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

After our tour of Third Man, we were shuttled over to the site of the other side of the process: United Record Pressing. Blackwell explained that he’s likely their most frequent customer, as he’s over there at least once per day. He’s the only non-employee who can just walk in and lead a tour and everyone is okay with it. He led us through some of the history of URP, including the “Motown Suite,” where black musicians and label executives would stay in the early ’60s, no thanks to Jim Crow laws that were still in effect.

Eventually, we made it to the main floor, which was in full swing and louder than a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant to borrow a phrase. They were pressing records of all kinds, including some Third Man materials, and to see the process in person was fascinating. From barrels containing literal tons of loose vinyl to the actual pressing of the product… it was quite an experience.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

“Vinyl coming back is no longer a story,” Blackwell explained, asking: “The story now is, where does it go from here?” URP is producing at a rate higher than it has in decades, possibly even more than when vinyl was the only format. Because of this, Blackwell wonders if these old plants can keep up with the demand.

After all, the last record-pressing machine was made in the early ’80s, and it takes a very unique specialist to work on the current machines. As such, the turnaround times are getting longer as production goes up, so losing machines is a real concern that could hurt their production. Regardless, Third Man is one of the few labels really asking these questions.

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