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Dan Davis of Pirate

Pirate’s Head of Communications talks basing a brand on democracy and authenticity

Pirate is the 24/7 studio space for musicians, DJs, producers, dancers – anyone who needs a quiet spot to make some noise. The brand’s voice feels both edgy and effortless, sitting back or turning things up without ever losing its cool. We spoke to Pirate’s Head of Communications, Dan Davis, about saying less, putting the audience first, and building a brand on solid strategic foundations.

Can you tell us a bit about Pirate?

We’re a network of 24-hour recording, rehearsal, DJ, podcast and dance studios. We’re in six countries, 37 locations, and 736 studios.

What differentiates us from other studio spaces is: we’re completely self-service meaning you can work at your own pace and in your own way; and, because we’re open 24-hours, we can work around busy schedules. People can just book online, go in there, and make a bit of noise.

When you walk into Pirate, you hear so many different sounds coming out of the rooms – I always say, if you want to know what your city sounds like just walk down the corridor of Pirate. The loudest rooms are often the DJ rooms. That’s where people are either practising for upcoming sets, or just letting off steam and having a bit of fun mixing tracks for a couple of hours. But then you turn a corner and you might hear the squeak of a dance floor where you’ve got a dance troupe practising for an upcoming gig. And then obviously the rehearsal rooms, which is more bands doing their thing. It’s a lot of different creative people under one roof.


How did Pirate originally come about?

Our co-founders Mikey [Hammerton] and [David] Borrie opened the first studio space in Bristol in 2016. Borrie is a drummer and was playing in bands at the time. The studios they were trying to book were busy and often expensive. They had the idea for a 24-hour space that was more accessible. People can effectively book the day before and work to their own schedule. If you’re in a band and you’re all working full-time and you don’t necessarily want to take up a Saturday, suddenly there’s this space where you can pop down at whatever time suits you.

A billboard that says 'open always', with the Pirate logo as the 'p' in 'open'

The idea quickly caught on, we got investment and expanded across the UK, then launched in Germany, and more recently the US.

And while it began as a rehearsal space, where it got really interesting was when we introduced the recording product, which was, as far as I’m aware, the first of its kind – where you could bring your laptop from home, pop it on the desk, and plug it into the hardware there. Which is great particularly if you’re in a city and you’re trying not to disturb your neighbours. Suddenly you can listen to the mix you’ve been working on in your bedroom on professional monitors at volume. I think for a lot of the bedroom producers it was their first experience in a more professional studio space.

About 60 or 70% of our community identify as hobbyists or aspiring artists (the other 30-40% are professionals). And something that’s come out of the research we’ve done with them is that they think of a studio space as a very professional environment, and therefore that it’s not for them – that they’re not good enough, that they’re not ready. So I think part of the benefit of having an unmanned space is that you can go in, be vulnerable, and get your head around things at your own pace, rather than feeling like you have to act a certain way because the guy behind the counter knows his stuff, or because you’re paying an engineer to be in this recording session. I think that has helped a lot of people build confidence in a studio environment, which is amazing.

Some of the pro rooms also have a vocal booth. We get a lot of producers who, previous to Pirate, were having to get singers and MCs round to their house to record in their bedroom. And suddenly, they have this environment where they can meet on mutual territory and have it feel professional.

We also have three dance studios at the moment – it’s our newest product. The dancers we were speaking to were saying they were using village halls and churches to try and rehearse because there just wasn’t the space available. So to suddenly have this room that’s open 24-hours that you can book at any time is a real game-changer.

Our branding is less about Pirate and more about the people using it. They are what make Pirate special.

What’s the backstory to Pirate’s branding?

We worked with an agency called Only up in Manchester. They caught the attention of our Head of Brand, Chris Ulyatt – they’d done some great work with Printworks and Roundhouse. They completely redid our brand and our visual identity.

They spoke with us, our founders, and our exec team, and what they realised is: Pirate is democratising the creative space; and it’s less about Pirate and more about the people using Pirate. They are what make Pirate special. This idea of democracy then fed into the identity. They said, ‘We’re going to take a typography-led approach to your rebrand, and we’re going to use Arial’, Arial being the visual representation of what our studios are: it’s a font that anyone can use. What was clever and quite radical about that rebrand was what they did with that font – they stretched and played with it. And that’s again kind of how we view the artists using our studios. It’s a functional space, but what they do in that space is really quite amazing and inspiring and fun.

A screengrab from the Pirate website featuring stripped-back imagery and stretched Arial font

How did the tone of voice develop from there?

That visual identity was a strong place for us to start building the tone of voice. Only had done some initial tone of voice work; we then worked with an agency called We All Need Words, who said to us, ‘You could strip the voice back so much that it becomes almost visual. You can be pithy and punchy enough with words that you can imagine it in that Arial font.’ They brought in principles that we use to this day, which are all about stripping things back, and adding a bit of punch where you can (but not being so over-the-top that it feels like we’re trying too hard, or going after any one specific demographic). Where our tone of voice gets passionate is when we talk about the people using our studios. We almost see ourselves as a fan of those artists.

What I think was smart about the work was that it felt true to our audience as well. They’re creative, visual people, and we wanted to get messages across to them in a way that feels true to how they behave online. If you visit their social media profiles, they’re not using a lot of words to describe what they’re doing; they’re using visuals.

