On Ben Blackwell’s business card, his title is “Psychedelic Stooge.”
Blackwell helped found Third Man Records along with his uncle, White Stripes frontman Jack White. He handles vinyl manufacturing and distribution, touching nearly every part of the company. He’s also the official archivist for the White Stripes. Since all that won’t fit on a business card, Psychedelic Stooge seems appropriate.
A former journalism student at Wayne State University, Blackwell founded Cass Records and backed Detroit band The Dirtbombs on drums—all before helping White build his indie empire.
Blackwell spoke with Crain’s Nashville about how his experiences in the music industry have shaped his business acumen, sense of self and love of archives.
Physical objects tell a story:
I think an archive tells the story of a business—it is going to tell it physically better than any employee could. Those physical objects are going to last long after people are gone. We have been at Third Man for seven years—think of the people that have come and gone. A little bit of their experience at the company leaves with them, but the objects are what is left behind.
What archiving taught me was, don't ever underestimate the needs or wants of your future self. When I was 15 or 16, I wasn't archiving White Stripes stuff, I was just grabbing stuff because I thought it was cool. I mean, it’s history. Since I was a kid I had an insane interest in history and the idea of artifacts, ephemera and museums. I had no inkling when I was grabbing White Stripes’ fliers or White Stripes’ set lists that any of it would be important outside of my own personal interests. I was doing it for fun.
Archives, now more than ever, can be lost with the crash of a computer. Jack White, Ben Swank and I are the people that have been here since we started Third Man. I think I am the only one whose computer hasn’t crashed and erased thousands of emails. So now, if someone says, “Hey, what were we talking about six years ago?” they come to me, because I’ve got the emails. For us, that is one of the most valuable things I’ve done here—just being able to go that far back.
I ran Cass Records as a hobby. I took no money out of it. If you do something you love, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
I had no financial stake in the label. I wasn't doing it because I had to pay the bills. I was doing it solely because it made me feel happy. I think if you are truly destined to do something and if you can do it without a concern for money long enough you will figure out a way to do it as a job. All I wanted to do was put out records. The more money I had, the more records I could put out. Simple as that. There has to be a little bit of selflessness to achieve a greater goal.
Do it yourself…
I have experienced just about every possible aspect of the music business. I've been in a touring band, I've worked in a record store, I wrote about music and I released my own records. What I say to people is, "Whatever you like doing, do it yourself. Start on your own. Don’t ask someone to do something for you that you won't do for yourself." I think back to when I was 15 years old; I had the means to be putting out records. The reason I didn't was because no one told me I could.
…But ask for help
I had to learn to scale. I was used to doing things on such a small level. I would do records, 200-300 copies. When I started at Third Man and we were looking at 15,000-20,000 copies, I was concerned: how do you scale that up? I think I came in with an idea that I really knew what was going on and within a few months of being here, I realized there was still a ton to learn. But you find people that have experience doing it. You can ask people that have done it and people are more often than not very willing to help and guide you. Don't hesitate to ask.
Follow Third Man Records on Twitter at @thirdmanrecords.
Pictured: Ben Blackwell. / Photo courtesy Ben Blackwell.