Inside Jack White’s New Vinyl-Pressing Paradise
There was never a plan for a vinyl record pressing plant.
But in 2015, when Jack White‘s Third Man Records launched its second retail store, in Detroit’s historic Cass Corridor, the opportunity was prime.
“We wanted to make a big dent,” says Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell, also White’s nephew. Everything changed once Detroit entered the picture, six years after the opening of the label’s Nashville flagship. That November, at a private opening reception for family and friends on Thanksgiving night, guests mingled in a sprawling 10,000-square-foot warehouse space with a bumblebee-yellow-glossed floor at the back of the new retail store. It was empty, except for a banner strung up that read: “Coming soon! The Third Man Vinyl Pressing Plant.” On Saturday, Third Man Pressing finally opens for business.
The idea got off the ground slower than anticipated. It took a year to finalize details and get the interior ready, and in November 2016, eight custom Newbilt presses arrived from Germany: two for pressing seven-inch records, six for pressing 12-inch records. “This is the first significant new influx of machines in probably 35 years, give or take,” says Blackwell.
Most plants operate on old automated machinery, which is sent from one plant to another if one closes. But these eight presses – trademark Third Man yellow, of course – are manually operated, which has created a fully-staffed shift with 16 manufacturing jobs in a city that was built on manufacturing. The goal is to eventually staff three shifts, bringing the total to roughly 50 new hires with customer service and shipping; by comparison, Third Man’s Nashville store has a staff of about 30.
“Fifty jobs isn’t a new Ford factory,” says Blackwell during Rolling Stone‘s advance tour of the expansive new plant. (Like the floor and the presses, his tie is equally yellow.) “But for Detroit to continue moving forward, you need to have different ideas. [Manufacturing] is a field that’s driven by creativity. That’s something this city has always been flush with.”
On the Tuesday before opening day, Third Man Pressing is alive with activity. Blackwell is in good spirits because a new hire has told him this is the best job he’s ever had. Machines are whirring; Detroit rock is blasting overhead. Not a single detail is left untouched: from the stacks of lilac-purple vinyl to the red-splashed walls, the prevalence of the bold Third Man color palette is almost dizzying.
The site is White’s ultimate rock & roll emporium. Technicians in dark-blue Third Man–stamped coveralls and safety glasses are testing copies of the Stooges’ self-titled debut, which the label is releasing as a double LP on vinyl the exact shade of yellow as the floor. Any record with even the slightest imperfection is sent to a goodbye pile. “If you would have told me five years ago that we’d press the Stooges’ first album with a Third Man label on it, I would have told you you’re out of your mind,” Blackwell laughs.
But they are, and they’re also pressing MC5’s Kick Out the Jams on yellow vinyl; the White Stripes’ first two studio albums – The White Stripes and De Stijl – on red vinyl; Destroy All Monsters and Xanadu split The Black Hole on lilac-purple vinyl; the Johnson Family Singers’ Don’t Let the Devil Ride; and two clear seven-inches from techno pioneers Derrick May and Carl Craig. Some releases are on Third Man, while others are on outside labels, like Craig’s imprint Planet E and May’s Transmat. From the various eras of rock – classic, garage and punk – to gospel and techno, Third Man has amassed a nearly all-encompassing collection of Detroit music history.
“We wanted to be able to showcase a variety of important and historical artists and records from Detroit,” Blackwell explains. Third Man’s Detroit outpost, in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood, pays ample homage to local lore: The retail store is decked out in life-size photos of famous Detroit musicians, who rise above the performance stage, and at the very back of the plant is a stunning vinyl mural painted by Robert Sestok, a key Cass Corridor artist for 30-some years.
White has always strived to immortalize the city’s music culture. When Detroit’s Masonic Temple, a legendary venue that has housed the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix in its theaters, was faced with foreclosure in 2013, he paid off the building’s outstanding $142,000 tax bill. It was where his mother worked as an usher, and where the White Stripes played several shows.
The next step for the vinyl enthusiast, who has always been a fan of tangible music: a pressing plant detailed beyond imagination. When Third Man Pressing opens its doors on Saturday, it will be the first such facility to open in Detroit since Archer Record Pressing in 1965. Blackwell, who briefly worked at Archer, notes that the two businesses are on good terms and that there’s space for both to survive healthily.
“I want to lay claim that Detroit is the vinyl pressing capital of the world,” Blackwell says. “I want it to be a city that people are aware of and proud of, because Detroit is an important music city.”
Cass Corridor, recently rebranded as the more upscale Midtown, was where White went to high school and where Blackwell spent many years. Once crime-ridden, the area has been a hotbed of creative activity for decades, launching the MC5, the Gories and the White Stripes, who played their first show in 1997 at the now-shuttered Gold Dollar around the corner from the Third Man store. (Blackwell jokes that he can hit a number of historically important points with a baseball from where we’re standing.)
Blackwell feels that Third Man established its Detroit presence at just the right time. “Even two or three years earlier, it would have been too soon,” he says. “This could’ve very easily went nowhere.” Detroit has seen a rapid growth in small business, especially in Midtown. But he says that’s not why they’re here. “This isn’t a trendy neighborhood or a marketing decision. This is the neighborhood that we’re supposed to be in. This is the neighborhood for artists and musicians.”
Third Man shares ownership of their building with Shinola, a high-end watch maker which also makes turntables. At Shinola, customers can see watches being made – and now they can do something similar at Third Man. Through glass windows at the back of the retail store, customers can watch a record get pressed, then walk a few feet over and pull that same record from a shelf. “I’m unaware of any other pressing plant with that kind of setup,” says Blackwell. “It highlights the human element of it.”
But in a neighborhood greatly affected by gentrification and rising costs of living, the question remains: Will pressing records at Third Man be affordable for the budding artists who make up the backbone of Detroit’s creative industry? Probably not. “I think we’re going to be on the pricier end,” says Blackwell, who is still finalizing prices. Factoring into the cost are manual labor ($15 per hour plus benefits) and quality, meaning this will be a service mostly geared to more established artists. “Our goal is to make the best record possible, and to make the best record possible, that’s more expensive.” At the very least, he says, he wants young artists to strive towards eventually pressing at Third Man.
The plant is also set to unveil vinyl mastering, complete with a lathe, where artists can cut their own records. “I hope this turns into something along the lines of restaurants, where a new restaurant opening doesn’t really affect another restaurant,” says Blackwell. “For standard black vinyl runs, people can go to Archer. If they want something more specialized, that’s something we can do.”
Opening a plant wasn’t easy – the space had a reported seven-figure price tag, and just one Newbilt press comes at a whopping cost of 200,000 euros, or $220,000. German engineers flew to Detroit to set them up and train employees. There were other hoops to jump through, too, like getting proper city permits and working with neighborhood residents concerned about the effects of a manufacturing plant existing in the area. For an indie label, it was a huge move. “This is for a label owned by one guy,” Blackwell notes. “There’s no shareholders or investors. This is all DIY.”
“How DIY can you get?” Blackwell wonders, watching a plant technician eyeball a fresh yellow Stooges LP hot off the press. The LP seems to check out, and the employee sets it on a pile of other successful copies. “Well, we make our own records,” he says with a nod of approval. “We run a plant. That’s badass.”