Jack White vs Technology: Bringing Romance Back in a Digital Age

Penner, Scott. “The Dead Weather @ Ottawa Bluesfest2009.” Flickr, July 19 2009. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Penner, Scott. “The Dead Weather @ Ottawa Bluesfest2009.” Flickr, July 19 2009. Accessed 3 March 2021.

Technology is everywhere. It has integrated itself in just about every aspect of human life, drastically altering the world around us. One such way that tech is invading the world is through music. Technology has permeated music in every sense. Through the production, distribution, and consumption, music has been digitalized. In some ways, this has done wonders for the music industry. For listeners, technology has given them easily accessible music at the touch of a screen. They no longer need to flip a vinyl, rewind a cassette, or even own a copy of whatever they want to listen to. They have Spotify, Youtube, and Soundcloud, to name a few music streaming platforms, where they simply need to search for what they want to hear and can listen with ease. For artists, they can upload tracks or videos to a music or video service and reach a wider audience than ever before. They can gain fans without ever once networking or playing a live show, simply through being discovered online. And anyone can make music — you don’t need to be professional to post a video online and gain a following. Also, musicians can set up social media accounts to constantly interact and update their fans on new releases or shows. And while this digital age has made music more accessible than ever before, it has also taken away the tangible romance of music. The majority of listeners no longer partake in listening to music as a stand-alone experience. They put on a Spotify-curated playlist while commuting to work, or have Youtube auto-playing music in the background as they study. It is no longer a hassle to turn on music, and we as consumers have greatly taken advantage of the fact. Additionally, technology has taken away from the live music experience. Society’s incessant need to digitally document every aspect of life has indubitably seeped into concert experiences — visible through the phones in the air recording and snapping pictures of the performers throughout any given concert. The same social media platforms where musicians promote their music and concerts are the platforms which draw away concert-goers’ attention throughout the shows. Posting photos to commemorate the experience has become more important than enjoying the experience in the first place. Given all this, it is clear to say that the accessibility of music and pervasiveness of technology has impacted music from all angles. And no one has been more combative of this than Jack White. By bringing back vinyl, utilizing old school recording methods, and creating phone-free concert experiences, he is effectively reviving the analogue romance that the modernized music industry has diminished.

Jack White rose to fame as the singer/guitarist of rock and roll duo the White Stripes, based in Detroit and getting their start through the local Detroit music scene. Known for their color coordination, bluesy influences, and distinctive guitar riffs, they made a mark on rock history. After six studio albums, the duo went their separate ways. Since then, White has kept himself busy in the music world. In addition to his three solo albums, he has released three albums with his band the Raconteurs (playing guitar and singing with Brendan Benson), and three with his band the Dead Weather (playing drums and singing alongside Alison Mosshart from the Kills). He has also collaborated with numerous well-known musicians: Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Loretta Lynn, to name a few. Even when he’s not the main vocalist, as with his song “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with Beyoncé, his distinctive style shines through.

“Beyoncé ft Jack White — Don’t Hurt Yourself ( Official Music Video ) Pre Promo.” Youtube, uploaded by Soul Central TV, 24 Apr. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10pOVWHrWck

His music is far from the only unique aspect of White, though. Apart from making award winning music, he is a major advocate of straying from our constantly digitalizing world. When talking about his reluctance towards this digital age, there are two reasons that White goes back to. The first would be that he feels digitalization takes the romance out of things. Back in 2013, he released a statement after being deemed Record Store Day Ambassador of the year. In this statement, he addressed how hard it is for physical stores or outings to compete with their digital counterparts. Why leave the house when everything you could want is available on the computer? But, White noted, “there’s no romance in a mouse click” (White). The beauty of experiencing the physical world outshines the convenience of living a digital life.

