The Vindication of Jack White

Something preposterous was happening the night I visited Third Man Records in Nashville. The label and cultural center founded by Jack White, of the White Stripes, generally strives for a freak-show vibe; you can pay 25 cents to watch animatronic monkeys play punk rock in the record store, and a taxidermied elephant adorns the nightclub. On the March night when I showed up, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead was performing. Through a pane of blue-tinted glass at the back of the stage, another curiosity in White’s menagerie could be glimpsed: a 74-year-old audio engineer in a lab coat who calls himself Dr. Groove.

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In a narrow room behind the stage, Dr. Groove—his real name is George A. Ingram—stooped over a needle that was etching Weir’s music into a black, lacquer-coated disc called an acetate. This is the first step in an obsolete process for producing a vinyl record. The lathe he used was the very same one that cut James Brown’s early singles, in the 1950s.

Observing this process intently was White himself. Thanks to the endurance of early-2000s White Stripes hits such as “Seven Nation Army” and “Fell in Love With a Girl,” the guitarist and singer is one of the few undisputed rock gods to emerge in the 21st century. On this evening, White, now 46, wore half-rim glasses and flannel, the only hint of rock coming from the Gatorade-blue tinge of his hair.

Listeners generally want a record to sound as loud as possible, White told me as Dr. Groove continued his work. But “you can have a mellow song like this”—the Dead’s downbeat “New Speedway Boogie” drifted in the air—and then, all of a sudden, the drummer hits the effects pedal and pumps up his volume. If Dr. Groove isn’t prepared, “the needle will literally pop out of the groove from the jolt,” rendering the recording useless.

For so finicky an operation to take place in 2022 is, from one point of view, absurd. The music industry largely stopped cutting performances directly to disc 70 years ago, with the advent of magnetic tape. A few minutes before taking the stage at Third Man, Weir—a septuagenarian cowboy who spoke in a low mutter—had visited the back room and marveled that not even the Grateful Dead, those ancient gods of concert documentation, had captured a show in this fashion. “Cat Stevens said the same thing,” White told me.

Ever since White installed a lathe at Third Man, a stream of acts has come to teleport to the time before Pro Tools. Unlike a recording made with contemporary equipment, a performance etched into an acetate can’t be easily remixed or otherwise reengineered. Flubs, flaws, and interference instead become selling points—evidence of a recording’s authenticity. “People who know, audiophiles—they see ‘live to acetate,’ they know the circumstances under which it was made, and it’s exciting,” White said. “There were no overdubs on that guitar. That solo really happened at that moment.” A sticker on one acetate-derived record for sale in Third Man’s store, by the dance-punk band Adult, promises “such detail in this live recording, you can even hear the fog machine!”

White is the sort of listener who appreciates such detail. This spring, a clip made the rounds online in which White demonstrated his uncanny ability to identify any song in the Beatles’ catalog in one second or less. This keen sense of the past helped the White Stripes—the Detroit band he formed in 1997 with his then-wife, Meg White—revive classic-rock rawness in an era of plastic pop and space-age hip-hop. After the band’s breakup, in 2011, his solo records earned consistent if narrower acclaim. Lately, though, his obsession with the antique has made him an unlikely power broker in what was supposed to be the digital age.

Streaming, the cheap and convenient format that came to rule the industry in the past decade, has begun to grate on a diverse range of artists and listeners. Musicians’ foremost gripe is about money: Spotify, the dominant platform, reportedly pays a fraction of a cent whenever a song is played. When, more or less overnight, the pandemic made touring impossible, the difficulty for most acts to make a living from such an arrangement became painfully clear.

The virus also spurred a public reckoning with Spotify earlier this year. A number of artists, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, pulled their catalogs from the platform to protest its exclusive deal with the podcaster Joe Rogan, who had aired misleading information about COVID‑19 vaccines on his show. In the eyes of those dissenters, Spotify’s unwillingness to remove Rogan reinforced the idea that it views music as just another offering in a buffet of content.

photo of a record lathe with a half-recorded vinyl disc on the turntable
The lathe at Third Man Records in Nashville (Erik Tanner for The Atlantic)

The devaluing of music as an art form, many artists worry, is hardwired into the streaming format. The old ways of building relationships between act and audience (liner notes, audio quality) are subordinated by the new: algorithmic curation, which invites endless listening but not active engagement. This may seem like the way of the future, our tastes intuited and satisfied by strings of code. But while the medium continues to attract new users, some listeners are showing signs of streaming burnout.

