In Conversation with...

Karen Emanuel: The Key to Success

Karen Emanuel: The Key to Success

Thursday, 23 January 2020

She’s the pink-haired only child who took on the male-centric music business when she was in her twenties and thrived on her own terms, while still finding time to buy and run an island hotel in Central America. Everywoman meets the amazing Karen Emanuel.


Karen Emanuel has only written one CV in her life. “I wish I still had it!” she laughs, acknowledging the irony that as CEO, Key Production Group, she gets to cast her eye over quite a few. “I do a lot of work with schools, and you’re helping the kids saying what a good/bad CV is. I’m like, ‘Am I really qualified to do this?’”


Well, consider the evidence. This is the woman who took on the male-dominated music business in the late-80s, weathered the terrible storm when music sales went from physical units to digital downloads, and gently steered her ship back on course to the tune of some £14m a year. Today, Key, which specialises in the production and manufacture of CDs, DVDs and vinyl records, employs 54 people throughout six companies in four offices in the UK. The 2018 winner of NatWest’s Everywoman Prize also owns an island on Lake Nicaragua she bought ‘for the price of a London garage’, with a sustainable hotel on it. All in all, you’d have to conclude she’s probably quite qualified.


The former North London goth may have started out studying Genetics at Leeds University, moshing to the Sisters of Mercy at the Student Union and booking indie bands and DJs, but it was when her best mate said, “You love music, why don’t you get into the music industry?” that she realised she might actually be able to make a career from her passion. However, “Whenever you said to somebody, ‘Oh, I’d like to get into the music industry’, the general comeback was, ‘You need to start as a secretary’. I thought, ‘sod that’ and I wrote a CV – for the first and last time!”


She still recalls her first day walking through the door of Rough Trade in 1988, for a receptionist’s job. “There was music pounding out and there was this vibe that was just <electric>. I barely scraped by on getting the tube in and paying my rent. [But] the excitement of being in the industry such a buzz. I just didn’t ever want to leave – and didn’t!”


How did she cope with the chauvinism? “I’m gobby! I’ve always been able to stand up for myself.” She also knew her stuff, music-wise, which gave her “a certain amount of respect. Also, I’m quite lucky, because I know quite a lot about football. I’ve been a Tottenham supporter for donkey’s years, so I was able to network that way.”


And, importantly, she ‘knew her numbers’: “That’s the geek in me. I was always very aware of all the numbers and planned all the time, and did things very carefully. I did a business course at Goldman Sachs a few years ago, and I was sat there going, ‘Yeah, I kind of learned all this the hard way. It would have been nice to know all of this when I started!’”


After working her way up to Production Planner, she set up Key Productions (named after her initials, K.E.) with redundancy money from Rough Trade when she was 25: “It wasn’t a big gamble at all. I had nothing. No property, no car, no material stuff to lose, had a couple of grand, and if it didn’t work, I could get another job).”


Was there a feeling she was making it up as she went along? “All the time! I didn’t have a computer and I couldn’t use a typewriter, so everything was kind of handwritten at the beginning.” Hiring “extraordinary staff” as passionate as she was, she’d network in venues from Camden to the West End (“this was the 1990s, so it’s all a bit blurry”), and their first customer Jungle Records is still with them.


During the first five years of Key Productions she embarked on a big acquisition drive, including a world music distribution company (“I’m not there to take over the world and eat up all my competition, I’ve actually been quite strategic to acquire companies who can offer something to what we offer”), while keeping up with the changes in technology – and rebirth of old media: “Virtually every release we do comes with a CD. And cassettes are coming back!”


There have been rocky times, professionally and personally: during the 1990s an ex-partner stalked her, stole her cat, and set her house on fire. While during the height of digital downloads in 2007, she had to freeze wages and lay off staff. “A lot of tears. People sticking by me. I bought Think Tank in order to diversify into bespoke packaging. It probably took about four years for me to get back up.”


In 2007 she built a tranquil, sustainable eco-lodge retreat, Jicaro, after buying an island on Lake Nicaragua: “I’d stayed at another eco-lodge and there was nothing else like it.” How does she manage running two (very different) businesses on two separate continents? “Is it bad if I say wine? I try not to answer emails late at night, or on weekends. I do try to step away. Travelling and going on holiday enables you to have clarity when you step away and look back.”


Amid an ever-turbulent industry, she ascribes Key Productions’ longevity to her acquisitions, being vinyl experts, and bespoke packaging. And just generally, the fact “we’re good at what we do. We’re passionate. We’re knowledgeable. We’ve changed. We go that extra mile for people. I’d like to think that I must be doing something right.”


And her advice for women who want to follow in her footsteps? “Follow your heart. And your passion. Know your numbers. Persevere. Build a good team around you. Be good to yourself. Be yourself.”


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