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  • Writer's pictureVincent Jordan

Third Man Records: 'How you gonna get the money?'

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

Walk past the new Third Man Records façade in Soho, and you won’t miss it, particularly in the capital’s signature drizzle. The façade is confined to two colours, yellow and black, and it pops. It features only three words: Third Man Records. The number three also pervades the fenestration: there are three horizontal registers containing windows, three casements on the second register, even the yellow door panels are in sets of three. Its address is 1 Marshall Street, associating itself with neighbouring Carnaby Street and all the musical and creative associations of the swinging 60s, but distant enough to be sufficiently edgy.

Above: Third Man Records, Soho (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the store, and you’ll struggle to find anything that’s not black, yellow, white, or red in the ‘multi-functional’ space, though the first two dominate. What is ostensibly a record store is in fact a microcosm for a broader Third Man idea. You can do more than just purchase records here, you can record straight to vinyl, buy Third Man Label records, buy Jack White records, attend a concert in the basement, try out Third Man guitar effects, have a go on the Literarium, the list goes on. The Literarium is a particularly useful introduction to Third Man. It’s essentially a bright yellow vending machine in the corner of the basement. Its front proclaims it to be ‘A Novel Serendipity Machine’, and three question marks adorn the vending tray. You put in some tokens, press one of the three buttons, and after a cacophony of analogue noises, out pops the lucky dip, which will, naturally, be printed by Third Man Books. When I gave it a go, I received a booklet with an Omega printed on the front. It’s a poetry pamphlet by a poet called Dan Hoy. At the back of the book it says he resides in Nashville; the poetry follows space travel and solar apocalyptic themes.

This strange world—with its arresting neon hues and retro aesthetic—would not exist without someone called Jack White. You can’t think of Jack White without visuals. Even if you’ve never heard of him, the name gives as much. Like everything White does, his name is also carefully curated. Almost everything we know about Jack White is part of Jack White’s vision for Jack White.

Above: The Literarium (Photo: Third Man Records)

White is, of course, well known for being one half of The White Stripes. The sound of The White Stripes is often described as raw and represents a back to fundamentals attitude in its approach to the whole experience that we might call ‘rock’; a sort of stripped back, two-piece, straightforward overdrive and beat. Many White Stripes songs consist of three elements (guitar, vocals, and drums), many feature three chord riffs. White recognises the power in simplicity. Whereas the idea of symbol and signification might to some beg complexity, here it marries the apparent purity of The White Stripes’ sound to leave a precise impression. Colour is one of White’s tools, and in his philosophy the visual is as fundamental as the auditory. The White Stripes came to be red, white, and black. Their succession of album covers is stark and gripping, thanks to what White has called ‘the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner.’ (1) White has more recently emphasised blue in his solo endeavours.

Bringing things back to Soho, there are many questions to answer. To what extent is this world separate from Jack White? Why the emphasis on symbol and colour? Is there something more going on here than just distinct marketing? Is this a truly curated space? I wanted to see whether the questions could be answered—whether we’re looking at a new way to cough up our cash, or stepping into something much bigger than a nifty record store.

To understand what is going on in this space, you need to understand what Jack White is. White holds that the first concert he went to was Bob Dylan, and he sat in seat 666. He tells that he is the 10th of 10 children, and that, as he relays in Ball and Biscuit, a ballsy hard blues eruption on Elephant (the most acclaimed White Stripes album) is the seventh son: It’s quite possible that I’m your third man, girl / but it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son. Born into a Catholic family in Detroit, for a time he considered joining the clergy, but settled on a career in upholstery. He was born John Anthony Gillis, and named after John the Baptist.

White had all the right ingredients to realise the power of symbol. It is difficult to discern, this far down the track, how much of what he says about his early life is true, and how much is skewed by the White mythology he has crafted. He has been caught out on several occasions, with his claims that he and Meg White were siblings, and that Third Man used to be a candy manufacturer, turning up false. But it is, really, a meaningless question. Instead, we might ask, what is Jack White? Our idea of White is the one he has permitted us to form, and in this respect, the idea of accuracy doesn’t map onto the reality of our perceptions, and who White has become in the popular imagination. Jack White has become something separate from John Anthony Gillis. They are different entities. Conceiving of White as something distinct from Gillis, can we also say that Third Man is distinct from Jack White?

Symbol is the primary instrument of the Third Man project. White has spoken of growing up in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Detroit and implies that his fervent use of colour in his early music endeavours was a means of disassociating his blues-based music from a ‘white guy playing black music’ jibe. But White’s fascination with colour can be traced back further. Third Man takes its name from the 1949 film, directed by Carol Reed, which was significant for its monotone ‘expressionist’ cinematography. The lighting of the film is considered particularly important, and so the fascination with colour and light can be traced to the very origins of White’s creative endeavours. When White opened his first upholstery business, he termed it Third Man Upholstery, only used the colours yellow and black, and employed the tagline ‘Your Upholstery’s Not Dead’. Incidentally, it was during his upholstery apprenticeship that White says he had an epiphany about the number three, when he saw three staples on the back of a sofa he was working on. White’s interests in creation and space, in the sense of creating the new out of the old, were evident from the beginning. Fast forward to the present day, and Third Man records has three locations—London, Nashville, and Detroit. White has a personal connection to all three: Detroit was where Gillis was born and raised, Nashville is where White now lives, and without London, the White Stripes would have never exploded in the way that they did, because it was on British stages and airwaves that they really took off. White is known for planning every detail of the outlets.

