The Pirates Behind the Groove

The maverick founder of vinyl-record manufacturer Pirates Press shares developments on the company’s in-house label — and his diagnosis of the industry.

While streaming has become the dominant mode of music consumption, vinyl remains a lucrative medium for artists and plays an integral part of the music industry’s backbone. Pirates Press, a vinyl-record manufacturer and independent label in Emeryville, has thrived by doing things its own way for 15 years.

“It was just off to the races — you know, exponential growth pretty much since day one. It’s been the name of the game,” says Eric “Skippy” Mueller, the founder and president of Pirates Press.

Mueller started the company as a bedroom operation in 2004, and it has since evolved into one of the industry’s most prestigious and reputable vinyl manufacturers, having pressed records for Prince, Metallica, and The White Stripes.

“It’s people that have grown up with vinyl and have decided to challenge themselves to turn the new generation of vinyl into something that’s better than just putting out the same product that’s been made for 50 years,” he says of Pirates Press’ mission.

“We can see trends with a lot more clarity because we’re actually working with boots on the ground,” Mueller continues. “I think the biggest trend we see is that the people who are taking the time to make nice products that you could take a nice photo for social media, and things like that, are really improving the standards of vinyl.”

The medium, which has seen an increase in sales over the past decade, has kept on a steady resurgence for many reasons, one being turntables. They’re not the kind of thing most people collect, Mueller says. Consequently, some artists have since capitalized on vinyl’s ascendant popularity.

“There are a lot of bands right now who are carving out the vinyl rights in their contracts,” Mueller explains. “So, for example, they might put their record out with a big label, but reserve the right to be able to press records themselves.

“There’s a nostalgia to it and a sense of continuity to record-collecting that gets passed down from parent to child, which is amazing, and something we in the vinyl industry take advantage of,” Mueller adds.

But it’s not why vinyl is popular today, he says, speculating that the quality of the records is vastly improved over the 1970s and ’80s. To stay ahead of the curve, the manufacturer uses one-of-a-kind software that maximizes the quality of the record regardless of the turntable it is played on.

As Mueller explains, “The software program allows us to do quality control that no other factory can. Essentially, when we’re cutting a record, we’re able to record that cut in real time.”

Today, Pirates Press’ main factory in the Czech Republic is capable of producing over 120,000 records a day, using manual and automated state-of-the-art equipment.

“We’ve really never done any advertising or marketing in the traditional sense of it,” Mueller says. “The only advertising and marketing we’ve done in terms of like growing the company has really been through our label. And we started that a year after starting the manufacturing company.”

Pirates Press Records is the in-house label of the manufacturing company, specializing in punk and hardcore, and has seen its own share of success.

“A lot of the decisions we make on the label side are made as a group. It’s not just me. It’s everybody talking about the band and the pluses and minuses and in working with them, and in a marketing sense as well,” Mueller says of the record label’s work ethos. “The label is something that’s been growing and expanding, and we want to make sure it reflects all the people that are a part of Pirates as much as possible — but maintains a cohesive voice.”

Last year saw the release of Pirates Press 200: One Family One Flag, a compilation celebrating 200 releases on the label, including cuts from Rancid, Tim Timebomb, and The Interrupters. They recently hired industry veteran Vique Martin as the head of sales and distribution, as part of the goal of establishing stronger personal relationships with customers.

“We’re really smart and really good at communication about that kind of stuff, so that our customers don’t get disappointed,” Mueller explains. “And that’s why we don’t lose customers, either. We’re constantly growing as a company because of that, because we don’t isolate people.”

Support for musicians and a love of vinyl are what the relationships between the Pirates team and clients are built on.

“It’s not just about the music,” Mueller says. “It’s about the politics and the sense of community and whatnot. Punk isn’t just about music, and everyone here feels like that. So that’s vital when it comes to choosing which bands to work with.”

The label recently released a milled 7-inch vinyl of NOI!SE’s single “Mass Apathy,” donated the profits to gun-violence charities. At the end of the day, it is the unrestrained passion and ambition Mueller has for the medium that has allowed Pirates Press to evolve into the powerhouse it is, with a sincere desire to help musicians thrive.

“In some ways, we’re just trying to create a system for people to get all of our records in the most affordable way possible,” Mueller says, “and maybe learn about some cool new bands in the process.”

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