If you have a punk rock record pressed in the last 10 years, then you definitely have at least one record pressed by Pirates Press. The manufacturer/label handles literal tons of punk pressings and also runs a street-punk/oi! focused label offshoot. Because the second most hollowed day for record collectors is right around the corner - record store day black Friday- Punknews' John Gentile spoke to the founder of Pirates Press, Skippy, about, what else? Records!
What was the first record that you got? It would have been pop-punk 7-inchers in the early 90s. Maybe even early, early Green day records. The first record that I got in my own name was a flexi happy birthday card that my parents’ friends gave me- it was Cosmo the Spaceman singing “Happy Birthday.”
In fact, you all recently brought back the idea of the flexi-disc. They stopped making flexi discs in 1995- the company that mostly made them. In 2010, we just decided to give it a go and made three presses from scratch. The flexis we make are actually different than the ones made in the past. The flexis we make have better sound quality than the ones made in the 80s in Japan or Florida. We operated our presses in San Francisco until 2013, until we got an order 450,000 postcard flexis that the center inch was perforated and was a 5 euro postage stamp. The records had the national anthem of Holland and it was for Queen’s Day in Holland, so it was a commemorative postage stamp. It was actually cheaper for us to move the whole operation to Europe instead making them in the States and shipping them to Europe because we would have had to hire a whole security force to be present 24 hours a day during production of the product because they are five euro postage stamps. It’s really expensive to ship things from America to other countries, but it’s not as expensive to ship from Europe to the states.
So, it was an easy decision for you to move operations from the United States to the Czech Republic. Yeah, we moved presses over there and put them in a container and put them in the facility where we were pressing our normal records over there already.
Was your plant always in the Czech Republic? The regular records have always been made in the Czech Republic. GZ media is one of the oldest factories in the world for records and they are the largest factory in the world for records, and we are their largest North American partner. They always had a need for customer service, and that’s where we step in. We provide service to our customer to who don’t have experience navigating on how to press a record- people who don’t speak Czech can get the same service at any other place or better service at any other place.
Are there a lot of pressing plants in existence right now? Right now, there are around 50. Ten years ago, there were 25 or 30. There have been a lot of pressing plants that started in the last 4 years or so. Most of them are very small, putting out between 300,000 to 500,000 units a year whereas our factory is capable of putting out 30 to 50 million records a year, in theory. So, we’re on a different level than them. There are a lot of mom and pop shops popping up, some with old presses and some with new. It’s like comparing kit cars to someone making Chevys or Fords. Our facility is on a different level than those guys. One of the things that sets us apart is that we turn records around in 6-8 weeks whereas many plants are quoting people at 4 to 6 months. If you’re a small band or label, you can’t afford to be out of pocket for that long. So, we have a huge, huge base of our client is independent labels.
Are you the biggest plant in the Western Hemisphere? Our factory is the biggest one in the world. As far as the US, there are some pretty big ones, but we are considerably bigger than them. We were also the first plant to introduce new presses after 30 years. We have so many new presses, we don’t really use the old ones. If you look at a circuit boards and how that has changed since the 70s or gauges, such as manual gauges against a digital gauge, we have been able to increase our efficiency to the point where no one is ever going to catch us as far as volume is concerned. It would take a massive amount of investment to catch us. We have 60 years of experience as well.
Is Pirates Press more a label or a manufacturer? The main business is manufacturing, so we use the label as an advertising arm for manufacturing, to show what we can do. So the label is a way of one-upping the competition, and making stuff that we are just now introducing to the market, or stuff that is generally expensive to make. So, as the manufacturer, we have an advantage in putting these things out.
How did you get into music to begin with? It was mostly through school. My parents listened to oldies and that kind of stuff. In my natural progression of liking music, if you want to break it down, pop-punk is like Chuck Berry on speed, The Queers or screeching Weasel, are like the Beach Boys on speed. Growing up in San Diego, there was a lot of third wave ska and pop-punk. Bands that played our high school became giant bands. Bands that played the local Elks lodge were playing Stadiums two years later. That stuff lead to the street punk and the old school ska stuff. I moved to San Francisco and got a job working for TKO and that really solidified my love for street punk. I as already in love with it, but getting involved with it, and working the door, and meeting bands, and becoming a part of it all, that became a part of launching this company, and having contacts, and growing the company.
