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.
Making Vinyl Colorful
All vinyl records are born from a master disc that's coated in a smooth lacquer and placed on a machine called a lathe. The lathe cuts a groove in the lacquer that corresponds to the music being recorded. Once the lathe is finished cutting, the disc is covered in a layer of silver to form a hardened metal stamper that will be used to press the grooves into the vinyl albums.
Enter the vinyl material: little vinyl pellets are poured into a hopper, or chute, which feeds them into an extruder. The extruder melts the vinyl down into thick hockey puck-esque patties often called cakes or biscuits. Typically those pellets are black, but different chemical compounds can produce unique colors (like Pepto Bismol pink) or even transparent vinyl. Solid colors or pellet mixes can be tossed into a hopper and extruded into biscuits just like black vinyl.
For example, the most unique record Third Man has produced is the "Cosmos" vinyl for Carl Sagan's "A Glorious Dawn," a remix of audio from Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Stephen Hawking's Universe. For the print run of 150 "Cosmos" colored records, United threw a small number of glow-in-the-dark vinyl pellets in with the black vinyl to simulate a starry night sky.
Finally, the biscuit and its labels (top and bottom) enters a press that exerts about 100 tons of pressure using the metal stampers created for the A and B sides of the record; the label is actually pressed into the album to provide stability. The process from the creation of the biscuit to the pressing is entirely automated, which means black, solid color and blended vinyl albums are easy to manufacture.
Segmented mixtures, like the tri-color, are more complicated to create. Once the pellets are extruded into biscuits, they're hand-sliced into pieces and reassembled into complete multi-color biscuits. The biscuits have to be heated during that process to prevent them from hardening; once re-assembled, they're manually inserted into a press.
According to Blackwell, the process of manually pressing a multi-colored vinyl adds about a dollar to the production cost. When automated production costs between 50 and 60 cents, an extra dollar is a big deal--it represents close to triple the typical investment in a single vinyl disc.
As Third Man Records was preparing to release The Dead Weather Sea of Cowards LP in 2010, United Record Pressing surprised them with a suggestion for the special edition: a split-color black-and-yellow vinyl. United built a split-color press that uses two extruders to form a two-color vinyl without the hassle of cutting and reassembling. This video from United shows black-and-white biscuits being pressed in the automated assembly line.
Embracing the Collecting Frenzy
TMR's special colored vinyl releases were originally intended to be sold as in-store exclusives at the Nashville office. That plan didn't last long--the day the first tri-color 7-inch went on sale, Blackwell found people lined up at the door for a shot at the limited print run of 100 records. Before long, Third Man's limited edition runs started showing up on eBay for $400 and $500. And they were selling.
Third Man upped their standard limited edition pressings from 100 to 150. In July of 2009 they opened the Vault, a $20 per month premium subscription service that grants diehard fans access to quarterly packages. For example, the 11th package, announced in January 2012, contains three LPs collecting TMR singles releases, a 7-inch single of two early White Stripes recordings, a t-shirt, and a poster.
Over the past three years, Third Man has pressed 7-inch vinyl singles for a truly bizarre range of artists, including Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien, Tom Jones, and the Insane Clown Posse. Colbert got a custom red, white and blue tri-color, naturally. Some limited edition runs have been pressed in quantities of 300 as opposed to 150, like the "blue rose" variant of Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose.
Third Man has now produced so many records that diehard collectors face a near-impossible task in collecting two (or sometimes even three) variants for each album. Blackwell has noticed collectors settling for one of each variant type, be it the classic tri-color or a rarer black-and-transparent-grey split-color. Vinyl has only become more popular during his decade working in the music industry, and Third Man Records has found a way to reproduce and monetize the awe and surprise I felt upon seeing Ra Ra Riot's orange vinyl. The label slips a few tri-colors into mail orders for plain black vinyls, giving fans a shot at that Willy Wonka Golden Ticket moment.
Despite its collectibility and cool factor, coloring vinyl involves a minor trade-off in sound quality that vinyl newcomers may not know about. The chemical properties of pigmented vinyl just don't sound quite as good as "virgin" black. Blackwell estimates the sound quality is somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of that of a black record--a small enough variation for the average listener to never notice, but enough to turn off serious audiophiles (who are probably the only ones with expensive enough sound systems to hear the difference). The Carl Sagan "Cosmos" pressing, for example, sounded noisier whenever a record player's needle hit a glow in the dark spot.
Other than United's ability to automate the production of a split-color LP, nothing in vinyl production has really changed to usher in a new era of color pressing. What we can do now we could do in the 1970s and 80s; why, then, has colored vinyl steadily grown more common since Sub Pop's monthly Singles Club?
In the case of Third Man Records, star power has done its work--when Jack White puts out a limited edition record, a lot of people want it. But that only covers the last three years. Since 2001, iTunes and torrents have transformed the music industry. No one really cares about CDs; their sales are dropping year after year . If a band puts out a special edition of a record on physical media, it's on vinyl. The format's better for displaying album artwork and analog just sounds different. Better, say some music fans, though that debate will rage on for eternity. Nostalgia helps, too--some bands, like of Montreal and I Come to Shanghai, even do limited releases on cassette.
In 2011, new vinyl sales jumped 39 percent in the US. In 2010, vinyl sales increased by 14 percent even as overall music sales dropped 13 percent. Interest in the format is higher than it has been in more than two decades. And with rare releases from Third Man Records fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay, collectors are obviously willing to pay big for a shelf-worthy record.
Ultimately it's the pressing process that makes vinyl a uniquely collectable form of music. Colored vinyl stands out, but one pink album is like another. As one music forum thread puts it, " 'Transitional' colored vinyl is the ultimate in nerdery"--if an album is pressed in multiple colors, vinyl residue between color changes will create something truly one of a kind.
Third Man Records will give vinyl fans another shot at a unique disc before too long: the next Vault pack is due to be announced in April, and the TMR catalog includes placeholders for 11 "coming soon" records. For Record Store Day 2012, which takes place on April 21, the label is releasing a red/black swirl White Stripes album and a "milk and honey" colored vinyl for Karen Elson. Want either one? Better line up early. The collectors will be out in force.