(Photo by Paige Sara)
TWO ALBUMS, ONE MAN, ALL THE INSTRUMENTS. Oh yes, and 23 tracks. That’s the deal with Jack White’s double hit of music this year, as he explained in part one of this interview. That’s a lot of songs. It helps that the label releasing it is his own, Third Man Records.
Does that sound like someone else to you? Less Detroit, more Minneapolis, less White, more purple. If the name Prince comes to mind that’s not just right, but handy as Third Man Records has signed a deal with Prince’s estate to put out a vinyl version of one of the late singer’s unreleased albums, recorded in the late 1980s – when he just seemed to be spitting out great song after great song as easily as normal people breath – and meant to be released under his “female” pseudonym, Camille.
Proper kindred spirits then?
“I love just the scope of the different ideas that Prince had,” says White. “The idea that I’ve heard, maybe I’ve not got current information on this, but I have heard for years that Prince was going to release an album as a female artist, with his voice sped up on a tape machine. It’s a very brave thing to do. I know what it’s like to use vari-speed on the tape machine: you can do something really interesting, but if you push it too far you can turn into Alvin and the Chipmunks.
“But the idea that he got all the way to pressing it, actually pressing it and making artwork and then changing his mind at the last second, just boggles your mind. What was it at the last second that scared him into wanting to retrieve it? But if Prince’s estate is willing to do it, and it seems like they are, I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Third Man is not just a label, a book publisher, a store – multinational too, as there is one in London to go along with Detroit and Nashville – a studio, and a small bar; it is also a manufacturer of records.
(On the floor of Third Man Record's pressing plant in Detroit.)
Some years ago White bought a vinyl pressing plant, setting it up in his old home town of Detroit in 2017, which enables them to do full runs of the label’s albums, as well as boutique orders for other artists. (There’s also a Voice-o-Graph in the Nashville store where you can record two minutes of audio and have it immediately pressed onto a “phonograph disc”.)
It is now an organisation that can take an artist from studio to shelf to buyer, the ultimate vertically integrated business you might say. But it is in the scheme of things small beer, and that isn’t enough to make the difference White hopes for as the much ballyhooed “viny resurgence”, that has seen its growth exceed CD sales, has had deleterious effects.
For the past couple of years, the backlog of albums waiting to be pressed has blown out to nearly 12 months in some cases, especially independent artist and small labels who may only have runs in the low thousands, as the major labels with their star-driven demand for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, have taken precedence. Many smaller artists now must delay their release dates to accommodate the long wait in the queue for the limited number of pressing plants around the world and some have given up altogether.
In White’s view “that’s not something to mess around with”. In the past week, he has publicly challenged major labels to do the same as Third Man, but on a commensurately bigger scale. To, as he puts it, “put some skin back in the game” that underpins their business.
“I think that it was only the smaller, independent pressing plants like ours they were keeping this idea alive [for years] and now that that idea has gotten to the level of major pop artists like Taylor Swift releasing nine versions of her album, Adele, Olivia Rodrigo, Paul McCartney released six or seven versions [of his most recent album], some of which we pressed at our pressing plant, all of this is an amazing thing,” White says.
“This is all great and we are turning a new generation, who you would never have thought would care about physical music, seeing vinyl as now a humongously popular format in their lives. And that’s something that we really need to grab hold of and sees this moment. But it can’t be done in a real way until the majors get involved.”
What’s in it for them though? No one has ever accused the major labels and their corporate backers of something as crass as selflessness.
“This is nothing to them, a billion-dollar corporation, this is pennies to them, the investments that I’ve made in our pressing plant, which are multimillions. But most of these records [being pressed around the world] are their records,” says White. “So we need to figure a way to do this and it can’t just be the independents any more. But mostly, it’s not an accusation, it’s just that we are all on the same team. We all want this to happen, they want this to happen.”
There have been complaints from some smaller labels and independent artists, along with faint sounds of “we were buying records before these kids were even born” from some collectors, that the sales for major artists contain a significant number of people who don’t even own a turntable and have no intention of playing the record, skewering the trend more into a fad and a destructive one at that.
Whether this is true or not, to my mind it’s an argument that misses the point that getting people to buy a record for a start is a major improvement for maybe two generations now who have come to see music as something you get for free or for a few dollars a month.
Secondly, sooner or later at least a portion of that audience will want to play them and they’ll buy a player, and they might buy more – vinyl, CD, anything. To White I point to my 18-year-old nephew who didn’t even own CDs, but now has a growing record collection and turntable and is a music consumer.
“Praise the Lord when a teenager gets turned onto music and starts buying records. Whatever it takes. People have said things to us in the past, at Third Man, when we’ve done glow-in-the-dark records or record that has a hologram on it, and I’ve said man, I don’t care, you can put whatever pops and buzzes and fireworks on that thing. If that gets 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds interested in music, interested in the vinyl format, then go ahead. At the end of the day, whatever gets you into the building, whatever gets you interested in the idea, once you get there you’ll find your own path.”
As a final question then what would White tell my nephew, who has been buying Adele, Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, to convince him to buy Jack White records?
“Well because his records need other records to hold them up on the shelf.”
NEXT WEEK: In part three of this interview, Jack White explains why a double album was tempting but denied, and how an upholstery apprenticeship sowed the seeds for a design maven.
Fear Of The Dawn is released on April 8. Entering Heaven Alive is released on July 22.(