I started pressing records for people that I knew, and they referred other people to me, and there was very little advertising. We grew organically and within the first two years we became a 10 person group of people and now we are up to 30 people, and half of them are sales and the other half are getting the job done. All of my employees pretty much own their position and are a part of the company and care about the success of he company and treat it like a career and don’t treat it like a job. As a result, we don’t have any turnover. I have a stack of resumes, but nobody is leaving because it’s a great job.
Is the vinyl record the greatest format, or is it just one of several good formats? For me, it’s all there is. It’s the only format of music that will span half a dozen generations and remain as collectable as they have been in previous generations. On one hand, there is a financial aspect, there’s a collectors market, which is great on the business side, but on the personal side, there’s something special. There’s nothing that allows an artist to turn an expression into a physical form like a record. A record is the physical connection with a n audience. You may never splay a small town in Poland, but the fans will have the physical connection to a record. There is a social media, but there’s something different about that. We do all the merch for Cocksparrer and we see people showing up with records that they bought as teenagers and ask the band to sign them. It’s not tat they’re rockstars, but it was their connection to a band until that show. It’s not about the money, it’s about the connection to the band. You don’t see people doing that with a CD or tape or any of that shit.
Do you collect records personally? I do. We have a big collection at the office which is an archive of one of every record that we press. I consider it my personal collection, because if I brought it home, it would a mess. Then I have a collection of one of every record we put out on our label at home. Then, I have a personal collection of other things. I have tapered that down over the years to things that I actually play, stuff that is meaningful for me, stuff that I want to pass down to my kids. There is very little that I still have that I bought for simply being a collectable. At this point, I deal with records all day long, so the records I want to look at my house are the ones that I want to play at home. I don’t even mind if it’s a first press- I’ll play it. I might not let my two year old play it…
Do you care if you have an original press or a modern press? It depends. If you are listening to a record for best sound quality, maybe you want the newer press because it is cleaner and has been remastered. If you are collecting because you are a completeist, because you want original pressings, maybe you want both. For Cocksparrer represses we did, we have kept the process low. With that, what we wanted to do was make sure that those songs were getting consumed by the youngest fans. The band has made an effort to come to the states and play. Plenty of people knocked us for reissuing a record that they did own that did cost $500- some people might not like reissues, but at the end of the day… I care about them because I do care about the market, but I care more that this music is in the hands of people who want to hear it in a vinyl format. We’ve sold thousands of copies of Shock Troops and that means that if we hadn’t pressed, thousand of kids would have bought a copy of Shock Troops but didn’t because it wasn’t in their budget. I understand not pressing a 7-inch from the 70s to preserve the value, but for an LP, it should be more important about preserving the legacy of the music.
What’s the crown jewel of your collection? Good question… maybe Red Skins Neither Washington nor Moscow test pressing. That’s a completist band for me. There is virtually no other band where I can say I own every version of every record except for a few test pressings. But, that’s a pretty simple one. They didn’t put out that many records. If someone said that about the Ramones, you’d need a room, not a shelf!
You can disagree with this premise, here. I got to a lot of record conventions. When I would go, say 15 years ago, it was like 97% dudes. Now, depending on the city, it seems to be about 65% male, 35% female. Do you see the gender ratio of record collectors equalizing? I think the music industry in of itself is not really balanced. As far as tradition goes in the industry, it’s always been a male dominated things. I don’t think today is any different. There are definitely women involved. We have female customers. It’s becoming more balanced in terms of going to shows and seeing a mix. But, there is an imbalance element. Without science and statistics to back it up, nut, I’m not really in a position to say one way or another.
My sister is a professor at USC and studies marketing and experiential marketing, and we’ve spoken at length about the difference between male and female buying patters. Men are more likely to consume things in a collectible way because it’s a product. Whereas women are more likely to spend their money on different things that are less a collection and more useful, so to speak, or things that are an experience. I don’t want to make giant generalizations, but there is a lot of science between the marketing of a product as an experience- if you see the commercial for a car or a beer- they show the bikini clad women and the beach and the party going on, they’re not really saying why the beer is good or that the product is good. With collectables, there is an element of “collecting” that they are selling people. And in America, it’s boys. It’s boys growing up and seeing their father’s baseball card collection or guitar collection or car collection. There is definitely a female element, and certain women collect things, but I don’t know if the emphasis is as strong culturally as it is for girls as it is boys.
