I never was a big White Stripes fan (although “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is still my jam), but I have always had my respect for what Jack White has done for music. He brought a punk ethic to a music industry that was, at the time, full of boy bands and second-rate nu metal bands. He proved that you could take a shitty 1960’s Strat copy guitar and (along with Meg White) a basic 4 piece drum kit, to become a successful artist. Sure, part of it was image, as Jack would fully agree to. But the songwriting was always there, and the White Stripes had some good songs. To this day, you can’t go into a college football stadium without “Seven Nation Army” blasting through the PA system at some point during the game.
But what Jack White has done goes way beyond creating music. In recent times, he was one of the early champions of analog recording and vinyl records. With his Third Man Records, based in Nashville, he constructed a top of the line studio with analog recording equipment. Except for Steve Albini and Electrical Audio in Chicago (which Albini started in 1997), there have really been no top studios dedicated to analog recording in the U.S.
And, now, Jack White has went full circle from musician and producer to record distributor. His new Third Man Records factory in Detroit is dedicated to producing vinyl records for his label, and to pressing records for other musicians and labels. Records aren’t just some trendy hipster scene anymore, as they are projected to be a billion-dollar worldwide industry in 2017.
But WHY are vinyl records, and analog recording, so important? My thoughts:
Analog recording (reel-to-reel tapes, as you might picture on an old school movie projector) has been the only constant in the music recording industry. Cassette tapes (which is basically a miniaturized tape reel in a plastic case), with their much smaller sizes, became popular in the 1980’s, but were only suitable for consumer use, and were eventually replaced by compact discs.. CD’s have been the consumer audio standard, but they are quickly falling to the wayside, with digital audio sales and streaming providing the vast majority of music sales nowadays.
Digital audio tape (DAT), which looked like cassettes but were considered suitable for professional music storage, were briefly in vogue in the 1990’s to 2000’s. There were even ADAT tapes (Alesis Digital Audio Tape, which were Alesis proprietary tapes the size of video cassettes for VCR’s). But these soon fell into obsolescence. Back when I was studying and interning for music production in the early 2000’s, DAT and ADAT was still being used, but fully computer-based digital recording was quickly overcoming it. Digital recording software has been in use in the music industry since the 1980’s, but the limitations of computers back then made it impractical. By the late 1990’s, digital recording would become the standard, or at least analog recording with digital mixing and mastering.
With that being said, analog recording has been the only constant recording format. Vinyl records will last many decades without suffering any appreciable loss of sound quality. Compact discs (CD’s), on the other hand, are quick to scratch up and will eventually rot (I have CD’s at home I bought less than a decade ago and are already rotting out). Cassette tapes, with their thin magnetic tape, will eventually lose sound quality. For consumers who want to archive a music collection, vinyl records are at this point in time the only product that will be guaranteed to last their lifetime.
Sure, you could archive a collection of digital music, such as 99% of us have done. Who doesn’t have songs on their computer or phone? We have MP3, WAV, and AAC files for basic sound quality without requiring too much memory, and FLAC files for higher sound quality. Unfortunately, these audio coding formats aren’t guaranteed to last. There have been many changes in consumer audio and video formats (remember Betamax, laserdiscs, and Mini-Discs?), and things could change yet again. Plus, what if your hard drive seizes up, or you accidentally erase your digital recordings? You can easily transfer analog files to digital formats…but it’s a hell of a lot harder to transfer digital audio to an analog recording.
I can also argue that vinyl records are beneficial for ALL musicians, even the ones who don’t record onto them. With the prevalence of digital music, songs have become as disposable and fleeting as any other trend. But having a tangible product in your hand such as a record, with the artwork and liner notes, makes the music listening more of an immersive experience. It makes you actually appreciate the music, because you’ve invested more time into getting it than simply pressing “download” on Google Play. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of digital music; on the contrary, it has many upsides. It is much easier to listen to music nowadays, and much easier to create and edit music when recording (ever try to splice a reel when editing tape?). However, that doesn’t mean that digital music should be the only format. Analog recording has its place, especially for audiophiles and music archivists.
Selling physical products, such as records, is important because that’s where a lot of a musician’s profits are going to come from. Merchandise (“merch”) is another good profit source unless you are signed to a major label with one of those God-awful “360 deals”. Sure, you can make most of your money touring, if you are a big enough artist who doesn’t have to “pay-to-play” at some shitty club. But what about musicians who don’t go on tour, or have a bunch of merch pressed up for sale? Let’s take a look at royalties. For Spotify, one of the largest digital music streaming services, the average per-stream payout is .0005 cents. For an actual album purchase, digital royalties are still less than royalties for physical album purchases, although this is finally starting to even out.
If I were to record an album and sell 1,000 copies of it, I might make a few cents per copy from iTunes. But for the average independent musician who presses up a physical album and only pays for distribution (to stores, etc.), he or she will make a few dollars profit for each album sold. If they were to have their own website and only sell the album from there, they would profit even more. This goes for any physical album format: records, CD’s (which, believe it or not, still exist) or cassette tapes (which, believe it or not, also still exist, as the newest hipster trend in music recording and collecting). The more records that get pressed up and sold, the more that physical music releases will become popular again. As a consumer or as a musician, this is a good thing.
Jack White has done a great service to musicians and music fans, and also to the city of Detroit for building this factory. I certainly hope for his success, as a music fan and as a proponent of analog recording.