Pirates Press founder Eric Mueller. (Photo: Shelby Pope)
While vinyl record sales enjoy a resurgence that shows no sign of slowing, the future of the industry depends on the manufacture of new vinyl pressing machines—and San Francisco’s Pirates Press is first in line.
In December, the Potrero Hill vinyl brokerage announced a brand-new vinyl press, the first in the world since the 1980s. "The press is the first new press manufactured from scratch in 30 years, period, as far as we know," says Pirates Press president Eric Mueller.
It’s a significant milestone for the small company, composed of 30 employees and an office cat named Sheena (after the Ramones song, not Sheena Easton).
Founded in 2004 by Mueller, a lifelong record collector (his first record was a “Happy Birthday” flexi-disc he got as a two-year-old), Pirates Press has worked with major labels like Warner Brothers and Sony to press records for everyone from Madonna to Tegan & Sara. But the bulk of their projects are for punk and metal bands (“You can’t name a [punk or metal] band we haven’t pressed a record for,” Mueller says). They’re also popular with smaller acts—their minimum order is only 250 records, an accessible amount for a garage band wanting to sell records on tour.
The records from Pirates Press aren’t often the traditional black LPs you’d buy at Amoeba, either: Pirates specializes in the artistic and unusual. If a client wants a lightning bolt, skull, or cannabis leaf imprinted into their record, Pirates Press can do it. They once fashioned a record into a Molotov cocktail: printing the record on a flexi-disc, wrapping the disc in a bandana and stuffing the whole thing into a labeled bottle. They even once handled an order from the Swiss government to print a stamp that doubles as a record that plays their national anthem. And when Maximumrocknroll writer Bruce Roehrs died in 2010, Mueller came up with a fitting way to honor his friend: they pressed Roehrs’ ashes into a limited-edition split record of two bands he loved.
Pirates Press doesn’t actually press the records themselves—that’s the job of their partner GZ Media, a 64-year-old vinyl pressing plant in the Czech Republic. “I’m as Made-in-America as the next person, but there's something to be said about giving your money to someone that does more for your goals,” says Mueller. “They’ve continued to invest in vinyl, whereas other factories were skeptical and invested in CDs.”
The companies are also stronger together: Pirates has someone who can make their elaborate designs, and GZ has someone who knows how to sell them to a US market. Above all other companies who work with GZ, Pirates gives them the most business. “They've opened their arms to us for 10 years and we love it. We go over there, walk around the factory and half the folks are wearing Pirates Press shirts,” said Mueller. “They've improved so much in their efficiency over the last ten years that they’re a huge reason—if not the only reason—we’re continuing to grow at the rate we’re growing.”
And grow they have. Pirates has carved a successful niche in the market; Mueller estimates they've grown about 20-40% every year. Last year, they pressed 2.5 million records.
A few years ago, GZ started thinking about a new vinyl press. It would prove a huge undertaking, both financially and intellectually: since no one is currently making new presses, everything would have to be built entirely from scratch. It would also be a significant leap into the future for the vinyl industry. Despite the ongoing popularity of vinyl—vinyl sales doubled from 2013 to 2014, and have increased by 800% since 2007—only a small handful companies make records. Mueller estimates that worldwide, only about 15 businesses have more than ten vinyl presses, most of which were built in the Reagan era or before.
The lack of presses to satisfy increasing demand often creates a backlog, to the extent that a Vice article from last year declared that “Vinyl Won't Really Make a Comeback Until We Have More Record Presses.” Just this month, United Record Pressing in Nashville, one of the largest US vinyl producers, temporarily stopped accepting new customers because of their increase in orders. Companies desperately hunt for old presses, and when a company does announce the acquisition of a “new” vinyl press, they mean a refurbished machine snapped up from a shuttered plant.
GZ’s size and scope—they claim to be the largest producers of vinyl in the world, with 30-plus presses, and they produced 14 million records last year—gave them the ability to make a sizable investment in a new machine. And because GZ repairs all of its presses in-house, their workers have an intimate knowledge of how the presses run. That knowledge, coupled with the work of a design firm in Prague, allowed them to develop a new press with parts that are interchangeable with the company’s current 30-year-old machines.
“The task itself of making the machine was definitely a group effort between our people and a design firm in Prague, but it wouldn't have happened without the knowledge that they've been keeping for years and years,” Mueller says. “[GZ’s] retention of employees is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
The press, which GZ plans to only use in-house and not sell to other plants, allows both companies to expand. Pirates plans to double their production. And they’re not the only ones in the industry aiming to grow: United plans to expand its pressing services, and indie label Fat Possum recently announced that they’re building a vinyl plant of their own.
But Mueller remains confident about his place in the industry, pointing to the increasing popularity of vinyl among musicians with a young fan base—including artists like Jack White, whose 2014 album Lazaretto was the top selling record last year; and Taylor Swift, who's released her last three albums on vinyl. (Her 2014 album 1989 is a favorite of the Pirates staff, Mueller says: “They play that one every Friday.”)
And what of the sharp surge in vinyl sales over the past eight years? Mueller remains optimistic that it's not just a fad. Collectors buying the umpteenth Beatles box set may have dominated vinyl sales for years, but young vinyl fans buying the new Daft Punk album mean a future for the format.
“If people, kids especially, continue to start buying more and more record players, that’s what tips the scales,” Mueller says. “We know we’re more efficient in making higher-end, quality products than everybody else, so we feel like our investment is a safe as anybody’s, if not safer. Right now we’re growing, [and] we’ll continue to grow as far as the market allows us to."
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