Have you ever been asked to press a record which you found to be severely objectionable? Yeah, we’ve had to turn records down. We’ve definitely turned records down due to racism, homphobia, and sexism. There is a lot of people expressing a lot of things and it is pretty easy to see where lines are crossed. It’s pretty clear where violence is actually insinuated. There’s enough people out there where we don’t have to take those orders to pay the bills so we don’t. We do our best to filter them out and work with like minded people who are human beings who respect human beings. A lot of Europeans, ironically- there have not been too many American labels trying to put out crazy stuff- a lot of labels from like Greece trying to put out crazy stuff. That makes it more difficult sometimes because sometimes its not in English.
I’ve put out some material that was authorized and I had to jump through 97 hoops to prove that I had the authority to put it out, yet I see bootlegs all over. I don’t know how these guys do it! How are bootlegs getting made when you have to go through so many checks just to get a legit record pressed? It’s because there are a lot of people in this industry who don’t give a shit! There are a lot of people in factories who are not engaged in the music business whatsoever. There are factories all over the world where you could send them a record and say “This is for a band called Queens of the Stoneage” and they’d be like “Coll, I have no idea who the fuck that is.” That’s another good reason why what we do is important. We wish every factory had the oversight that we have. If you don’t take those steps, you put yourself in jeopardy, that’s bullshit. A lot of the Pirates are musicians and have been in the industry for a while and understand how hard it is to make a living at this. It’s fucking bullshit. If all the bootlegs in the world stopped, it would be fantastic. A lot of the small presses, they aren’t pressing as many records as they can, so if the money is there to take, they’ll take it.
One of the fun things about record collecting is the rare “mis-press.” I’ve got a Black Sabbath record where it has the cover of Black Sabbath, the A-side of the Black Sabbath, but the B-side is the B-side of Paranoid. One of the more recent ones was the Zexx / Beyonce mixup. Do you know anything about that mix up? Not that specific one, no. Coming from my perspective, pressing millions of records, it happens. It’s rare, but it happens, once or twice a year. Our ne quality control system that we put in during the last year, it’s more or less going to prevent this from happening, even to the small extent that it does happen. You will press the wrong record on the wrong side, or use the wrong labels, or put the wrong record in the wrong jacket- it’s inevitable. The one thing we always have to do is when we ship product, to make sure people inspect the record. Sometimes people will get a record and just ship it out for mailorder, without even opening a box or playing the record. And then they’ll get a call, “Um… we ordered a punk record, this is a dance record.” Unfortunately there is a lot hands that goes into how that happens.
There’s a lot of mistakes can happen. It’s not always the “idiot packing the record put the wrong record in the wrong box!” It can be more complicated than that. At the end of the day, if you’re spending thousands of dollars on a record, open a fucking box before you ship them put to people! You should be able to quality control a record you are putting out! We put out 150 to 200 titles a week. Most labels don’t put out more than one a week, so open a record! Compared, to manufacturing a simple product like clothes hanger, you probably have 50 times as many people involved in manufacturing when you break it down step by step, which is why quality control is so important.
Isn’t it funny how mis-pressed records are the most valuable ones? Objectively, they are crappier, messed versions of the “good ones,” but the good ones are worth way less. Completely. It would be like the 1987 Ford Taurus wagon which was a lemon being the most valuable Ford. It doesn’t make any sense at all. But, it’s the same in stamp collecting and baseball cards. There’s off cut stamps. There are coins with a mis-pressed side. Those are the most expensive coins in the world. Baseball cards that have the wrong back are the most expensive ones. The product that we are making are no the same as any other retail product where the package is being thrown away- we are presenting these like a print or piece of art, where every component part is a part of it. If the outer bag is ripped, the value goes down. But, if the outer bag is misprinted, the values goes up. It’s crazy!
Should people collect records as investments, or should you only get records that you actually want to have? I think that there is always a need for the combination of both. If you’re not enjoying records, even ones you are buying as an investment, maybe you should collect something else, because it will take a chunk of time. So, if you don’t enjoy it, find something else to involve your time- invest in property or cars- there is any number of things that will go up in value.
