As the founder of Pirates Press, the largest broker of vinyl in the world, owner Eric “Skippy” Mueller’s introduction to record collecting taps into the zeitgeist of a post-depression United States where kids began amassing comic books, baseball cards and tiny plastic military figurines that would later be gamified in value.
Since the rapid rise and seismic crash of the CD, vinyl’s seen several resurgences—often reported on as a fetish item, as the greater value physical copies of music have to passive listeners is often lost. In an era where streaming royalties seldom rise into the double digits, merchandise—specifically clothing and vinyl records—are the way bands fuel their existence. This is paramount and central to Mueller’s mission with Pirates Press.
Founded in 2004 in Mueller’s bedroom, Pirates Press offers a full range of services to independent musicians, not just replication of their music. Additionally, they aren’t interested in commerce and are formed by like-minded enthusiasts who strive to make each release special, offering intricate color mixes, shaped records, mastering, order fulfillment, CD production and packaging options as elaborate as the imagination of those driving the art direction.
Never shy about his passion, Mueller discussed the company’s origins, mission statements and partnership with GZ Vinyl in Loděnice, Czech Republic (the largest vinyl-pressing plant in the world), not to mention celebrating his company’s 15th anniversary later this month with a party on an aircraft carrier.
There’s a business principle that I’ll paraphrase as “Why own the product when you can own the factory?” What inspired you to want to operate a record label as well?
ERIC MUELLER: I’m a vinyl collector, and [vinyl is] our main business—making records. It’s the reason why we even have a label in all honesty. Running a record label today is not a profitable venture. It’s a labor of love and a passion that people have. It’s very rare that somebody is able to turn it into a career. We’re fortunate that there are enough people out there interested in vinyl to make records.
By being one of the largest manufacturers in the world, we’re able to use our strength in that position to create and curate a label that people pay attention to, which is really awesome. It works in our favor on both ends—creatively, we get to enjoy running a label but also not be stressed on it because it’s not our only business. And at the same time, it serves as an advertising arm of the manufacturing company because we always try [to] do really high-end releases and try [to] do things that set the bar to show people new products and exciting things that people may not have seen yet.
I don’t think the average fan understands the cost involved in making records and the time invested before they complain about a price or even how important buying directly from an artist is.
What the vinyl industry is dealing with on a daily basis [is] trying to find the fine balance between people coming out of pocket for a physical product that they can download ultimately or stream for free. What we’ve been cultivating for the last 15 years is putting value on that connection between the artist and the fan, and vinyl is one of the ways that happens. People’s attention spans have changed. There’s a lot less of people popping a record on a turntable and listening to it for an hour. There’s a lot more of people listening and getting accustomed to listening to playlists, so you have a lot more people focusing on singles when it comes to vinyl or EPs—things aimed at somebody with a smaller attention span.
A lot of bands can focus their efforts on fewer songs and make more money these days, even through digital if they play their cards right. You can record something on your phone, and then you could email it to me, and I could make you a record. That was impossible 20 years ago. We’ve made it very easy for people who are intelligent and savvy enough to figure out where to make a record. And what we’ve tried to do is bridge that gap between the knowledge base that we have as one of the biggest and oldest vinyl manufacturers in the world and the people who make music and want to put out records. We step in, and we provide a level of knowledge in that relationship that allows them to make products that are going to justify people spending money on them.
“Running a record label today is not a profitable venture. It’s a labor of love and a passion that people have. It’s very rare that somebody is able to turn it into a career.”
If you just make a plain black record, it’s gotta be the music and the artists selling that product. But if you’re an up-and-coming band and you do something creative with your record—whether it’s colored vinyl or interesting packaging—someone might come by the merch table and take a stab at it for five or 10 bucks.
If I’m an artist, knowing people will probably hear my music for free first then decide to buy it, why wouldn’t I just find the cheapest manufacturer and keep costs down rather than using Pirates?
You have to create a reason for people to buy that record, and that’s where we step in. We pride ourselves on the packaging, on the sound quality of the records. There are plenty of other factories in the world making records. Some are old. A lot of them are new and have less options and less experience making records than us. We find ourselves very successful keeping people happy and getting them a constant stream of exciting products.
When you buy a record online, the hope is that some of that money is going to the bands, and these days, because streaming has stripped away so much revenue, the value of getting sold in some ways [is] a little more important. A band member will see more money from one record being sold than they will from you listening to it a hundred times on Spotify.
