Musician Jack White’s Third Man Records is helping rebuild Detroit with a brand new vinyl record pressing plant and outlet stores. Is there life for legacy industries post-disruption?
BY JAMES JENNINGS
A funny thing happened alongside the rapid rise of digital music streaming services: vinyl albums – those cumbersome 12-inch plastic slabs that fell out of favour in the late-80s and early-90s – have experienced a remarkable resurgence, with worldwide sales increasing exponentially year-on-year.
Although the arrival of the Compact Disc appeared to signal the death knell for the LP format, a so-called “vinyl revival” that began around 2007 has seen records make a roaring comeback: in the US alone, it’s projected that 40 million records will be sold in 2017, with sales approaching $US1 billion. In Australia, vinyl counts for 15 per cent of all physical music sales, with 2016 experiencing an 80 per cent increase in overall sales compared to 2015.
The popularity of digital streaming has done nothing to quell the desire of music lovers to hold something tangible in their hands (although the devaluing and lack of aesthetic appeal of CDs has meant their potential resurgence won’t be on the cards any time soon), leading to a vinyl boom and the growing popularity of Record Store Day, an annual international celebration of the format.
Although vinyl sales still only account for a small portion of overall physical music sales – in the US they will only make up around six per cent of a projected $15 billion in revenue this year – the resurgence is enough to provide a significant increase in demand and a second wind for a once-doomed legacy industry.
One of the most vocal champions for the growth of vinyl production in a post-disruption world is none other than the White Stripes’ Jack White (pictured top), whose two solo albums – 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto – both wound up in the US Top 10 vinyl sales during their respective years of release.
Following on from the opening of White’s Third Man Records’ storefront in Nashville in 2009 (the premises including a record store, novelties lounge, label offices, distribution centre, photo studio and the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities), White and Third Man Records co-founder Ben Blackwell – White’s nephew – opened a second storefront in Detroit’s historic Cass Corridor in 2015.
In February, White cemented his dedication to the vinyl format and his staunch desire to keep it alive and kicking well into the 21st century with the opening of Third Man Pressing, a state-of-the-art vinyl production facility. Billed as an investment in Third Man Records’ hometown (Detroit is White’s city of birth), the plant is housed in a 10,000 square foot warehouse that cost seven figures and boasts eight custom-built record presses from Germany’s Newbilt Machinery, each unit costing $220,000.
The significant investment from White has also created new manufacturing jobs: the current plan is to run the presses, which produce 5000 records per eight-hour shift, for 24 hours a day, resulting in the need for approximately 50 employees to keep production moving (the Nashville flagship store, by comparison, employs a staff of 30).
“Fifty jobs isn’t a new Ford factory,” Blackwell told Rolling Stone in February. “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.”
Third Man Pressing is only one of about 20 vinyl record plants in the US – and one of only a few dozen worldwide – but with Jack White’s ingenuity and vision leading the charge, the fascination with vinyl LPs and their resurgence will only further the format’s growth among record collectors.
“Jack White is the public face for vinyl,” Blackwell told The Detroit News not long after the grand opening of Third Man Pressing in February. “This is us putting our money where our mouth is. This is an investment to show our dedication and our commitment to the format and the industry surrounding it.”
Go inside the Third Man Pressing facility in Detroit . . . watch here