The health of the industry in no way equates to the sales of used records. What we really need are kids buying turntables or getting turntables given to them as gifts and getting new vinyl, whether is a newly issued records or a reissue of a Ramones record. The only way that the industry will continue is if it is new records being made. New music is mostly being consumed digitally. The physical element of it has gone down and down and down, and finally we are seeing this light of vinyl going up. Most of the things being bought are reissues of major label stuff and specialty records being put out on record store day. We need to see on a whole, new music being put out. Fuckin’ Bieber needs to sell 20,000 copies to the kids. All the major pop stars need to put out vinyl.
Traditionally, for a long time, the pop stars weren’t doing vinyl. They can be conduits if they create creative enough projects that people want to buy because it’s more than a download or a stream. It gives them a connection to the artist, that’s what is gonna get a new generation of people buying records. It might start with stupid shit like a 10 year old girl getting a record player with a Taylor Swift record with a deluxe gatefold sleeve, but it could result in them getting Clash records for Christmas in two years, and really getting into punk rock. That’s totally a conceivable way for someone to get into vinyl. So, it’s important for mainstream artists to promote vinyl and I think that they are really starting to and that’s a healthy thing. I think the next five years will be a turning point for vinyl. We’ll either say in five years ”Fuck yeah! This is awesome” or “We’ve plateaued so let’s figure out what’s gonna happen…”
Record store day is right around the corner. People get upset that say something like Rumours is “clogging up the plants.” But, I don’t mind that- if Fleetwood Mac can bear the “burden” of records so there is an industry that can make a Fucked up or Indonesian punk band’s record, I’m fine with it. Do you have a perspective on Record Store Day? Like I said earlier, there are a lot of people buying records for different reasons. Record Store Day is not necessarily an amazing thing for a lot of people. Time will tell if it’s good for the industry. But, it has given a lot of attention to record stores and causes a lot of people who are into a lot of different music to go to a record store to get a certain record, that’s a very important thing. As far as record stores being a social gathering point, that’s a really interesting part of music and scenes. In terms of it being the economy of selling records, record stores are kind of not needed now. You can go online and buy whatever you want to buy, so you don’t need the record store, but the people who do need the record store are the kids or people who need a place to gather and make friends, so it has a certain value. But, you’ll never get the cheapest price at the record store.
You might be able to get some exclusivity, which is apart of record store day, so I support it. I think overall, they haven’t been that supportive of independent punk rock labels during record store day. But, I grew up buying records at an independent record store, so I want kids to have the same opportunity. If the Internet existed when I was that age, I think I probably would still go to the record store just because it would be an opportunity to talk about that record with someone who knows music. I didn’t have a sibling or anybody to do that with at the time. They might say, “Oh you’re here to check that out, so you might like this.” You can’t develop a relationship like that with a website like Amazon. There’s a place for Record stores and Record Store day supports that.
With reissues, it an be crazy to see the quantity that they are making and the attention that they are getting when they are not that special ultimately. But, there’s a need for it. Those are the gateway drugs. Getting the new record collectors interested in records and getting them to buy a limited Metallica record or Fleetwood Mac record and that might be one of the first ten records they buy. Flash forward a couple of years and they might have a room full of records. It’s like a loss leader at a store- sell the gum for below cost just to get people in the door.
What are you excited about at Pirates Press? For record store day, we have four crazy records out. You can only get them at record stores. For the Ratchets, they reformed after ten years and put out a new album, and we discovered how to make hologram vinyl, so we made a hologram vinyl for the single “Gotta be cool.” We’ve got a comp coming out to celebrate 200 releases. It’s six sides with five sides of music and a silk screen sixth side.
We’re doing a charity record with the band Noi!se and it’s about school violence. Skinhead Rob does a verse on it. It’s a really interesting, powerful song. Each of the two singers and Rob give their own take on gun violence and put their personal experience into it. Everyone is giving their profit from the manufacturer on down, and we are letting the fans vote on the charity it goes to, because it’s so politicized, no one wants to take any one stand. We want the people who give a shit have a say, so we are going to give it to a few charities. The record itself is “milled.” It’s a 12-inch record with 7-inches of music. There is a one and half inch rim that is diecut with bullets, so it’s pretty sweet… it’s pretty gruesome and the song is, too. Hopefully it will turn some heads and generate some money for some good causes. The last record is more for music’s sake. It’s a reissues of Suedehead’s EPs and singles. It’s a northern soul band from the 90s that is amazing. They were supposed to do a full length back then, but broke up before then, so we are reissuing all the singles for music sakes. These are legendary songs that needs to be on people’s turntables.