In the midst of college finals in December 2008, I blew off studying for exams to see up-and-coming indie rock band Ra Ra Riot. I was surprised to find out they'd released a full-length followup to their first EP just a few months before, and even more surprised they were selling that album, The Rhumb Line, for 10 bucks. Surprise became shock when I got home, pulled out the album and discovered it was a vivid orange, radically different from the meager collection of black vinyl I'd pilfered from my dad's dusty and warped collection. The Rhumb Line was instantly the coolest album I owned, and it ignited a small obsession: if a band I really liked released a special vinyl, I wanted it.
Jack White's Third Man Records has turned that obsession into a business. Since the label established a physical location in Nashville in 2009, they've been producing 7" and 12" vinyl for The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and dozens of other artists. What makes them special--aside from the sure-fire record-selling star power of Jack White--is their devotion to the diehard collector. Nearly every album in Third Man's catalog comes in a limited edition pressing of colored vinyl, be it the label's signature black-white-yellow "tri-color" or a one-of-a-kind variant like the marbled "absinthe" vinyl for The Black Belles' self-titled debut.
I talked to Ben Blackwell, Third Man Records' head of vinyl production, about the phenomenon of colored vinyl and the technology used to create it. Color records have been around for decade--as Blackwell says, most of the vinyl manufacturers in the United States use "the best mid-1960s technology has to offer"--but Third Man's dedication to unique vinyl runs can be traced back to the late 1980s, when the Sub Pop Singles Club began releasing 7" albums in different colors every month. Since Sub Pop experimented with everything from red and blue to lilac and transparent vinyl, color's gotten a whole lot more complicated.
Before working at Third Man Records, Ben Blackwell absorbed his vinyl know-how from a teenage internship at Detroit's Italy Records. A few years after working at Italy, Blackwell started his own label called Cass Records with help from In the Red Records' Larry Hardy. He likens experience in the vinyl world to knowledge that's handed down generation to generation.
Blackwell released a few colored vinyls on Cass Records, like a "Pepto Bismol pink" single for The Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players. When the 10-year-old drummer of a band wants a pink album, you make a pink album. That was also a lesson in marketing--descriptive titles like "Pepto Bismol" and "root beer" excite the imagination more than "pink" and "brown."
When Blackwell began working at Third Man Records, colored vinyl became more important. They set a simple but ambitious goal: every record needed a special limited pressing that would go on sale alongside an unlimited run of standard black vinyl. Jack White's originally envisioned record styled after a 70s-style glittery gold motorcycle finish, but that was a problem for local United Record Pressing. Their alternative, a mixture of black, white, and yellow, captured a similar aesthetic. But there's a reason TMR only presses tri-colors in limited quantities: they ain't cheap. Here's how that unique LP is made.