One way to measure this sentiment is by looking at the popularity of the physical media that White has long championed—and that ought, in a streaming-enabled world, to have gone extinct. After languishing for years, vinyl sales began a steady climb around 2007 and then exploded during the pandemic. Last year’s 41.7-million-unit, $1 billion gross for the medium represented 61 percent year-over-year growth, and this after a 28 percent spike in 2020. Limited-edition records—sold for upwards of $30 a pop at retailers such as Target and Amazon—have become integral to release strategies for the likes of Taylor Swift and Adele, who last year sold 318,000 vinyl copies of her most recent album within two months of its release. The same direct-to-acetate ritual Weir and Dr. Groove performed at Third Man’s shrine to music past also produced the first live album by Billie Eilish, the 20-year-old Gen Z phenomenon known to eat spiders on YouTube. Maybe White had been onto something.

White’s Third Man label got serious about reviving vinyl in 2009. Even his friends wrote it off as a vanity project in keeping with his other willfully retro larks, such as his upholstery hobby (don’t throw away the old; make it new) and his co-ownership of a company that manufactures baseball bats (“Built to spec … for the athlete that competes with a warrior’s mentality”). He was full of grand pronouncements in defense of the old, hard ways of doing things. “Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth,” he declared in the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud.

Today, in conversation, White has an innocent, almost surfer-dude affect, though his appetite for discussing outmoded forms of technology has hardly waned. While we were hanging out with audio engineers, he proposed a guessing game about when 8-track cartridges were last on the market. (White doesn’t own a smartphone, so a member of Weir’s entourage looked it up. The answer, per Wikipedia, was late 1988, vindicating White’s memories of seeing such tapes as a teen at Harmony House Records in Detroit.) Later, in Third Man’s lounge, he described waiting months to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master on 70 mm, only to have the experience ruined by a screaming baby in the row in front of him. The point of the story wasn’t that someone had brought an infant to a psychosexual thriller about a cult leader—it was that White had really wanted to enjoy the movie on celluloid.

I’ll admit that I arrived in Nashville skeptical of White’s nostalgist views. Some of my most crucial music memories include pirating Green Day on Napster and spacing out to Sufjan Stevens through Bluetooth speakers. Analog obsessives, I’ve found, can be dismissive of the powerful relationships that streamers form all the time with new artists. And some vinyl heads treat music mainly as an acquisitive hobby, like sneaker collecting. The records remain safely in their sleeves, lest their value as commodities be diminished by taking them out to play.

But White is less doctrinaire about these matters than I feared. With Third Man now a cultural fixture, he seems less like a strident iconoclast than a peacemaker between the streaming economy and the stuff economy. He insists that he never wanted to stop the march of progress; he only wanted to make sure the past didn’t get torched along the way. As he put it, “It’s hard to inspire only with one set of ways—only with the digital part, only with the vinyl part.”

White told me he listens to 90 percent of his music digitally. He appreciates the way that streaming helps new acts find wide audiences. (Olivia Rodrigo, whose debut single made a swift transit to No. 1 thanks to Spotify, is one of the young pop artists he admires—which is cute because she herself is a White Stripes obsessive.) “I know it’s not amazing money on streaming, but if vinyl hadn’t blown up over the last few years, it would be a lot more dire,” he said.

photo of cluttered room with vintage music equipment, wall covered with rock posters, guitar, "Third Man Hardware" sign
The Third Man store (Erik Tanner for The Atlantic)

I gave White the chance to take a victory lap for saving vinyl from what seemed like certain doom, but he was quick to credit the figures who sustained the format in the ’90s and 2000s: house DJs, punk bands, Pearl Jam. Still, he acknowledged that Third Man had played an outsize role. At first, the company focused on kooky innovations, including records that projected 3-D images when spun. (Disney borrowed the same hologram artist for a 2016 Star Wars soundtrack, which shot up an image of a TIE fighter or the Millennium Falcon.) “I never minded the gimmicks,” White said. “If it turns a kid on to music that they would have never gotten into, then whatever.”

Today, Third Man has the makings of an old-media empire. Divisions in Nashville and Detroit master music, publish books and rock-focused magazines, and develop photography. Last year, the company opened its third record store/rock club/wonder emporium, in London. But Third Man’s greatest source of influence may be the record-processing plant White opened in Detroit in 2017, which has tripled its manufacturing capacity since then. Day and night, the facility whirs along, not only pressing Third Man’s work—such as the record that will result from Weir’s gig—but also filling contract orders from behemoths such as Paul McCartney, BTS, and Beyoncé.

White’s forays into the future haven’t always been as successful as his treks to the past. In 2015, he joined a group of superstars—including Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Madonna—with an ownership stake in the Spotify competitor Tidal. A press conference about the virtues of an artist-driven platform was met with skepticism. Tidal was, specifically and flagrantly, a celebrity-driven platform. The service did tout higher audio quality and better payouts to artists than competitors, but user sign-ups were slow, and the service never found its footing. White, who was not involved with running the company, said the backlash was eye-opening. “I don’t think [Tidal] was promoted properly from the get-go,” he said. “It quickly became a lesson: Maybe people don’t like it when the artists own the art gallery … It sort of gets to ‘Eat the rich’ kind of stuff.”

