Life & Culture

Cassette tapes and vinyl bought me an island

Music company boss Karen Emanuel has built a business on retro technology


Karen Emanuel may be the most successful Jewish businesswoman you’ve never heard of — but that’s all changing.

She’s the CEO of Key Production, which makes CDs and vinyl for artists like Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave, and she’s had a bumper year for raising her own and her company’s profile. This time last year she won a big award recognising her success as a woman entrepreneur, and a prestigious industry award for the house she remodelled in north London, which was featured on Grand Designs.

More recently she’s been in the media talking about the revival of cassette tape, which her company makes. Oh, and there’s the little matter of an island in Nicaragua that she fell madly in love with —and purchased. Crazy but true. The eco lodge she built there has won awards too

We meet at her office, in Kings Cross. It’s a fun space with a snooker table in reception, where neon-lit signs catch your eye; one says “Ideas”— which she’s “always open to” she says, another reads “Passion”. Both are key to her character and drive.

She describes Key Production as “a creative agency that turns good ideas into great products.” Besides bestselling Kylie Minogue — whose summer compilation album Step Back in Time was also released in a pastel-hued cassette “for a growing army of retro lovers” — clients include The xx and the Pixies. She employs 54 people across six companies, with an annual turnover of around £14 million.

It’s all quite remarkable given that she is a self-taught business woman who has excelled in a male-dominated industry. She credits her late parents with instilling her with confidence and self-belief. Growing up in Willesden Green, she says her pharmacist father and seamstress mum were “very, very shy”. But this made them work hard to help their only child be independent, and “shoot for the stars”.

“They always said put yourself in other people’s shoes — and tell the truth. Ideals like those have served me well in business. One of the company’s driving forces is our integrity — it means I can sleep at night!”

She wasn’t mouldable in every way, though: “Mum made clothes for me, and she tried so hard to get me to wear pinks and florals, but I was not a ‘girlie’ girl. I was always out playing football or climbing trees. Clearly I’m into pink now!” she says pointing at her hair, dyed pastel pink.

Her entrepreneurial muscles got flexed as a teenager when she started buying jewellery and reselling it for a nice profit on market stalls. School lessons on the birds and beasts of Australia sparked a lifelong fascination with animals and foreign lands: “It made me world aware and sparked my love of travel”. By her mid teens she was “shouting at people to use solar energy.” She became a vegetarian (but isn’t any more) and remains an avid recycler, a practice enforced at her company.

Though she studied genetics, at Leeds University, her passion for music won over science, and led to a sideline: booking bands for the uni campus. “I was the only person to make the books balance, I was so proud I did.” She was also working as a DJ, when there were few women DJs. “People didn’t talk about mentors then, so you had to learn by yourself.” That memory fed her lifelong vow to “give as much advice as I can to help other people achieve what I have”.

Her first music industry job was at Rough Trade Distribution in 1988, working on reception and meeting artists such as The KLF and De La Soul. She was promoted to production planner, and a then-unknown group called The Smiths came under her radar: “They were asking 10 times what a band playing such a venue would ask… I refused to pay — so damn, I missed out on that one.” When the 1990 recession hit the UK, she was made redundant. Picking up her £2,000 pay-off, she decided to start a business.

“It wasn’t daunting because I had nothing then. I thought if it doesn’t work out, what will I have lost? I was young, enthusiastic, the world was my oyster.”

Key Production was born in “a damp, dark office” off Chalk Farm Road. “But at least it was next door to amazing people like Ron Arad, artist and industrial designer,” she recalls. With one client, Jungle Records, she gradually grew the company “by being recommended, and showing we loved and were good at our work”. Networking has always been her forte: ‘I used to see bands every single night. The company got well known that way.”

Through the decadent Brit Pop 1990s “it was wild parties, a lot of fun — and I don’t remember all of it!” Key’s timeline is in marked by its parties; at its 5th birthday, the band Ash played; in 1999, a Pearly Kings and Queens party starred Chas and Dave; for its 25th anniversary there was a street party. Next May, when the business turns 30, will be a party to watch.

But then came a grim period around 2007 when the industry shifted from selling physical units, like CDs and DVDs, to digital downloads — disastrous for Key. She had to freeze wages and lay off staff. “Some I had to make redundant were great friends. It was hideous.”

