At 10am On Saturday 19th April 2014, Jack White, owner and founder of Third Man Records, took on the challenge of creating the worlds fastest released record. Three Hours, fifty-five minutes and twenty-one seconds later, the task was complete [Moss, M. 2014]. This was all to celebrate independent record store day 2014 because, as Third Man Records slogan says “Your Turntable’s Not Dead” [Third Man Records 2014]. However, is Jack White really the saviour of analogue recording and vinyl records? Or is this just an elaborate way of upping back catalogue sales, enabling him to produce more vanity projects in the future?
This report will look at answering that question by looking at Third Man Records as a label, it’s history and releases, and how it carries out its business in an ever-changing music economy. This economy will also be analyzed to see if there are any practices that could benefit Third Man’s already interesting, innovative, yet niche market approach.
Third Man Records began life in 2001 when The White Stripes signed their first significant label deal with V2. In order to keep control over his master recordings, White set up the label to lease them to V2 in the USA and XL in the UK and Europe. A move that shows a solid level of industry awareness early in his career, turned out to pay dividends when V2 records collapsed in 2007. A loyal fan base created through these 6 years allowed him to rerelease material he regained control of in his own way, with no record label executives to worry about, but it was only in 2009 that a physical premises was built [Modell, J. 2011].
Incorporating label headquarters, record shop, performance space (capable of recording live gigs/sessions) and a novelty outlet selling souvenir like trinkets, White has swallowed up most of the vertical supply chain needed to release a record [Wikström, 2013: 51].
This is a smart vertical integration move, and with the United Record Pressing plant (the only missing link) situated a mere 1.3 miles from Third Man Headquarters, White enjoys a personal relationship with the plant, enabling him to release his strange and unique records [Gold, A. 2011].
Each one of these unique releases is accompanied by a YouTube video featuring Jack and Third Man employees explaining the unique features. That is then shared with their 95,401 Facebook fans and 97,512 Twitter followers [OfficialTMR, 2010]. Although a simple approach to social media, it is effective and relevant to its products and audience.
In terms of then further marketing Third Man’s releases, the 6 year period of success between The White Stripes third album “White Blood Cells” and their last album “Icky Thump” in 2007, helped turn Jack White into one of the 21st Century’s great guitar pioneers. In 2003, White was named the 17th greatest guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, cementing his status as a guitar hero [White Stripes Biography 2014].
Because of this iconic status, White has become tastemaker, with fans interested in every release on Third Man, simply because it has been released by Jack [Gold, A. 2011]. New garage-rock projects like The Dead Weather & The Racontuers featuring White, plus his own solo material, have greatly improved the labels stature.
The label also reissues blues and rockabilly records by the likes Blind Willie Mitchell, Charley Patton, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. White also reissues White Stripes releases and has collaborated with acts like Beck, Tom Jones and Wanda Jackson for label exclusive vinyl releases [Third Man Records 2014].
Third Man also signs artists for development projects, including; The Black Belles, Whirlwind Heat, The Greenhornes and Kelley Stoltz, who all have a similar garage rock sound to White’s material. Karen Elson, Pokey LaFarge and The Haden Triplets have a more country feel to their music, a style which is clearly very close to Jack’s heart, and can also be heard throughout White’s own tracks [Third Man Records 2014]. Solo blues artist Seasick Steve is also signed to Third Man Records, who’s most recent album, ‘Hubcap Music’ reached the top 20 in the UK when it was leased to Fiction records [Fiction Records 2014], suggesting that Third Man may be a little more than just Jack White’s plaything. [Official Charts Company 2014].
The most interesting of Third Man’s releases though are their “Vault Packages”, a quarterly subscription service offering online bonus material [Michaels, S. 2011]. They contain a brand new exclusive 12” LP, an exclusive 7” Single and a Bonus Item in one package 4 times a year. This costs $60 a quarter plus $20 shipping for international subscribers. This works out as $360 per year (£215) for UK customers, almost double that of an annual Spotify Premium service. There is also no guarantee of what the next package will be. It could be a new solo album from White, (Package 20) or a bunch of live recordings from an older Wanda Jackson, arguably past her prime (Package 9) [Third Man Records 2014]. This is an intriguing business model at a time where online internet subscription services such as Deezer, Netflix and Spotify are changing the way the public consume different forms of copyright. Perhaps offering something physical at a slightly higher premium, combined with online content, could be a way of enticing more of the general public into subscription streaming services. Though it could be debated that this could not work on a mass-market level, and would only work effectively in niche markets, such as the one that Third Man operates in.
Jack White clearly believes in that niche market; “We need to re-educate ourselves about human interaction and the difference between downloading a track on a computer, and talking to other people in person and getting turned on to music that you can hold in your hands and share with others” [Michaels, S. 2011]. So its obvious that Third Man Records has set up in opposition to the culture of digital downloading. However, this is could be seen more as a marketing exercise because a quick search of the iTunes Store will find most of Third Man records releases available for download [iTunes, 2014]. This backs up the idea of White using gimmicky releases to thrive of the press generated. Only an incredibly limited number of people in Nashville were able to purchase the world’s first liquid filled record on record store day in 2012, but the mass of attention gained through releasing such a product had the potential to increase his digital and regular physical sales significantly [Peoples. G. 2012].
