Profile: Jack White has created a thing of beauty in a Nashville studio

AS I WALK around Third Man Records I catch a glimpse of the boss, Jack White. Wearing a hat and a pointy beard, carrying a crystal ball for some reason, followed by staff in sharp black-and-yellow outfits like hipster Oompa-Loompas, he looks more than a little like Willy Wonka.

Well, he certainly has the magical factory to prove it. Since it opened in Nashville in March last year – pointedly on the other, grubbier side of town from the established studios of the country music world – White's Third Man has become the coolest record label on the planet.

With its slogan "Your turntable's not dead", it has been at the forefront of the vinyl revival, producing most of its 68 releases so far as unique, three-colour records like so many tempting multicoloured sweets. You can still get plain black vinyl, or download everything from the iTunes store, but it's really all about the limited editions of 150 or 300 – a collector's dream.

Hide Ad

There's a small shop at the front of the building and a live venue at the back, open to the public, but my own golden ticket allows me a tour of the whole operation. There are bright yellow walls and floors, a gleaming tiled ceiling, exotic stuffed animals everywhere and a bar designed like a retro hospital.

The design studio, where the album sleeves are produced, has a photo of Detroit ragtime band The Bart Howard Syncopators covering an entire wall. A giant buffalo's head gazes down passively. A stuffed African goat sits at the foot of one desk like an obedient labrador.

The live venue in the rear, a completely blue cube with a giant, striking ceiling fan provided by a company called Big Ass Fans, hosts afternoon shows by all sorts of acts as they pass through town – recent alumni include cult indie bands Cold War Kids and Jenny & Johnny and comedians Conan O'Brien and Reggie Watts. The gigs are recorded there on reel-to-reel tape (bands have to pause after half an hour so they can change the spool) and attendees can get the show on record a few weeks later.

White, as well as most of his staff, is originally from Detroit, but he says he was attracted to Nashville – the musically conservative home of country music's establishment – because it's small. Thus, Third Man is as local as a record company can be, with design, photography and distribution done in-house, recording done either there or in White's midtown studio a mile away, and the records pressed a couple of blocks away at a 61-year-old company called United.

The boss works there three or four times a week when he's not on tour, and Nashville residents have the best chance of acquiring the limited edition records or attending the roughly fortnightly gigs.

But independent record stores around the globe can get some of the magic rubbed off on them, too. Laura Marling recently recorded a cover of Neil Young's The Needle and the Damage Done for the label, 100 copies of which went on sale in Rough Trade East in London's Brick Lane last month. This month's vinyl reissues of the first three White Stripes albums were sold in limited red-and-white versions at record shops in Detroit, Memphis and Utrecht.

Hide Ad

Their biggest problem is getting the limited records – from The Dead Weather's glow-in-the-dark Halloween single to Karen Elson's peach-scented album – into the hands of the "real" fans. Collectors are a mercenary bunch: a quick trawl of eBay today offers Third Man seven-inches for prices from 25 to 250. White recently came under fire for auctioning five White Stripes albums on eBay himself.

As Third Man will only sell one record to any given family, there is the problem of the mystery man in the black SUV who regularly pays homeless people five dollars each to stand in the queue and buy multiple copies for him to sell on. Then there are the parents who buy a copy for themselves and then claim that their three-year-old wants one too.

Hide Ad

It would be easier to join The Vault, Third Man's $20-a-month subscription service that promises a random selection of lustworthy vinyl in the post four times a year. I'm asking Santa for the "Vinyl Starter Merchandise Collection", a $499 set that includes White Stripes headphones and a customised portable record player.

Localised, lovingly crafted music that prefers you to hunt for it instead of downloading it instantly, and a tangible base for the town's music scene – Third Man is swimming against everything the record industry does today. What an exciting way to do business. Before we all pack our bags and move to Nashville, though, it's worth asking: can we have a British equivalent please?

•For more information, visit