Detroit — Third Man Records is turning the tables on those who thought the Motor City's musical glory days were gone for good.
And it is doing it one vinyl record at a time.
Little more than a year after opening a records and novelty shop in Detroit's Cass Corridor, the record company founded by Detroit native Jack White is set to officially open its 10,000-square foot vinyl pressing plant, capable of churning out 5,000 platters every eight hours, on Saturday.
"The process is hypnotizing, to see how music is actually made," said Ben Blackwell, who heads up the company's vinyl operations. "It's almost rude not to share it with the consumer."
The plant will be viewable to customers during the store's hours of operations, and there are plans to host regular tours. From its accessibility to the records it presses, the plant was designed with a focus on record enthusiasts and local up-and-coming artists.
Third Man was launched in 2001 by White, best known as the lead singer and guitarist of the White Stripes rock group. In 2009, the company established a physical location in Nashville, before returning to its roots with a second location at 441 W. Canfield St., on the same block as Shinola/Detroit LLC's flagship store and Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery.
Blackwell, also a Detroit native, is White's nephew. He is a drummer for Detroit rock band The Dirtbombs and founder of Cass Records. In 2007, Crain's Detroit Business honored the now 34-year-old as one of its "Twenty in Their 20s."
"Detroit is our home," Blackwell said. "The fact that Jack and I moved to Nashville is irrelevant. Neither of us would be who we are if not for Detroit, and specifically, the Cass Corridor."
As such, the company is paying tribute to its hometown by pressing its first records with music from Detroit greats, including MC5, The Stooges, The White Stripes, Carl Craig and Derrick May.
Saturday's grand opening will feature live performances, starting at 2:30 p.m., from California punk rock group The Mummies and Memphis punk rockers The Oblivians. Rounding it out will be a set by the local country group Craig Brown Band.
There will also be a guided tour, during which guests can get a glimpse at the plant. Crain's got access to the facility this week and learned how it all works.
Adorned with a lacquered yellow floor and a mural painted across its back wall by local artist Robert Sestok, the plant was definitely built with the spectator in mind. It's equipped with eight shimmery manual pressing machines divided into four duplex systems. Third Man Records chose manual machines for job creation, increased control and oversight, and to more efficiently recycle materials. At full throttle, the plant can make 10,000 records a day.
"It's definitely not something that was done in a day," Blackwell said, gesturing toward the intricate steam and hydraulic systems and pipes lacing up to the ceiling.
Build-out started in November 2015, and the total cost ran into seven figures, Blackwell said, declining to be more specific.
While planning was extensive, the project has been and will continue to be a learning process, Blackwell said. "There aren't many people who are doing this, so we've got to work within our own skill set," he said.
The plant has 16 employees, none of whom had experience before being trained a couple of months ago. Blackwell said the goal is to hire 50 employees, keep the plant open 24 hours and make records for labels around the world, with a priority on local bands.
"This is for smaller labels because the smaller you are, the trickier it becomes," he said. "We want to make vinyl accessible for everyone."
Pat Shaw, a 52-year-old press operator at Third Man, said he remembers growing up in Detroit, and the thrill it was to play in a local band and hang around the likes of Jack White. He's surprised how it's come full circle.
"Detroit was in the dumps for many years," Shaw said. "We are the Motor City. Motown. We have to continue with those roots."
Plastics News senior reporter Bill Bregar visited Newbilt Machinery GmbH & Co. KG in Alsdorf, Germany, the company that is supplying vinyl presses to Third Man Records. Click here for his story on the company, and here for a video interview with a Newbilt executive.