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Jack White waxes nostalgic in bid to reconnect fans to music

Rock star and entrepreneur Jack White hopes his back-to-the-future approach to producing music will generate more creative, inspired recordings.

By Staff writer / August 27, 2010

Jack White operates his record label Third Man Records out of Nashville, Tenn.

Third Man Records

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On a recent Saturday afternoon this summer, Jack White leans back in his tour bus parked in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood and strikes an analogy to help explain why digital music is killing the tangible experience of listening to music.

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"[Kids] don't know they're missing out on something. If movie theaters didn't exist today how could you explain it to a teenager?... But thank God movie theaters still exist. Thank God vinyl still exists. Thank God arcades still exist.... All those things are so beautiful," he says. "So if I'm going to be part of a record label, it has to be something that provides a real experience and not just the nifty trick of the week."

Waxing poetic about antiquated recording formats is likely not something that takes up the time of most corporate CEOs, especially when they're facing the next multimillion-dollar deal to sell music as mobile-phone ring tones.

Which makes Mr. White an anomaly in today's recording industry. He is a bona fide rock star due to a staggering number of albums (10) under various band names (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) released in a short number of years (11), the quality of which has earned the respect and admiration of British rock veterans like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and Jimmy Page, all of whom look up to him as a guitarist, vocalist, and experimentalist who is doing what they did when they were lean and hungry: delving into America's roots music heritage and finding a way to make it his own.

But unlike those icons, White has never fully walled himself off from the people who buy his records or tickets to his shows. Starting less than two years ago, he had the money to step outside convention and create a business structure that looks to the past to how it produces and sells music.

The result is Third Man Records, a combination recording studio, performing space, record label, mail-order business, and retail outlet located in Nashville, Tenn. White relocated there after coming up in Detroit's garage rock scene in the 1990s as one-half of The White Stripes, the duo he continues to play in with Meg White, his drummer and ex-wife.

Compared with even the largest independent labels like Matador or Sub Pop, Third Man – named after the 1949 Orson Welles film noir – is a modest operation: just five full-time staffers and releases that sell between 1,500 to 10,000 copies each.