The second factor of Jack White’s disdain towards digitalization that I’d like to highlight is how he perceives going digital as choosing the easy path and conforming to the norm. He once said that “as an artist it is your job not to take the easy way out” (Mossman), which includes going digital. As a musician, he records his music. He believes that it is his job to fight against mainstream society and defy all expectations that go along with being a successful musician. Instead of aiming to just conform and sell as many albums or concert tickets as possible, Jack White wants to challenge himself. He prides himself in countering norms, and being able to “show [audiences] something that no one else is doing” (Mossman).

In an interview with the Guardian, White said, “I want to be part of the resurgence of things that are tangible, beautiful and soulful, rather than just give in to the digital age” (Hodgkinson). This quote speaks to both of his reasons, as it touches on the qualities of analogue that he loves and his drive to push against the mainstream.

But, most importantly when it comes to his quest to keep music analogue, he opened up Third Man Records (TMR). TMR is a record label, record producing factory, shop, and some sort of personal project of White’s. The decline in demand for physical albums has undoubtedly impacted the music industry, and this pains Jack White, who is a lover of all things analogue.

“Jack White’s Third Man Records Store Tour.” Youtube, uploaded by Fuse, 29 Apr. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0zjgva-p88.

Among other feats, White has launched a playing turntable into space, where it stayed 94,413 feet above the earth playing Carl Sagan’s “A Glorious Dawn” before coming back down (Chow). He has produced and sold the fastest record (recording, producing, and selling it in three hours and fifty-five minutes), and has even made the first automatic record booth (where customers can sit inside a booth similar to a phonebooth, play music, and have a vinyl made for them instantly). One of the most influential innovations of his, though, is his TMR live room. A 300-person venue, artists playing a show can have it recorded directly onto vinyl, which then is produced and sold by TMR. Not only does this attract major bands like Pearl Jam or U2 (and their fanbases) to TMR, but it plays a role in making more people buy those live recordings on vinyl.

“Icarus Craft Makes History: First Phonographic Record Played In Space RECAP VIDEO.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficalTMR, 30 Jul. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1751oqIKYc.

This video shows White’s process of recording the worlds fastest record, and gives a bit of a behind the scenes glimpse of the TMR live room.

“Jack White’s World’s Fastest Record RSD Recap.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficialTMR, 21 Apr. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPGK84Yuihc.

While all this is impressive on its own, all this record-breaking creativity serves a larger purpose: turning attention back to analogue music. Jack White’s dismay of the digital age is a major attribute to his identity, and his drive. Deemed the “messiah of analogue and vinyl” by the Guardian (Mossman), White has brought physical albums to a whole new level. He has both encouraged the growing vinyl trend, and helped drive record sales back up. In fact, his sophomore solo album “Lazaretto” sold over 400,000 copies in its first week, which makes it the record with the most sales in a single week ever — or at least since Nielson Music started counting record sales in 1991 (DeVito). This might partly be due to the fact that around the time Lazaretto was released in 2014 vinyl was starting to make a comeback, but it is also due to Jack White’s hype around the record. His fans understood that buying the physical album was what he wanted — and they knew that there would be some excitement over the vinyl itself.

The Lazaretto vinyl broke new ground in the vinyl industry. There were never-done-before physical aspects of the vinyl that make it one of a kind. Right from the start, listeners of this vinyl are hit with abnormalities. The A side of the record starts from the center, playing inside-out and ending in a locked groove around the outer edges. This album also includes two separate intros to the B side starter “Just One Drink”, where depending on where the needle is placed, either an acoustic or electric version of the song will begin, eventually converging at the first chorus. There are also hologram angels that fly around the record, bonus songs hidden under the vinyl label, a matte finish on one side, and songs that play at three different speeds. You can watch Jack White go through all these features in this video released by Third Man Records.

“The Lazaretto ULTRA LP.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficialTMR, 6 May 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-8B-_Jq2ro&feature=emb_title.

Even though these innovations alone probably weren’t the sole reason the record sold so many copies, it did achieve the goal of incentivizing vinyl purchases. It has become a staple for any record collector, and the music from the record reached commercial success as well (the title track being White’s most popular solo song to date).