White winced when I asked about an even more contentious attempt at revolution in the music world: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. As the pandemic wore on, some record-industry figures argued that giving fans the ability to purchase digital assets—interactive album art, or even ownership rights to a song—would fulfill the same yearning for collectibility that has helped drive the vinyl boom. Others—White now among them—see NFTs as a way to get listeners to pay for things they can generally get for free. “It gives off a vibe of ‘Well, if people are stupid enough to give me money for this, I’ll take it.’ ”

But in 2021, the White Stripes—a legacy brand more than a band at this point—hawked some NFTs, animations tied to a 10-year-old EDM remix of “Seven Nation Army.” White said that those had been pushed by the defunct band’s management. “I don’t want to come out and say ‘I had nothing to do with this,’ ” he told me. “It is my band. We allowed it to happen. But it didn’t really interest me. It’s not something we’ll be doing very much of.”

What does interest White is the internet’s broader music landscape—despite the fact that he isn’t the most fluent participant in it. He appreciates how underground scenes and subcultures, which might seem like logical casualties of streaming, haven’t quite died out: “You almost get a neighborhood feel in the TikToks and—what is it?—the Bandcamps and SoundClouds,” he said. (Witness the recent wave of chatty, droll post-punk bands such as Wet Leg, a favorite new find of White’s.) He even had a kind word for social-media platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat, not that he uses them. In their character counts and time limits, he sees proof of one of his favorite theories: Constraint is the mother of creativity. “There’s inspiration to be taken from all of that stuff,” he said.

White has always thrived within constraints, many of them self-imposed. The White Stripes famously had no bassist, and White originally composed his 2018 solo album, Boarding House Reach, with the same reel-to-reel recorder he used when he was 14 years old. For the two records he’s released this year, April’s Fear of the Dawn and July’s Entering Heaven Alive, White didn’t need to dream up new limitations. The pandemic did that for him.

When the coronavirus made studio sessions with other instrumentalists a risk, White, a consummate collaborator (besides the White Stripes, he has formed two other successful bands over his career, the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs), did something he’d rarely done: He played all the parts on his songs. This in turn required another previously unthinkable step: using software to arrange drums, guitars, keyboards, and even samples into a coherent whole. Once, the enfant terrible of the White Stripes had routinely denounced computers for their deadening effects on rock. But the technology has improved since Nickelback’s heyday, and White now believes that, in the right hands, it can stoke the life of a song rather than sap it. “It’s like, CGI in movies is so much better than it was in the early 2000s,” he said.

As social distancing loosened up and White brought in other musicians to record the songs he’d been writing, the resulting work fell into two categories: thrashing, Deep Purple–inspired rock and roll, and sweet, “Maybe I’m Amazed”–style love songs. His past solo albums had been mishmashes of styles, and he had assumed that this time he’d end up with another eclectic collection. But, he explained, instead of fitting together naturally (he knitted his fingers), the loud songs and the soft ones now seemed to repel each other (his fingers then made a crosshatch). The muse was pushing him toward two separate albums—though not a double album, which he knows screams filler. (“People even say that about The White Album, which seems shocking.”)

Both the mosh-worthy Fear of the Dawn and the brunch-friendly Entering Heaven Alive are among the best albums of White’s solo career. The lead single on Fear of the Dawn, “Taking Me Back” (which spent a few weeks at No. 1 on rock radio), has guitar jolts so menacing that they almost trigger a fight-or-flight reflex. White likes that the title phrase can be heard a few different ways. “Maybe the pandemic has made everybody ask the world, ‘Will you take me back as we emerge from our caves?’ ” he told me. The lyric is also a way for White, the father of two teenagers, to link his generation to the next. “When you kids do that,” went White’s alternative reading, “it takes me back to when I was a kid.”

A renewed appreciation for the tangible should be a boon for musicians who have struggled in the streaming era, a period in which rising profits for the industry as a whole have only incrementally benefited most individual artists. But demand for vinyl now exceeds manufacturing capacity by astonishing margins. A record that would have once taken three months to go from recording to the shelves today requires eight months or a year. Even White has been a victim of the lags; he’d originally considered releasing his new albums on the same day, but with his plant at capacity, he decided to stagger them. He has dubbed his present concert series the Supply Chain Issues Tour. As he tries to expand production at his Detroit factory, White finds himself more and more preoccupied by “regular manufacturing-plant kind of problems,” he said. “How many shifts do we have? Once you start the machines, how many hours do you keep them going?”

