Third Man Records Co-Founders Talk Celebrating 10 Years, Billie Eilish Fandom and World Domination

Courtesy of Third Man Records
Ben Swank, Jack White and Ben Blackwell

In September 2008, Jack White and Ben Swank (of Ohio-based garage rock trio Soleded Brothers) were on a flight from Nashville to Detroit to see Don Rickles perform when White pitched his latest idea: Third Man Records. Swank was in. The next step? White called his nephew Ben Blackwell (of Detroit-based garage rock band The Dirtbombs) and secured his three-person starter team. Six months later, Third Man opened for business. “It set the entire pace of how things still are to this day,” says Swank. “We put no business plan together whatsoever, [Blackwell and I] just moved here, and we had our first event two days later.”

Earlier in April, that same energy buzzed throughout Third Man Records’ Nashville location as the team was a day away from celebrating its 10th anniversary since launching in the city with a one-day festival. During which, White made a major announcement: Co-founders Blackwell and Swank had been made minority co-owners.

As the label’s first two employees, the Bens have overseen the release and/or reissue of 600 titles (of which 90 to 95 percent stay in print) and grown the vinyl-focused indie to 45 employees, not including the staff at Third Man Pressing, which opened in Detroit in 2017. “You don’t have those goals going into it, because it just seems like you’re cut off from that huge corporate world,” says Blackwell. “So every time we put out a new record, it’s just like, ‘Holy shit.’”

Last year, Margo Price earned her first Grammy nomination for best new artist on the heels of her second album for Third Man. “It helps people see the label as its own entity,” says Swank. “It’s not just fueled by Jack and his cachet.” Third Man does little A&R “in that way of fighting [to sign] people,” he says, citing signee Lillie Mae, who played fiddle in White’s band until he insisted on producing her 2017 debut. She’ll release her follow-up this year. “We [work with her] because we like her,” says Swank, “not because somebody at Universal was like, ‘Have you heard of her?’” Also this year: The Raconteurs’ anticipated third album will mark the label’s first new release from the group (during my chat with Swank and Blackwell, the band can be heard rehearsing from The Blue Room ahead of its headlining set at the anniversary show).

And while Blackwell was skeptical that the label would last six months, he and Swank are now envisioning the next 10 years. “I think about it all the time,” says Swank, who hopes Third Man will continue to cement its legacy as a label that takes chances on art by expanding its presence in literature, film and live performances. “In a tactile way, you have to have all those different revenue streams, because the industry is moving into content, content, content. Why not be in control of all of that?” he says. “We have this mantra we’ve been saying for a couple of years now: ‘Let’s remember that devil-may-care attitude, mixed with all the knowledge we’ve accrued over the years.’”


Once you were both on board with Third Man Records, what were those early conversations like?

Blackwell: Now that I’m thinking about it, you and I didn’t even talk about it. The first time we talked about it was here, like, “We both signed on to do this.” I just realized that. So yeah, Jack called me and said, “I’ve got this idea, Swank’s already on board,” I had nothing else going on, I was still living at my mom’s house and I had run my own label so I was like, ‘Yeah, this sounds cool.’ I didn’t expect us to get halfway to where we are now, to be perfectly honest. The pitch was originally, “Let’s just reissue the White Stripes’ catalog.” That was the idea. And, maybe we’ll put out some new stuff.

How did it end up in Nashville first, then Detroit?

Swank: Some of it was just logistical. Jack was already living here, all of his gear was down here and instead of paying storage fees, he thought, “Let’s buy our own building.” And there’s record pressing here, which we didn’t have ourselves.

Blackwell: That was the thing that Jack really pushed. He was like, ‘I bought this building to put my gear in, and United Record Pressing is five miles away, it seems too good.’ I visited United right before, oddly enough just driving through town, so I was like, ‘I know those guys.’ And the funny thing is, the first meeting we had there, we met with the owner, the CFO, plant manager and a customer service rep, and he was wearing a t-shirt of my band, The Dirtbombs. I was like, ‘We’re in the right place.’ So much of what we did so early on would have been impossible without that relationship, and I used to be a little more humble about it, but in my mid-30s, I don’t give a shit now. That relationship is so responsible for where vinyl culture has come in the past 10 years. No claim of being the only ones doing it, but I think we had the largest profile.

