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.
"[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.
But what makes it unique is how Third Man is structured. The music is recorded in the backroom studio, the tapes are shipped to a local pressing plant, and a few weeks later the results are available for sale in the storefront or online. That kind of street-level immediacy is what led to happy accidents at J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans (Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard), Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash), Fortune Records in Detroit (Andre Williams, John Lee Hooker), and countless other small regional operations from the 1940s through the '60s that Third Man is designed to evoke.
"These sort of [labels] that had a do-it-yourself, shooting-from-the-hip aesthetic, I always thought they were responsible for the most inspired, creative, and interesting music in the history of popular music, simply by cutting through the corporate bureaucracy and getting the music directly to the people. And I think that's what Jack's doing," says Michael Gray, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
White is insistent that Third Man is not a vanity label. "If I want to do something, I really want to be part of it from the ground up," he says. For almost every release, he serves as the producer, art director, mixing engineer, sometime video director, and musician. By late this year, the label will have released 55 titles.
The process is stridently old-fashioned. Everything is recorded to 8-track analog tape, then shipped to United Record Pressing in Nashville, one of the last vinyl record manufacturers in the United States, which pressed Motown's catalog in the '60s. While some of the records are available in stores and from third-party distributors such as Amazon, "a large percentage of sales" comes from the label's online site, says Ben Blackwell, White's nephew who runs the label's day-to-day operations.
Mr. Gray says Third Man reminds him of Tangerine Records, the all-in-one operation that Ray Charles built after reaping the rewards of "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," his smash hit 1962 album. The next year Mr. Charles moved his entire publishing company, recording studio, and management under one roof and launched Tangerine Records, a label that provided a home for people he considered heroes, such as Percy Mayfield and Louis Jordan.
"Ray was all about the money and I'm sure he was looking for hits, but he also figured the label was a way of giving back to people who meant so much to him," he says.
Besides small regional acts like British folk singer Laura Marling and the Black Belles, a four-girl garage rock group, Third Man is also releasing a forthcoming album by Wanda Jackson, the rockabilly veteran, and recently issued a live album by Dex Romweber, whose previous band, Flat Duo Jets, White frequently credits as a major influence for his own music.
Mr. Romweber says working at Third Man involved working directly with White. "He seemed to be doing most of it," he says. After releasing a 7-inch single, Romweber later returned to Nashville to bang out a live album that he says was recorded in front of fans he could tell were not familiar with his music.
"I met a lot of people there I never met before. There were probably a lot of White Stripes fans very interested in what [White's] doing now. I got the impression he's infiltrating another audience for our material," he says.
The simple connecting of music fans to musicians is a dynamic that has sharply diminished due to the globalization of the recording industry, which now operates to mainly sell music for commercials, soundtracks, video games, mobile phones, and other entertainment products. Local radio, once the cornerstone for exposing new artists, is burdened by limited playlists. The combined effect has dramatically cut the creative interplay between artists and fans.
"Regional music isn't prevalent anymore. The DJ in Detroit could play a local Detroit band's 45 and it could be a hit only in Detroit. And if it was good enough, it could move on all across the country, or the world.... But it started with a local DJ, a tastemaker," White says. "We don't have tastemakers in our country anymore. It's hard to know who to believe."
White says that because he believes "the two formats that are going to exist in the next decade are vinyl and digital," he refuses to deal with CDs. The Internet, which has suffocated countless small labels due to illegal file sharing, is considered a threat that must be contended with, not fought against. Surprises, such as a secret guest or a special song choice, are no longer worth trying to keep under wraps.
"There's nothing you can do," he says. "Those days are gone."
He says he'd rather "use the Internet for what it's good for and try to make something new out of it." That includes streaming in-store performances live or creating an online fan club that offers special products like multicolored vinyl. The quirks allow him to create quirky hits – a spoken-word recording by the late astronomer Carl Sagan set to a backing beat is the label's top-selling 7-inch single – and give the new generation a chance to have a listening experience that goes beyond hand-held gadgets, the experience through which he says is inherently fleeting. "This week it's something and next week it's something else," he says. "I'd rather have something that's a real experience that could be memorable."