When it comes to Jack White’s live shows, he is just as aggressively against technology. Since cell phones started dominating the world (music world included), Jack White has been adamantly against them, especially at his shows. He’d much rather audiences engage with him and experience the music live than record the show and take photos to post online. After pleading with audiences to keep their phones away during his concerts (to no avail), he decided he had enough. On his Boarding House Reach tour in 2018, he partnered up with Yondr — a company that provides audience members with a pouch for their phone which lock when inside the concert venue — to prevent seeing what he calls “blue faces” (Mossman), a term which he uses to describes audience members whose faces are lit up by the screens of their phones.

I attended one of Jack White’s concerts on his Boarding House Reach tour back in the summer of 2018. I had forced my brother to go stand in line with me nearly three hours before the doors were to open, giddy with excitement. It was a long wait under the hot August sun (it was probably close to 70 degrees — hot for Seattleites!), and a fairly unnecessary effort, as people didn’t really start showing up until an hour before doors. But the effects of technology started showing up as soon as the fans did. Photos were snapped of heading billboard; selfies were taken with concert tickets. Pictures were posted on social medias. Music was streamed on cellphones while waiting. Here were fans of the analogue “messiah” waiting to share his sacred space, blatantly using the same technology that he publicly denounced. While it is clear that being distracted with a phone while killing time in a line is different than being distracted in the middle of a concert, the dangerous temptation was evident. When doors finally opened and we were all ushered into the considerably cooler theatre, I felt both hesitant and excited as my phone was locked in a Yondr pouch. “What if I need it?” I thought. But then the reality that I had never needed it at a concert before hit me. The hesitancy (and in some ways, the separation anxiety), however, dissipated quickly as my brother pulled me towards the merch table. And by the time the second security guard had yelled at us to “stop running in the venue!”, all I felt was excited. We stood pressed against the metal fence, ready to be fully immersed in the event.

And we were. For the first time ever, I was not once distracted by a screen glaring in my peripheral. No flashes were going off, no one was watching the show through their phone lenses. We all just stood, engaged with the real world, and the exceptional music we had the privilege of experiencing live.

Before going on tour, Jack White (or someone on his behalf) had created an Instagram page for photos from the tour. This way, fans could rest easy knowing they would have access to photos from the special night. But while I did check out the photos the next day, I felt no inclination to download them or repost them. Having lived the experience to the fullest extent had been enough, and I didn’t see the point in reposting these photos to show my friends that I had been there.

It was a fulfilling experience: intimate, live, and — as Jack would have it — unlike any other concert I had been to. In that moment, I understood why he was so in love with the idea of an analogue world. I felt the romance of the world in ways I wouldn’t have if staring at a phone screen, and felt so connected to the music.

Jack White is not the only one who has used Yondr’s services. There have been numerous other musicians who have been adopting White’s phone-banning policies — Alicia Keys, Guns ‘n Roses, and Bob Dylan, to name a few (Knopper). All of these artists’ reasons for using Yondr aligned with Jack White’s. Moving forward, it seems like this phone-free concert setting will be increasingly common.

Yet despite White’s push against complete digitalization, he has started dabbling in methods which a true luddite might steer away from. He has collaborated with more mainstream and tech-using artists. In an interview, he mentioned how he used technology to make his latest album, including the use of “hip-hop production style that I had stayed away from for years because I thought it was cheating” (Mossman). He has found a way to brilliantly combine the modern and now-archaic recording techniques. Making his latest album, he “recorded the whole of his new album on tape and then ‘dumped’ it into ProTools to edit”, find that “with all its sampling of live instruments, the album ‘behooved’ (his word) complicated edits — and that required something niftier than his customary tape and razor blade” (Mossman). This mixing of digital music production software Pro Tools and old fashion tape and blade (which is literally recording onto cassette tapes then splicing them with a razor) is a gorgeous juxtaposition that is rarely seen in other musical works.