But Third Man can only do so much: In 2021, an unnamed industry executive speculated to Billboard that global pressing capacity would need to at least double to meet present demand for vinyl. Some indie figures blame the bottleneck on the pop stars who have bought up time at small pressing facilities. The real problem, White argues, is a lack of manufacturers. He recently filmed a plea for the three major record labels—Universal, Sony, and Warner—to build their own factories. Vinyl is “no longer a fad,” he said, standing amid the hazmat-yellow equipment of his pressing plant. “As the MC5 once said, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.”

photo of factory line with two workers in black "Third Man Pressing" jumpsuits and hats, one holding a vinyl record
Third Man’s record-pressing plant, in Detroit. White recently filmed a plea for the three major record labels to build their own factories. Vinyl is “no longer a fad,” he said. (Jim West / Alamy)

In the meantime, artists are stymied by scarcity. Some commentators in the music industry see this as a sign that musicians need to focus on reforming streaming services or advocating a return to paid downloads. Others say that less unwieldy formats, such as the humble cassette tape, would be a more sustainable medium for collectors (sales of tapes have indeed begun rebounding recently). White has always wanted all of the above. When he launched Third Man’s first store, he had dreams of iPads packed with MP3s next to 1940s recording booths, and of customers accessing both a record-of-the-month club and an online streaming library of live music. While not all such plans have come to fruition, when I visited the Nashville location, I was amused to find a rotating rack displaying CDs for sale, as if at a Tower Records in 2005.

Yet there is no doubt that the very things that make vinyl a chore to replicate—the bulkiness, the frameable album art, the fingerprint-like grooves that differentiate one record from the next—are part of why vinyl is surging right now. It’s the sort of paradox that has animated White’s entire career as a songwriter and businessman: romance leading to frustration, frustration leading to romance.

In the Blue Room, Third Man’s concert venue, Weir and his band Wolf Bros preached between songs. The bassist, Don Was, who is also the head of the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, gave a spiel about the glory of “authentic,” Auto-Tune-free music. Weir recalled his teenage vinyl experiences. “You’d go to a friend’s house, and you’d put records on and you’d listen to music all night,” he said. “People don’t do that anymore, because you can’t. You can’t listen to digital music for very long, because it makes your brain tired.”

The crowd whooped, but I felt a defensive pang. We all fetishize our formative listening experiences—whether they were dancing to jug bands on vinyl ’til sunup or vibing to Frank Ocean on an iPhone while riding the subway. Still, maybe Weir was right: Whose brain doesn’t feel tired these days? What if I’ve been addicted to musical fast food since first downloading MP3s at age 11? What if entire generations have been?

Looking around at the audience offered a less declinist narrative. Many of Weir’s followers were 20-somethings in flannel; they twirled alongside a few grizzled, Merlin-looking guys who no doubt had been attending shows like this one for decades. The legendary, highly physical subculture of the Dead—an ecosystem of bootleg recordings, concert tailgates, and tie-dye merch—appears to still be going strong. Indeed, it has provided a model that many of today’s acts are embracing. Live ticket sales have surged in recent months. Rappers and indie singers alike are moving branded hoodies and hats faster than they can manufacture them. Even in the slick, futuristic world of K-pop, fans express their devotion by snapping up CD bundles laden with such delights as key chains and postcards. Fans download and stream, but they still thirst for a connection with artists that isn’t mediated through a screen.

I circled backstage to find White hanging out with staff. As we watched Dr. Groove gingerly turn over an acetate, White described the layers of quality control in the process of making Weir’s record. “You know that show How It’s Made ? ” he asked. “I get so jealous: Oh, they make razor blades, how hard! They just build the machine and it pumps it out. But we have to make something that sounds good when you put it on your turntable. There’s magic dust in there.”

Weir finished up “Saint of Circumstance,” the last of the songs that Dr. Groove had planned to capture. His assistant marked the record with a pen, and then placed it into a cardboard container. “Vinyl is final!” White shouted.

Weir wasn’t finished playing, though. As his encore of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” stretched past the 10-minute mark, Third Man’s reel-to-reel recorder—striped red and white in the White Stripes’ classic aesthetic—ran out of material with which to record backup. Loose tape flapped and jangled. “This machine was not built for this type of jamming,” Bill Skibbe, White’s longtime audio engineer, said. Someone suggested ripping the rest of the show from YouTube, but audiences at Third Man are typically asked not to film concerts. White prefers that the only glow come from the electric candles that flicker from wall sconces, not iPhones held aloft. The encore would not be lost, however. White’s team had yet another device capturing the show for posterity: a digital recorder.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “The Vindication of Jack White.”