Swank: People weren’t concentrating on it as a medium at the level. And our initial idea was, “Oh, we got a photo studio here, we can record in Nashville, do all the photo and design in-house, the pressing plant is a few miles away.” It was that era of trying to do things very locally and regionally and in-house and artisanally. That still drives a lot of what we do.

What was Jack’s role early on and how, if at all, has it changed?

Swank: I’ve heard him say in other interviews, so not to speak for him, but that he likes to be really involved until he knows someone’s got it and then he kind of lets go of the wheel a little bit. He’s still largely involved in the projects that he brings in, but also leaves enough leeway for us to run our own campaigns and things. He likes to know what’s going on, he’s in the office a lot, but he’s not driving everything. We like to make the space for him to be able to concentrate on being a musician and an artist when he wants to. But anything he does he’s incredibly dedicated to, so you know, he doesn’t half-step anything. If he’s involved, he’s super involved -- and it’s always positive because he always has the best ideas. For instance, it’s interesting because we’ve never done a Raconteurs new release, we’ve done some archival pieces and reissues but this is all very new for us and it’s interesting seeing the band dynamic being different than something that’s driven by him solely.

Blackwell: For example, The Raconteurs’ social media presence is different than we would have for a Jack White social presence. It’s so driven by the band and they’re putting themselves and their personality and their effort into it.

Swank: And his personal Instagram, the Jack White Instagram, is mostly dedicated to live stuff.

Blackwell: He’s not sitting there writing the captions, he’s not taking the photos. It’s not like, “Here’s what I had for breakfast.”

Swank: What does he have for breakfast?

Blackwell: Avocado toast.

How would you best describe what one another does?

Blackwell: That’s a really great question.

Swank: I’ll start. I’ll say to you what I say to other people privately: Ben is the smartest person at Third Man. He’s a really good problem solver, he understands details of the industry that I choose to ignore or not retain. But, in a large, generic way, he oversees all of the manufacturing and production, and our reissues and some new projects. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything he actually does. Since we’re the first employees, our jobs have grown with the place and we’ve absorbed so much naturally without even thinking about it or realizing we raised our hand for it.

Blackwell: When I think of what I’m handling it always seems like, “Oh, I’ve got three tasks I’m dealing with here,” and when I think of Ben, I think, “Ben is doing 50 fucking things, how is he doing this?” I always think of him as our main liaison with new artists. So it’s not just scheduling releases, but it’s dealing with them and how they’re going to tour, and their social media strategy, and all of the stuff that feels like a perfect opposite to me. I would not be able to understand that, I would not be able to handle it. Swank, early on, established all of our social media and not only the physical establishing of it but also the tone and how we’re out there and what our presence is, which he still largely oversees and works with today.

Swank: I still get emails and texts of like, ‘Can you post this?’

Ten years ago, what were some of the challenges with opening a storefront here?

Blackwell: Vinyl manufacturing is not easy. It’s not quick. Having super complex-aided technology does not speed it up, you are still working in a medium where things happen in real time. You think of the idea of streaming or even downloading, which seems archaic to even talk about downloading now, but you do your job once. You upload your record once to Spotify and you’re done forever, you need do nothing more. You can do more if you want, you can run promotions or adds or whatever, but really, you do that once and that could theoretically, pay your bills for the rest of your life. Think about how crazy that is, just in human history. Never before would you have been able to do something once, and have the physicality never be a concern ever again. It is truly remarkable. We’re vinyl focused; we do streams and downloads and all that crap, too, but vinyl is our bread and butter.

Swank: It’s insane. We have to coordinate our release schedule with our represses. And if a title is getting repressed, it’s because it sells well, so you need it in stock relatively quickly, so you just to keep those funds coming through. It’s lunatic stuff.

Blackwell: We’re constantly feeding the beast, knowing that not everything we do is for everyone but knowing there’s something for everyone.

Swank: A challenge for me that continues to be a challenge is having come into this without working in any traditional record label capacity, there are constantly things that people are telling us we can’t do and to me it’s still like, “Why not?” Even in the last 10 years, there are so many adherents that people stick to that are hard to get around. You can only change that paradigm if you’re Beyonce.