And though he loved vinyl, Jack White isn’t completely against streaming and downloading music, nor CDs (he especially loves that you can read the various credits in the CD pamphlets) (Mossman). What he really wants is to set himself apart from his fellow musicians, and to bring back tangible beauty into an ever-digitalizing age.

I think it is worth mentioning how Jack White has gotten much more active on social media since this. He (or whoever acting on his behalf) has continued to post photos on his account, updating fans of his happenings. Additionally, he has since gotten both the White Stripes and the Raconteurs on Instagram (the Dead Weather is yet to get an account), and has even created an account for his upholstering projects (you can check his work on his page here).

Though technology’s impact (for worse or better) is here to stay, Jack White has helped to bring an aspect of romance back into music that was previously feeling extinct. While he understands that digital music is going to be the leading format here on out, he has brought attention back to the goodness of tangible music. White has given old-timers and old-timey souls who collectively sigh at the idea of music as it once was some solace in the modern day. Reviving the vinyl industry, creating an intimately phone-free concert experience, and advocating for the enjoyment of art without technology, White has been busy changing the world. And even if one doesn’t believe that his efforts were needed, one thing is for sure: Jack White has far from taken the easy way out and has definitely set himself apart from other musicians of his time.

Works Cited

“Beyoncé ft Jack White — Don’t Hurt Yourself ( Official Music Video ) Pre Promo.” Youtube, uploaded by Soul Central TV, 24 Apr. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10pOVWHrWck

Chow, Andrew R. “Third Man Records Sends a Vinyl Record Into Space.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/04/arts/music/third-man-records-space.html#:~:text=Third%20Man%20Records%2C%20the%20label,94%2C000%20feet%20above%20the%20earth.

DeVito, Lee. “Thanks to Jack White, Vinyl Record Sales Continue to Grow in 2018.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 10 July 2018, www.metrotimes.com/city-slang/archives/2018/07/10/thanks-to-jack-white-vinyl-record-sales-continue-to-grow-in-2018.

“Icarus Craft Makes History: First Phonographic Record Played In Space RECAP VIDEO.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficalTMR, 30 Jul. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1751oqIKYc.

“Jack White’s Third Man Records Store Tour.” Youtube, uploaded by Fuse, 29 Apr. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0zjgva-p88.

“Jack White’s World’s Fastest Record RSD Recap.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficialTMR, 21 Apr. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPGK84Yuihc.

Knopper, Steve. “Artists to Fans: Put Your Phones Away!” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 28 Feb. 2018, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/artists-to-fans-put-your-phones-away-202263/.

Mossman, Kate. “Jack White: ‘As an Artist It Is Your Job Not to Take the Easy Way Out’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/music/2018/mar/16/jack-white-as-an-artist-it-is-your-job-not-to-take-the-easy-way-out.

Paulson, Dave. “Third Man Records: 10 Defining Moments at Jack White’s Nashville Headquarters.” The Tennessean, The Tennessean, 4 Apr. 2019, www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2019/04/04/third-man-records-10-big-moments-jack-white-label-anniversary/3363931002/.

Penner, Scott. “The Dead Weather @ Ottawa Bluesfest2009.” Flickr, July 19 2009. Accessed 3 March 2021.

“The Lazaretto ULTRA LP.” Youtube, uploaded by OfficialTMR, 6 May 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-8B-_Jq2ro&feature=emb_title.

Third Man Upholstery. [@thirdmanupholstery]. (n.d.). Posts [Instagram profile]. Retrieved Mar. 3, 2021 from https://www.instagram.com/thirdmanupholstery.

White, Jack. “Jack White: Record Store Day 2013 Ambassador.” Third Man Records, Third Man Records, 19 Feb. 2013, thirdmanrecords.com/news/jack-white-record-store-day-2013-ambassador.

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