There’s no way you can actually make a career on your music unless you’re selling physical products and playing gigs. You used to be able to sell CDs, and you could make enough money to support the lifestyle of independent punk or metal bands. Touring bands could make hundreds of thousands selling CDs [due to low production and manufacturing costs]. Nowadays, that money is turned into $100 digital. Even the biggest independent punk bands—they’re not seeing the kind of money through digital that would allow them to have that be a supportive career.
Vinyl is where it’s at, and from the manufacturing side of it all, we make the nicest possible products, and we cater to the people who appreciate our service the most. We give people the best price and the best service because we actually care. We have people in our office who are in bands and who run other businesses of their own and things like that. It’s an understanding that you value a partner, and in turn, they value you.
With Pirates Press starting from your bedroom and expanding as it has, I’m interested in how you feel about influencing more than just the direct community but the actual economy of vinyl.
The numbers you read in the press for vinyl sales are impressive, but the reality of the situation is so vastly different. The number of records being made and sold is probably twice that. If you think about every record sold on a merchant table or sold by an up-and-coming business where it doesn’t have a barcode, it’s not getting scanned. Most of that stuff is not being included in sales reports. Our factory may be the second oldest, but it’s certainly the largest factory for vinyl in the world, and we were the first company to make new vinyl presses. As a result of that, everybody else is trying to figure out how to make more records on their old machines. We came to the table, and we’re like, “Cool, we’ve got these presses that are now three times as efficient, and we’re going to make a ton more records than everybody else in a more controlled way.”
Read more: Vinyl is even more popular than we thought
Now we’ve upgraded our entire factory to all new machines. On average, we’re employing somewhere around 2,000 people to make the records [and] the packaging for all the records in the Czech Republic. As a result, when we go to the Czech Republic, we have that connection with that community as well. It’s not like a random, faceless operation.
“A band member will see more money from one record being sold than they will from you listening to it a hundred times on Spotify.”
I’ve been there 60 times, [and] when I walked through the factory, pretty much everybody knows who I am. I’m the dude with the mohawk who shows up a couple of times a year, you know? Since day one, I’ve made a point of going to that factory and making sure that the people who are putting records into sleeves and putting sleeves into jackets and jackets into boxes understand that people are appreciating their work—it’s not just some product going into a box and leaving on a truck. And while I can’t control that for 2,000 people that are [in a] factory that I don’t own, I can certainly impact that. That’s been really special for me and something that I’m extremely proud of.
What’s the most common misconception people have about pressing records?
A lot of people justify their passion for vinyl because they say it sounds better and warmer. One of the things a lot of people don’t know is that listening to records actually makes your brain work less. When you listen to digital music, the same way there could be a dog whistle or high and low frequencies that you’re not really listening to or aren’t really there in your consciousness, your brain is oftentimes filtering those out for you to be able to pay attention to what it is [playing]. So with a vinyl record, the range of sound that you can actually replicate that can go on a record is more in tune with what the brain can register than what you can put on a CD or hear on streaming. The psychological effect is that it’s warmer and that it sounds more relaxing to listen to in a sense.
Lastly, tell us about deciding to celebrate the Pirates’ 15th anniversary on the deck of a ship this October.
For our 10th anniversary in San Francisco, we shut down the street and had 2,000 people there for an all-day concert called Rock The Ship. For the next three or four years, we tried to think like, “How can we top this? What do we do? Do it for two days or something?” And then the idea came up like, “Hey, what if we could find a ship?” The USS Hornet, which is similar to the Nimitz and some of the other old historic aircraft carriers that picked up the moon-landing astronauts, [has] got its 50th anniversary this year, which is pretty cool. We just shot in the dark, hit them up and asked if they’d be interested in helping us. The person who runs the events for the ship was immediately intrigued by what we had going on and has just taken us under their wing, and [we’re] really excited to be the first real festival show aboard the ship.
The 10th anniversary really left memories in people’s minds. It was something people talked about for a long time and, you know, more than it being a festival kind of thing. This is a party for us, and this is something we’re celebrating: 15 years of successfully creating this community. While we have to charge money for the tickets that cover the cost of the ship, we just want people to have a good time. It’s a big venue so we can have everyone.
Rock The Ship takes place Oct. 17-20 with performances by Cock Sparrer, Subhumans, Off With Their Heads and more, and you can buy tickets here.