Blackwell: We were just talking recently about a Raconteurs track that’s going to come out digitally, and I said, “Ok, we need eight days to get all this stuff,” and what we always hear from Jack is, “How come Beyonce and Jay-Z just fucking release shit?” And it’s like… well, they’re not taking into consideration when the stores turn over, they’re not predicting their release schedule on playlist placement. They just know, “We’re just going to do this, and people are going to pay attention.” We are not at that level yet.

Swank: Beyonce is going in every playlist no matter how long it’s been in Spotify’s backend.

Blackwell: She’s queen of the world.

Is that something that Jack or you all want to work towards?

Blackwell: World domination? Yeah, absolutely. Beyonce, Ivy Park, yeah.

Swank: I go back and forth. I sometimes would enjoy a more traditional structure, but then I know that there’s this side of me that really thrives on the energy of something happening quickly, the stress of that and also the challenge. Part of me would love to have a finished, delivered album with all the artwork ready to go six months ahead of time.

Blackwell: But that’s less and less becoming the way the world operates. It makes me wonder, something like that Billie EIlish record, how long has that been done? Three months, six months?

Swank: Not gonna lie, I like it. If that’s the pop landscape, I’m glad that that’s what it is. Pretty awesome. If I was a teenager, and I was into pop radio, that would be my shit.

Ten years ago, where did you think Third Man Records would be today?

Blackwell: I didn’t think it would [exist]. Two weeks before [we moved], my then girlfriend now wife, I’ve told this story so many times it’s hilarious, she said, “Let’s do a going away party, we’re both from Detroit, it’s where we were born and raised, all of our family and friends are there.” I was like, “I don’t think we should. I think we’re going to have to move back in six months.” I was just totally pragmatic, like, a vinyl-focused record label? Let’s be honest, the week that we opened 10 years and two weeks ago was the bottom trough of the 2009 Great Recession. The week that we opened! Opening any business at that time would have been a terrible idea, opening a record label is never a good idea. Opening a vinyl-focused record label in March 2009 with your own store front…

Swank: When all indie stores are closing...

Blackwell: … With your own money, too. Like, this isn’t investors' money, it’s not like Jack called someone up and said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea, write me a check,” this was all his own shit. I don’t think enough people know that, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. Because most people, that’s what they would do, they’d get someone else to pay for this. To the idea of DIY, we’re doing it ourselves. I’ve probably told this story before, I had Jeff Daniels in here, gave him a tour, was very, very quiet, and at the end he was like, “Do you have a board?” And I was like, “What do you mean? A mixing board?” He’s like, “No, like a board of directors," and I told him, “No, it’s 100 percent owned by Jack.” He said, “Yeah, you can tell. Your tin ceiling, for example, if you had a board and you had a budget, you’d have to approve that and I know tin ceiling is probably 10 times more expensive than drop ceiling.” I mean, people have labels, every rapper has a label, but are they running it? Are they funding it?

Swank: 100 percent Jack always has and continues to be on the side of art, finding a way to help make it exist. Like you said, he doesn’t get enough credit for that.

It’s interesting to hear you both say to give Jack some credit, because what I often hear is that people give Jack too much credit for this, considering how much you both do.

Blackwell: The thing that always stings a little bit [are headlines like]: “Sleep Release Album on Jack White’s Label,” like, Jack White I understand is a recognition thing, I understand why someone writing a headline would say that, but in the grand scheme of things of someone putting out a record, Jack White has nothing to do with the idea of this record coming out. Yes it is his label, yes it is his money…

Swank: Yes he wants the album to be on the label.

Blackwell: Yes, 100 percent. So that’s the give and take.

Swank: If it’s a new, obscure artist, it’s going to say, “this is on Jack White’s label” because it helps put eyes on it. The hindrance there is that it’s very hard to get follow-up press, because for some publications, that story’s already been told. I think that he, as well, would love to see more press out there that doesn’t say Jack White’s Third Man Records. But, as far as our personal feelings are concerned, it’s never a credit thing, we’re the last people to take credit on anything around here. It’s not how we function.

Blackwell: I want credit less than he doesn’t want credit. Like, we are so not wanting credit.

Swank: I mention it because I think it speaks to the fact that this is what we’re doing. Neither of us are looking at building a resume to point to down the road or something like that. This is it for us.

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.


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