The Vinyl Frontier
Ben Blackwell, Third Man's resident 'psychedelic stooge,' steers the label's vinyl ship
As he leads a relaxed yet highly informative tour of Third Man Records’ downtown headquarters, it’s clear Eastwood Neighbors resident and vinyl expert Ben Blackwell is in his element.
“It’s second nature to me, being here since day one,” he says, sharing musician, producer and label head Jack White’s musical wonderland, a hub that includes offices, a storefront and “novelties lounge,” photo studio, and the famed “Blue Room” venue.
Day One was back in 2009, in a little less “It City” incarnation of Nashville — back before this yellow and black spectacle of a building regularly hosted some of the biggest names in the music business (from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Shins), before it was embedded in the fabric of Music City.
When White opened his Third Man storefront in Nashville, Blackwell and business partner Ben Swank were the operation’s only on-the-ground employees.
“Ben and I were doing everything,” Blackwell says, conjuring a Third Man shop that was assuredly not the highly polished and meticulously curated showplace it is now. “We were running the store like a merch table — cash only, no tax, no receipts.”
If he had to venture a guess about what the Music Row establishment thought of Third Man back then, “I’d imagine folks would think that we’d just putter along for a few years before eventually and unceremoniously closing up shop.”
Now, says Blackwell, who relocated from Detroit to East Nashville the same year Third Man’s home base opened, “I think we’re viewed as the only people in town smart enough to have signed Margo Price.”
The label issued Price’s breakout debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, in 2016 (and its 2017 follow-up, All American Made), and continued to build a roster of outsider country artists with crooner Joshua Hedley’s Mr. Jukebox album, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Lillie Mae Rische’s Forever and Then Some.
This year brought White’s Boarding House Reach (which led vinyl sales in the U.S. for the first half of the year), along with an album from stoner-metal legends Sleep, and a reissue of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica on vinyl, pressed at Third Man’s Detroit location. Third Man clearly casts a wide net, releasing eclectic music in a range of genres, prioritizing the quality of the music over the potential for chart-busting sales. “If we’re excited about it, we’re probably going to get other people excited about it,” Blackwell says.
As Third Man’s Nashville emporium has evolved, and grown to a staff of 28 employees, Blackwell’s role has changed, but it is intentionally fluid. Like all Third Man employees, Blackwell created his own title: “psychedelic stooge,” an homage to his all-time favorite band,The Stooges.
In reality, Blackwell serves as the in-house vinyl expert, overseeing “most everything we do that touches vinyl records.” He coordinates manufacturing with United Record Pressing in Nashville and Third Man Pressing in Detroit, and keeps an eye on the distribution of Third Man’s vinyl records, whether wholesale or direct-to-customer.
And of course, most everything Third Man does touches vinyl in some way.
“We did a Margo Price release that was cassette-only, something special just for the U.K. I believe. Besides that, I can’t recall any other release we’ve done that has not had a vinyl component,” Blackwell says, whether it’s a live Dinosaur Jr. recording from Third Man’s Blue Room or a reissue of ’50s and ’60s gospel music.
Vinyl sales may be dwarfed by digital music sales overall, but vinyl remains the most popular physical format for music sold today — CD sales have dropped off by 90 percent since their 2000 peak, while vinyl has gone in the distinctly opposite direction. In 2009, when Third Man opened shop in Nashville, 2.5 million vinyl units were sold in the U.S. Last year: 14.3 million.
Blackwell doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
“No one is falling in love with CDs the way they are with vinyl,” he says, predicting that CDs will eventually go the way of the 8-track tape and laserdisc.
As Third Man grows and expands its reach, Blackwell will continue to steer the vinyl ship, becoming ever more firmly rooted in Nashville.
“We definitely feel more integrated now than when we opened,” he says, “while still operating on the margins of the traditional music industry that drives this town.”