Jack White’s indie boutique label continues to push the envelope for the “experience” of music
The former White Stripes front man opened up Nashville’s Third Man in March 2009.
Ben Swank might not be singing “Happy Birthday” this week, but he’ll be thinking it as Third Man Records marks its 14th year in Nashville.
“It feels like, wow, that went by so fast,” says Swank, who was instrumental in opening the Nashville branch of Third Man in 2009—and he’s been a Nashvillian ever since.
Some nine years earlier, Grammy-winning Detroit rocker Jack White had co-founded the independent, vinyl-centric record label with Swank and Ben Blackwell, his Michigan business partners. “It happens fast when you head down the middle of it.”
From its eclectic headquarters on 7th Ave. South, Third Man has grounded itself in the local music community, pushing the boundaries of what a record company can do and be. It releases records, sure, but it’s much more—a retail store, live-music venue, photo studio, distribution center, publishing company and arthouse cinema. Where else in Nashville can you see a collection of vintage music-machine curiosities, then catch a set by a visiting Scottish indie sensation? It’s the only record company in Nashville where an act can perform, record live and then have vinyl records made—on the spot—in just a matter of hours.
Fans can not only see and hear music, purchase it and be entertained by it, but can experience it in one of Nashville’s coolest, most unique settings, where music isn’t so much a commodity as an organic, ongoing creative process.
“Jack’s philosophy on a lot of things is to find new ways for fans to engage,” says Swank, whose describes his role and responsibilities as Third Man’s consiglieri.
Since its opening, hundreds of artists have plugged in to Third Man in Nashville. There’ve been singer-songwriters, garage bands and punk rockers, but also superstars. U2, Pearl Jam, Conan O’Brien and comedians Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari have performed and recorded there. So has White’s former White Stripes duo partner and ex-wife, Meg. Country’s Margo Price was a Third Man breakout with her critically acclaimed 2016 debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
When I connected with him a couple of weeks ago, the consiglieri talked about becoming a Nashvillian, how he hooked up with White, and the big opening night, 14 years ago, that kicked everything off and set the tone for everything that would follow.
How did you meet Jack White?
We met when we were in our early 20s in Toldeo, where I’m from. One of his bands was playing on a bill with some friends of mine. My band played in Detroit [White’s hometown] a lot. We started swapping shows; he produced my band’s first big record. We just kind of became, the way music can bring people together. But more than that, I always thought Jack was an intelligent, natural-born almost bohemian type person, and I’ve always found myself more interested in people like that. I just think we identified with each other a little more than some others in the world. But certainly, music was the first thing that kind of made us friends.
White had already moved to Nashville, in 2005, after producing Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose, her much-hailed comeback album, on which the former White Stripes front man also sang and played guitar. Impressed by the Music City vibe, he decided to open a Nashville branch of Third Man, expanding beyond the company’s original footprint in Detroit and its later setup in London. Swank, working in the London location at the time, and Blackwell, White’s nephew, were tapped to relocate and set up the new operation.
What were your first impressions of Nashville?
I didn’t know anything about Nashville, and then, here I was. My very first night they took me down to Broadway, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, well, this isn’t me.’ But I put in some time, and almost immediately I started seeing that this is the perfect place for us. I wanted to be in a smaller town, and I was kind of tired of living in a sort of hectic-ness [in London]. Nashville had everything we needed for Third Man; URP, United Pressing Service, who started working with us [making acetates and records] almost immediately, was right down the road from us; [and] there’s so much printing [done] here. It felt very close to what we were trying to do, at start of the onset of the trend of small businesses and farm-to-table restaurants. We wanted to say, “Come in, you can record, take your photos, do all of it in-house, and your records will be made here in Nashville,” A one-stop shop.”
Third Man launched in Nashville on March 11, 2009, with a top-secret grand opening known only to the 100 guests who’d been invited. White debuted his new band, The Dead Weather, which played their very first show in Third Man’s new venue space, the Blue Room.
What do you remember about opening night?
Lots of industry people came to see the debut of Dead Weather. We had already pressed Dead Weather’s first seven-inch [vinyl 45], which was available at the show. All the sleeves were hand-signed by the band. Everyone got an individual piece of photo strip of the band, and each one had a different picture in every frame. I think it immediately set the pace for what we were trying to do. We took everyone’s phones away; they had to immerse themselves in this party, this experience. It was amazing to see people’s minds blown by this new thing that was happening.
Third Man continued to add to the experience of music. In 2013, it introduced the Third Man Record Booth, where fans—or anyone else—could step inside a small space and make an “instant record.” Soon, artists also flocked to the booth; Neil Young recorded a whole album in it; Weezer, Weird Al and Richard Thompson also plugged in to its unique aural ambience.
What other new things did you bring to Third Man after the opening?
We’ve expanded our retail store four times. We bought the building next door to us and combined both into one larger structure. So, we now have distribution in-house now, as well as what we call “soft” merchandising manufacturing—T-shirts, etc. And we added the photo studio, where we hand-develop film and make prints in-house. Our Blue Room is now open for shows five nights a week. We’re a bar that’s open on a near-daily basis. We have 800 releases under our belt at this point, I have a family now and I’m almost 50. It’s fun to look back. We started out as a very small team, and we’ve built a very specific kind of world and culture here.
Especially at first, locals expressed some skepticism about the location chosen for Third Man in Nashville—just across the street from the city’s homeless shelter, a couple of blocks from the Greyhound station, in an industrial zone where businesses mostly buttoned up and shut down after dark.
There were comments about Third Man setting up shop in a spot that some people considered dicey, or even a little dangerous.
It doesn’t bother us. We still hear about that; apparently, it’s a concern for some folks. I think it says a lot more about [them] than us, to be honest. Just because we’re next door to the mission, I don’t think it means anything necessarily bad about the neighborhood. It’s always felt like home to us, and that’s what Jack [wanted]. Since we come from a more sort of industrialized city, it never seemed out of place to us.
What have been some of the highlights and things you’re proudest of?
We have a world record—the fastest record ever made, which we did in front of a live audience; recorded it, pressed it, did the artwork. That was a big thing.
[In 2004, White recorded a pair of new songs in front of a live audience, then took the direct-to-acetate disc to United Record Processing, printed vinyl singles and brought them back to Third Man, immediately, to sell to fans. Elapsed time: just under four hours.]
We put a record in space, Carl Sagan. [Third Man’s 2016 vinyl release of the Cosmos host talking was set to music by composer John Boswell; a gold-plated vinyl copy spun on a turntable, specially designed to function in the deep freeze of high altitudes, attached to a high-altitude balloon that ascended to 94,000 feet]. It sold a lot of copies for us.
We brought countless bands through our doors that hadn’t played in Nashville before or wouldn’t have played here otherwise. We have the only venue in the world where you can play a live show in front of an audience and record direct to acetate, live to a master in real time. The audience can watch that process as it happens, and then buy those albums. That’s something that only exists in Nashville, because of us.
We screen films; we have 16mm projectors and we try to show films that are out of distribution. We do massive poetry events and art shows. We really try to just be part of the culture overall. [Third Man’s publishing imprint has released an array of diverse titles of poetry, fiction and children’s books, including White’s own “We’re Going to Be Friends.”]
There’s been so much over the years. But I think the thing I’m most proud of is really being a part of this community, less about being the “first ones” about anything. More about being a part of what’s special about Nashville, and bringing our own stamp to that, in a very specific Third Man way.
—by Neil Pond