A decade later, and her business, and our buying habits, have swung full circle; she has taken pleasure in seeing a revival of vinyl in particular — UK sales of vinyl rose from 0.21m LPs to 4.1m in the 10 years to 2017 — and cassettes. Some of the revival is spurred by nostalgia, but many enthusiasts are too young to remember vinyl or audio cassettes when sales of these last peaked, around the late 1980s

How does she square her climate change principles with her plastic products? “Vinyl and CDs are not single use. They’re made to be on your shelves for a long time, or go to second hand shops. Plastic is also being made in a more sustainable way than it used to be.” She quotes a study by Oxford University that found streaming music was worse than physical units from an energy perspective.

Having avoided reading a business manual, she conceded some coaching might help, so she took the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses course. “It taught me what I wish I’d learned years ago. I also found I had a lot of experience and lots to give back.” Now she speaks at schools “because there’s still a vision of an astronaut, or a doctor being a man and I want to show kids it doesn’t have to be so — a person with pink hair who is female can be successful in a man’s world.”

She also teaches a course for young entrepreneurs at her alma mater, Leeds, and a national programme in schools to help children with interview techniques, self presentation, Inspiring the Future. She is sponsoring a student though an MBA, and mentors at a local school.

Touch on the question of her Jewish background, and she’s not so much in denial than disengaged: “I am Jewish by tradition, I went to a Jewish primary and my parents did Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah — but I’m not religious in any way. I moved away from it all at a young age; maybe I don’t want to be restricted. Even as a kid, I’d ask: if God made us, who made God? I wanted to know how things work, which is probably why I did genetics” She says her exception is being an avid Spurs fan and she laughs about being called “the Yiddos”.

She loves travelling. In her twenties, it was backpacking in Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and throughout Europe. When she had money, she swapped Rough Guides for high-end barefoot luxury. She went to Uganda to see gorillas, Africa on safari, Antarctica, Borneo and Malaysia, as well as Chile, Peru and Argentina.

In 2006, it was Nicaragua. “I was in a restaurant in Granada and I spotted a board that read ‘Island for sale’. It turned out to be cheaper than a garage in London!” She did the sums and decided she would buy the island. It was then uninhabited and a million hoops had to be jumped through, but she’s proud that the eco-lodge she built, Jicaro Lodge on Lake Nicaragua, won a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World award.

“The wildlife is incredible: we have birds, monkeys, sloths.” Her team works with local schools to improve access to water and play facilities for the children, and she calls the staff “like family — a bit like at Key Production”. She visits three or four times a year. “I have to remind staff how great they are, and I need to taste the delicious food and cocktails — just to make sure they’re up to my standard!”

Around the lodge’s launch in 2010 she met husband-to-be, Colin, at Key’s 20th birthday party, at the Bull & Gate, Kentish Town. She had considered herself a “contented singleton” till then. Colin changed her mind.

“After years of of kissing frogs and wrongly thinking bad boys are exciting, I realised the way forward was this good person, a nice geek.” She uses geek to suggest a non-music biz type, but adds he’s a part-time DJ who is “passionate about music — I make the records and he buys them.”

The couple moved into the house in Dartmouth Park she had bought years previously. She’d always loved its position — “the heath is just seven minutes walk away” — but it needed remodelling. “We finally found the right architects, ones who understood we didn’t want a standard family four-bed, we like quirky.” They opened up the space and created a linear, light-filled space, with a central glass well dominated by a palm tree.

She had the house fitted with sustainable rain-forest alliance wood shipped in from Nicaragua, the same wood used throughout Jicaro Lodge. The house won a RIBA award and Kevin McCloud featured it in the Grand Designs House of the Year show last year.

At the end of last year, she was awarded the NatWest Everywoman award, recognising UK female entrepreneurs, nominated by her accountant, who has been with her since 1992.

She’s delighted, but admits she’s not perfect: “I can get belligerent and impatient — ‘difficult’ my husband called me! And while I know the plan in my head, I’m not always good at explaining to others how I got there. But I’m working on it.”

She muses: “I must be a good leader though because of the companies I’ve built and the staff I have and how they stay. Without them I’d have nothing. So you see, it really is about the team you’ve got behind you.”



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