You mention not wanting to lean too heavily towards any one demographic. Why is that?

It’s something that we have always been mindful of. A lot of young people do use the studios and it’s important that we speak to them, but there’s a broad mix of ages in the studios. You’ll get the dad-rock cover band in one room and the 20-year-old up-and-coming producer another. It’s an eclectic mix, which is really exciting, but also presents a challenge in terms of how we position ourselves and how we speak to our audience.

Pirate outdoor posters that say 'No it doesn't pay the rent Pirate.com And still we play Pirate.com'

It sounds like basing the brand on democracy is a smart way of tackling that challenge. You’re taking a stance, but one that means stepping back and giving the floor to your audience.

Yeah. One of the interesting things Only did with the rebrand was: at the time we had a big Pirate logo on the walls at the back of all the studios. So anytime an artist posted a video from one of the studios, you would see this logo. Which is great for brand recognition, but it also felt like our presence in the space was perhaps too much. When you speak with artists using the space, they often say things like, ‘this is my space, and this is where I go to experience something real, and to escape’. So one of the decisions we made was to strip that large logo out of the rooms. Again, it’s this idea of creating a space where the artist can express themselves.

It’s so interesting to see what people are doing in that space. We were filming in the Dalston studio recently. We went into a recording studio, and the guys had booked the space for like 12 hours. They’d brought in a TV and were playing FIFA and recording songs. We listened to the tracks they’d recorded that day and it was incredible music. For us it’s about sitting back and celebrating that, and letting that be the brand.

This idea of realness comes through in the way we use language – not trying too hard – and it comes across in the photography and the content we produce as well. If you go to some of our spaces there’ll be graffiti on the walls outside, and we always said: let’s avoid the ‘artists in front of graffiti’ trope. From photography to tone of voice – anything that we put out in the world, we try not to overproduce it; we try to capture something as close to what’s really happening in the studio as possible.

One of the issues we identified with the old brand was that there was something slick and inauthentic about it. And if you look at the way the younger generation use social, it’s more authentic. If you look at some of the content our community films at Pirate, it’s just artists capturing what’s real – what’s actually happening inside the studios.

Have you had to adapt the tone of voice for the new markets you’ve moved into?

What’s beneficial about the tone of voice and how stripped-back and visual it is, is that a lot of the principles are quite universal.

Obviously there are specificities with each territory. Like in the US, we dial things up a bit more at times – artists are probably more openly aspirational there, and we can get away with things there that we couldn’t in the UK or Germany, where artists are sometimes more reserved in how they talk about themselves. We’re mindful with those audiences about not coming across as over-the-top or cloying, because I think it’s an immediate turn-off for a lot of artists in those territories. We want to celebrate the artists but be somewhat aloof.

In the US, we dial things up a bit more at times – artists are probably more openly aspirational there, and we can get away with things there that we couldn’t in the UK or Germany, where artists are more reserved.

One of the things we love about your tone is how deftly it deals with more everyday, functional comms.

It’s challenging – because we have to send so many transactional messages you can catch yourself writing the kind of stock phrases you read so often in emails. One thing we say to anyone writing our comms, or even to our artist support team, who speak to customers constantly, is: if it sounds strange when you say it – if it’s just not something that you would say in conversation – then it’s probably not right. It’s about finding the right balance: avoiding anything that feels too formal and transactional, but not being so casual it becomes contrived.

Can you tell us a bit about Pirate’s content strategy?

There are two elements to the content strategy. The first is artist opportunities. We work with brand partners like equipment providers, or people who find gig slots for artists, and so on, to create bespoke opportunities for the artists who use our studios. There’s also an initiative called Pirate Residency, where we give select artists a month’s worth of free studio time. They become our residents, and we champion them on our socials and talk about what they’re doing in the space. That ‘opportunity’ layer makes up a lot of the content that we put out into the world.

The other side of it focuses on the artists using the space and their stories. One challenge that we always face in the content space is: we want to stay true to who’s using Pirate. Often that’s DIY artists who don’t necessarily have a big following at the moment. It’s about championing them on socials in a way that’s interesting for people who’ve never heard their music before. It would be easy (and expensive) to get – I don’t know – Ed Sheeran into the studio and get him to answer 20 questions or whatever. And we’d get millions of views. But we’re consciously trying to avoid working with artists who are already established and mainstream, and stay true to what Pirate is.

What we’re always trying to do is find interesting stories about people who are using the space. Like the single mum who gets an hour of DJ time in between dropping her kids off at nursery and going to work. Or the 50-year-old who’s learning to DJ. Or an interesting underground producer who’s doing something different with sound. We’ve never viewed ourselves as a brand that’s trying to turn people into stars or find the next big thing. It’s really just about celebrating the artists.

What’s next for Pirate?

In recent months, we’ve started trialling things like equipment hire, where we allow artists to hire everything from guitar pedals to synthesisers for their sessions. Our A&R [artists & repertoire] team have also launched several new events in the studios, including AUX, which gives aspiring artists the chance to play their music in front of a live audience. These have gone down really well and we’re hoping to keep building a sense of genuine community and connection in our spaces moving into 2024.

Dan Loves

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Farewell Transmission’ by Songs: Ohia – the greatest song ever written (according to Dan)

Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan’s beautiful meditation on the creative process ‘Faith, Hope and Carnage


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