Last April 19, Jack White attempted to make an unusual bit of music history. On Record Store Day, an unofficial holiday created to celebrate independent record stores everywhere, the former White Stripes frontman and now solo musician played a special set at Third Man Records, a record shop he owns in Nashville, Tenn. White and his band gave the crowd about 45 minutes of music, but their first two songs — the title track off Lazaretto, his latest album, and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Power Of My Love” — were the most crucial to get just right because as those tunes were being played, technicians elsewhere at Third Man were recording them to acetate. Once the technicians captured the songs to master recordings, another Third Man crew shuttled the masters to United Record Pressing, a nearby vinyl-pressing plant. Dozens of copies of the Lazaretto single were quickly pressed and returned to the store — all in a bid to deliver what Third Man was promoting as “the World’s Fastest Record.”
White and company’s attempt was a success, accomplishing the stunt in three hours, 55 minutes and 21 seconds. As long as patrons were around for Record Store Day, Third Man solicited copies of the single, resulting in a limited-edition run of around 700 copies. The Guinness World Records team was not around to certify the single’s status as a record-holder, but Ben Swank, consigliere at Third Man Records, didn’t sweat it. “According to what they have listed,” he says, “we beat it by 18 hours.”
This wasn’t the first strange concept concocted and realized by Third Man and, knowing its track record, it very likely won’t be its last. Third Man is a label that thrives on making whims, risks and gags a reality. Originating in name alone in 2001 as a way for White to license his records, Third Man became a proper record label in 2009 and has since issued albums from White, The White Stripes, Neil Young, The Dead Weather (another White project) and a smattering of garage and blues-rock bands. A few months after making the label official, White, Swank and Ben Blackwell (who is credited as Third Man’s Pinball Wizard; job titles here are cheeky) opened the physical store.
Third Man’s handle is a nod to both Orson Welles’ 1949 film The Third Man and White’s prefame job as the proprietor of Third Man Upholstery. The company also references Third Man Upholstery’s catchphrase of “Your furniture’s not dead” by proclaiming “Your turntable’s not dead” — a fitting sentiment for a business that is intent on keeping the aura of the physical music-consumer culture alive. “We definitely wanted to have a small storefront where we were able to sell our own records, but we really envisioned Blackwell and me sitting here in our office, [and] the intercom rings and we go out there and just help somebody occasionally,” Swank says of the store’s early days. “What we found really quickly is that the store was going to be a much busier endeavor than we originally imagined.”
The Third Man Monkey Band player allows users to pop in a quarter and hear a portion of an upcoming Third Man release being “played” by a band of electronic monkey figures/musicians.
Truthfully, calling the physical version of Third Man simply a record store is a tad false. In reality, its a black-and-yellow-colored complex that consists of two interconnected buildings containing a variety of rooms. Swank once likened the space to “a James Bond villain lair.” Aside from the main shop area — where customers can pick up Third Man music releases (the company’s best-selling items), clothing, turntables, trinkets and the like —Third Man also includes a rehearsal space/recording studio, a photo studio, the room that houses the aforementioned acetate-cutting equipment and a merchandise warehouse (the latter’s look is patterned after an old motel). Two ongoing series of 7-inch singles are recorded on-site (Stephen Colbert, Beck, Tom Jones and Conan O’Brien have all participated), and Third Man also holds film screenings. And to sell merchandise away from Nashville at festivals and events such as South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, Third Man sends out a converted ice-cream truck called the Rolling Record Store. If you’re getting a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory vibe from all these sensory stimulants and imaginative ideas, the comparison isn’t unwarranted: To commemorate The Dead Weather’s first album, Third Man inserted golden tickets into 10 record copies, granting holders the right to a personal tour of the complex from White himself.
Swank won’t provide specific numbers about Third Man’s finances, but he calls the business’ growth “steady.” “We’re very happy with how things are going,” he says. “We’re not a company that has a strict allegiance to numbers, stats, metadata and predictions. A lot of our decision process is instinctual and often comes from almost a place of adventure.
Several offbeat machines in Third Man’s shop drive this point home, like the Third Man Monkey Band player, which allows users to pop in a quarter and hear a portion of an upcoming Third Man release being “played” by a band of electronic monkey figures/musicians. Another contraption, the Mold-A-Rama, dispenses red-wax molds of a signature Jack White guitar at $3 apiece. And for $15, anyone can enter the Record Your Own Voice booth and make a short vinyl recording out of whatever he or she would like (Willie Nelson, Weezer and Neil Young have all given the device a whirl).
Above all else, though, Swank sees Third Man’s novelties, events and aesthetic choices as a getaway for music fans searching for something enjoyable and out of the ordinary. “What works for us is that people know we’re having fun with what we’re doing and that there’s genuine passion and detail behind it. They can see we work hard, but we’re really, really enjoying that. That means something to people,” he says. “It’s not just a cynical business move. It’s [the approach] that, ‘Hey, this [idea] would be great, and maybe you’ll think it’s as funny as we do if we do this.’ ”
If You Go
Third Man Records
623 7th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays
Born in Dallas; bred in Karachi, Pakistan; and based out of Columbus, Ohio, Reyan Ali has also covered music and pop culture for Rolling Stone, Spin, The Atlantic and SF Weekly.