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Content Matters Interview: A Third Man for Musical Preservation

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Ben Blackwell (right) with comedian Aziz Ansari. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell
Ben Blackwell (right) with comedian Aziz Ansari. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell

In this installment of the Content Matters interview series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group we’re featuring an interview with Ben Blackwell, the “psychedelic stooge” at  Third Man Records.

Third Man’s owner, musician Jack White, has a deep and abiding interest in musical anthropology in all its forms, while being strongly forward-thinking at the same time. His recent announcement of support for the National Recording Preservation Foundation reflects this interest along with his generosity.

Ben was a big part of our Citizen Archivists and Cultural Memory panel at the South By Southwest 2013 conference and has been with Third Man from before the beginning.

Butch: Tell us briefly about what Third Man Records does and the philosophy behind it.

Ben: Third Man was started initially as an insurance policy to prevent the White Stripes from getting ripped off when they started signing to major labels. It only existed on paper. Come 2009 we started in earnest as an actual label pressing records. While primarily known as a machine that handles all the projects that come out of Jack White’s head, we’ve been branching out more and more into things without his fingerprints on them, whether they be new artists, reissues, or classic Detroit recordings I can possibly sneak past Jack while he’s not looking.

Butch: Tell us briefly about your background and how you ended up at Third Man.

Ben: It’s the family business…Jack is my uncle. I started out carrying amps into bars at the earliest White Stripes gigs. I was 15 years old. Once they had a 7″ out I ran the merchandise table. By the time they’d graduated to an actual website I was in charge of all the information on there and the mailing list. Come their first cross-country tour in the summer of 2000, I’d just graduated from high school and turned 18 so I jumped in the van with Jack and Meg and had the absolute best learning experience I could ever ask for.

In the record business…I began as an unpaid intern at Italy Records, the super-small but super-important Detroit indie label that released the first two White Stripes singles. Mainly filling mail orders. Occasionally being tasked with calling distributors. This was 1999, I was 17 years old. Italy turned dormant by mid-2002 and come January 2003 I was starting my own label, literally in Italy’s image, called Cass Records. I ran it out of my bedroom for five and a half years before Jack called me with the idea of Third Man in Nashville. He said, “You’ve spent the past few years learning the vinyl process and everything involved. You know the White Stripes catalog better than anyone else. I can’t do this label without you.” Luckily, Detroit in 2009 wasn’t offering me any salaried record label positions so the timing was opportune.

Butch: What does the current workflow look like for how recordings come to Third Man? Are most Third Man masters created using analog recording technologies or digital?

ADAT tapes in the Third Man offices. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell
ADAT tapes in the Third Man offices. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell

Ben: If it’s a recording that’s generated brand-new from Jack’s studio or our live room, it’s pretty much 100% analog. Sometimes when we go back to release older, archival things they may be on a format that lends itself to digital transfer or clean-up…I’ve dealt with far more DATs and ADATs than someone my age should reasonably expect. And if we’re working with a licensed master, it’s very seldom analog. Things like the Public Nuisance LP and Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” were cut from original analog mixdowns, but those are the exceptions to the rule.

Butch: No matter the recording workflow, you’re still faced with the challenges of  preserving analog and digital materials. It seems that Third Man has been more thoughtful than most independent labels in recognizing the value of long-term preservation. What led you to think more deeply about the long-term stewardship of your own materials?

Ben: We’ve been very luck in that while Jack’s lawyer’s have always been very shrewd in making sure that the legal rights to his masters will always revert back to him, Jack has personally made sure that POSSESSION of his masters never gets too far out of his reach. That being said, once you have everything (and we do, pretty much, have everything) the question of what to do with it and how to do it becomes that much more serious. We’re lucky in that we own our own building and were able to put in a custom, master tape storage vault.

Butch: What have been some of the biggest technical challenges you’ve faced in preserving your own audio materials? Describe one of your most interesting preservation challenges.

Ben: As of right now, it’s space. Two inch tape carries a big footprint! We had a machine try and eat an ADAT just last week. Fortunately Nashville is the kind of town with folks who still know how to deal with archaic technology. Thankfully I don’t have to be terribly hands-on in a situation like that.

Butch: How widespread is an awareness of digital stewardship and preservation issues in the music industry?

Ben: With folks I know and deal with, it’s non-existent. Folks don’t think to back-up a hard drive they recorded on or even save the layouts for their artwork. It’s hard to think of that stuff as an asset (or even a future asset) when you’re struggling just to get it out. The bigger the artist the more likely they are to care…but I’ve yet to be friends with someone that didn’t have to work their way up a ladder to becoming a “big” artist. With that in mind, who’s keeping track of all the early stuff?

Butch: Libraries, archives and museums have come to rely on “citizen archivists” like you to take the lead in capturing, preserving and making accessible overlooked corners of our cultural heritage. Do you have any thoughts on what the role of LAMs should be in relation to the work that you do? Should LAMs take a more aggressive role in the early capture and preservation of pop cultural materials or should they continue to rely on collectors and the marketplace for early capture and preservation?

Ben: LAMs should be making their holdings available to as wide an audience as possible. The problem is, things are donated to these institutions all the time, but the processing of material is absolutely glacial in its pace. If I were to just GIVE all my pertinent Detroit/Michigan records to a university, they will just sit there for A WHILE before they’re properly cataloged and/or made accessible to the public. Meanwhile, [name] can donate his papers and give ’em $2 million while he’s at it and that assures his work will be dealt with and handled properly and promptly.

The "hostage lever" on the Third Man vault door. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell
The “hostage lever” on the Third Man vault door. Photo Credit: Ben Blackwell

In my circle of friends, it’s often said “don’t give your records to libraries/museums…they will just sit on a shelf.” Which I hate to say and even think, but it’s pretty true. In my dreams, all these institutions would be able to scan and transfer the entirety of their holdings and make them available on an easily-navigable website. While I enjoy holding actual original copies of things more than anybody, the unwashed masses of “the public” don’t need to be manhandling one-of-a-kind records. But if they had easy access to them via the web…I see that as properly serving the populace.

Butch: We were first made aware of the label’s interest in preservation in a New York Times article that described the room in the Third Man offices called “the Vault.” Describe how the idea for the Vault came about and what’s interesting about it technically. How easy would it be for other independent labels to create their own “Vault,” and should they?

Ben: Master tapes had been sitting in Jack’s closet at home for nigh-on ten years by the time the Third Man building was being retrofitted. It just made sense to clean out the closet. Technically it’s climate-controlled with a door that is fireproof and door insulation that is smoke-reactive. It has blocked off air-vents so no Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible break-ins. Poured concrete cinderblock walls. Lasers…don’t get me started on the lasers. I don’t think it would be too easy for other labels to implement a Vault on a similar scale, but not everyone needs what we have. To be honest, a closet works fine for most indie labels.

8/2/14: Some hyperlinks removed.

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