Among these physical sales are CDs, however, they are limited to only to the artists that are signed to Third Man. Presumably because White still sees their importance in the growth and development of an artist, and the size of the global CD market. All of Third Man’s vinyl and CDs are distributed in the UK by Forte Distribution [Forte, 2014] and White himself also has a record deal with XL records. One of the UK’s largest independent labels XL is home to Adele, The Horrors and Radiohead. XL records stock and release White’s solo projects and White Stripes albums in the UK (including UK digital releases on iTunes) but XL does not have much input in the releases themselves as they are leased from Third Man [XL, 2012]
From vinyl to CD to MP3 to streaming, the change in music formats has always gone hand in hand with technological advancements that have continued to present fresh challenges to both major and independent labels. As the Internet has developed, the recording industry has had less control over the flow of its copyrighted material. Increased connectivity led to peer-to-peer file sharing sites presenting a massive piracy problem for the whole industry, which may have lead to irreversible damage to the value of intellectual property [Wikström, 2013: 6].
One way Third Man Records has reacted to these changes is by encouraging increased connectivity between fans and the label itself, with its aforementioned vault subscription service. Releasing what Jack White calls an “Ultra LP”, a reverse playing record with holograms and locked grooves, also shows a desire to give value to the physical product, not just using it as a vehicle for different copyrights [Beaumont-Thomas, B. 2014]. Not only does it generate great press and further his stance on being anti digital music, but it could also be an example to the rest of the industry. Perhaps more thought could be put into the design and release of its physical products as the mainstream CD buying public still count for 69.8% of the album sales market [Jones. R, 2014]
If Third Man started catering to this market, the label could expand greatly. Improving the quality of its CD releases (limited editions, box sets etc.) has the potential to tap into a whole new mass-market audience.
Being an independent label allows releases and projects to not be purely profit driven and can be created for more artistic reasons, especially when they are owned by an artist themselves. Major record labels are business, and so have shareholders to account to at the end of every financial year. This leads to major labels searching for the next big hit in order to generate maximum revenue. Although this is clearly a very successful approach, it is argued that major labels are unable to allow the creative freedom offered by smaller independents [Harrison, 2011: 63].
From the nature of Third Man’s special releases, it can be assumed that creative freedom and innovation are championed above the need for profit. The label itself is still a business though, regardless of the money that can be ploughed into it from White’s royalty cheques [Gold, A. 2011]. Artist run labels are an interesting business model, and what they can potentially offer their rosters is a contentious issue. On one hand their career could be propelled to heights previously unattainable to them, whilst being inspired by the creative owner to make better records. A good example of this would be The Smoke Fairies, who garnered so much attention from being the first UK band to release a single on Third Man records (that Jack White produced and played on), that their debut album skipped a release on White’s label and came straight out on V2 [Independent, 2010].
This is not always the case however, with artist owned labels sometimes being highly idiosyncratic and therefore, releasing only material that is either self-indulgent or sounds like cut rate versions of the owners hits. Though this argument could be levelled at some of Third Mans artists, there have arguably been worse. The Beatles, after the release of some of the greatest albums in history, started Apple records. Apple released experimental solo projects by John Lennon and George Harrison that are very challenging, and now only focuses on a steady flow of Beatles reissues. Paul Weller’s failed Respond records, and Noel Gallagher’s defunct Big Brother Records lacked success. [Petridis. A, 2010]. This is surprising, given their owners musical pedigree, but are further examples of the negative impact artists can have when they try their hand at being the A&R guy.
White’s pedigree allows him to collaborate with high profile acts, most recently Neil Young, who released a covers album recorded live in a 1947 recording booth. Young’s most recent innovation, the Pono music player, has seen him become the most credible face in digital music, promising digital audio at 24-bit sample rate to “bring music back to life” [Barry, R. 2014]. Although there are many sceptics, Jack White has come out in support of the device [Pono 2014]. This could be a way for Third Man Records to grow, by venturing further into the world of digital music; partnering with Pono, providing high quality digital music, whilst still opposing the MP3 format.
Through a combination of placing more value on physical releases and realising the internet has the potential to allow niche markets to flourish, Third Man records seems to be a stable, secure, yet idiosyncratic label. White’s bank balance allows him to indulge in weird and wonderful marketing campaigns fuelled by his genuine love for vinyl records, resulting in far reaching press that increases the labels profile [Beaumont-Thomas, B. 2014]. The artists the label signs and develops are either in the same garage-rock style as White himself, or are playing music akin to his influences, that can be sold to a specific audience. Third Man has identified that this audience places authenticity above all else when purchasing its music, and there is a high degree of authenticity in analogue recordings contained on vinyl LPs. The resurgence of Vinyl has primarily been in this small market that Third Man operates in [Dredge. S 2013]. If this format, almost consigned to the history books, becomes something for more than just the niche market enthusiasts, White’s innovative releases will be a huge part of reminding the general public that “Your Turntable Is Not Dead” [Third Man Records, 2014]
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