Now think back to my Literarium pamphlet. From White’s grassroots involvement with Nashville to the recurring fascination with 60s futurism and technology, the machine has Jack White written all over it. Except that it doesn’t. White is attempting - pre-empting a sort of death of the Artist - to kill himself off from the role of creator or curator. This is Third Man, something which has autonomy.

Above: Interior of Third Man Records, Soho (Photo: Anthony Coleman via Architectural Digest)

No matter which way you interact with Third Man, whether you want to buy a book or make your debut record, you are exposed to its branding. The symbols and colour combinations have a very powerful effect on our sense of place, to the extent that after interacting with them for some time - for example, religiously buying Jack White’s records - you begin to expect certain visual effects. Show me a line-up of record covers or mugs or pencils, and ask me which one of them was a Third Man creation, I could tell you in a heartbeat. Because of the creative associations, and the networks of interaction that a multi-functional space naturally engenders, this is more than marketing. As an interactor, you are immersed in the symbolic language of Third Man records, which you learn from gradual exposure at any entry point.

Though you can justifiably call Third Man a curatorial project—the sounds one hears, the spaces one visits, the words one reads, the colours one associates with it are all restricted and defined phenomena—it would be false to think of Jack White as its sole curator. This is because what we are referring to when we talk of ‘Third Man’ is more like a discursive context, in which all engagers also have a curatorial function.

This is a logic that can be applied to spaces, such as cemeteries or city centres, which are the products of continuous reference to and communication with their pasts. In a similar way to how in the idea of a cemetery, we have created a spatial context for several ideas, say, death, dying, meditation, dog-walking etc, in Third Man, we have a context for artistic production and creation, particularly that which has some explicit revision of the past as a part of it. Jack White’s records are just one aspect of this, his records are released through Third Man, and often feature revisions or incorporations of 60s motifs. Equally, my pamphlet by Dan Hoy harks back to the days of 70s space age speculation.

To an extent, White could remove himself from what he initiated, and the whole ecosystem might still function and define the thoughts and experiences of future engagers. When I talk of White using symbols, colour, and numbers in the initial expression of the Third Man project, what I am referring to are the building blocks of a space in which to exercise creativity. The idea as the sum of its signs does appear to have generated some autonomy. Rather than thinking of White as the Curator, we can see him as one many engagers having a curatorial effect. This opens up new possibilities for the way in which we conceive of curation, and is an approach which should be mapped onto a vast number of ‘curated spaces’, ones which both define or influence the way in which we think about the world but are also the objects of such definition.

But, before we wrap, let me inject a bit of cynicism—Third Man makes money. For all the pomp and colour, in essence we are still looking at a new way to spend our money on things. When you enter a Third Man location, whilst you are being immersed in a visual rhetoric, and whilst you can take advantage of some very unique offerings (e.g. the record straight to vinyl), you are also paying for it. The scepticism can be extended to the way in which White removes himself from Third Man. On the most basic level, White can never be truly separate, because he is the originator, and still exercises authority over the workings of the locations and labels. The outlets are also full of his records, and you can literally buy shirts with his face on. But whilst a pinch of doubt is justified, the project cannot be reduced to pure profit. First, if the whole point of Third Man was to make as much money as possible, the dose of curation in the way in which Third Man makes that money would be excessive to absurdity. The implication here, at least, is that there is a purpose in it beyond the cash. Second, it might be that we’ve caught the idea in its infancy. If the idea is extrapolated logically, people will record music in the future, riff away on the basement stages, discover those records on its shelves, read lines of poetry on the pages of its pamphlets—and a world like this takes time to build. It evokes aspects of the avant-garde: the reference to the past, and ultimately stemming from a tradition it seeks to differ from. But let’s not sink it with labels…

Jack White has a reputation as something of a technological luddite. He doesn’t own a smartphone, and his fans have to have theirs locked in pouch when they want to hear him live. He does, however, occasionally dabble with television interviews and talk shows. One of his most in-depth conversations surfaced in April this year, an interview with beaniephillic Zane Lowe for Apple Music. This is how the interview ends:

ZL: You take so much of the past that you love, you adapt it to the present day, and ultimately create a future for it. The question is, where do you spend most of your time, in the past, in the present, or in the future? Where do you really dwell the most?

JW: …I always feel like I’m trying to do something new, but I know quite often I’m taking things that I think worked from the past that are less well known, they’re interesting or idiosyncratic or whatever, and juxtaposing it with something that I’ve never done before, and see if I can blend the two together…It’s good to acknowledge history, join the family, jump in the river that’s already moving, than to pretend that there is no river…so you’ve just got to jump in and swim, I think.


Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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(1) The White Stripes Play Us a Little Number (2007) reported by Jason Killingsworth for Paste Magazine


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