Making it in the Male-Dominated Music Business

By Larry Jaffee


Karen Emanuel, managing director of London-based Key Production, which she founded in 1990, talks to Larry Jaffee about what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated music manufacturing business. For over quarter of a century, customers have chosen Key for vinyl pressing, CD replication, DVD manufacturing and special packaging.

Woman Across Frontiers (WAF): How have you found being a woman leading a company in a business dominated by men?

Karen Emanuel: It was certainly difficult at first with everyone assuming it was “daddy’s money” that I’d started with. It was, in fact, redundancy from Rough Trade (major U.K. independent music company) – where I began as receptionist of the distribution company and left as a production manager two years later, shortly before it went bust. I think falling into the manufacturing side was actually more luck than judgment.

When I first started Key Production, people would ask me for my boss when they spoke to me, assuming it was a “he.” Initially, I gained a reputation for being difficult and “hard” as I felt that this was the only way to be taken seriously. Then and now there are woefully few women leading businesses in this industry. I studied genetics at the University of Leeds, where I booked bands as a student. I was the first woman to have lasted a year doing so, and the first person to make money from it. I never studied business, but I used to love maths. I found that I am very logical and organized: skills that are essential to both manufacturing and running a business.

WAF: When you started Key Production, did you tap some hidden sales skills?

KE: I didn’t realize I could sell. In fact, I had a fear of it. Over the years, I have realized that passion, enthusiasm and knowing you can do something well leads naturally to being able to sell that service. Many of our customers are from word of mouth. We only employed sales people late in the day and still don’t have many.

WAF: You have women in key (pun intended) management positions. Did they have similar experiences with the music business as you? What did they bring to Key Production?

KE: For the first few years of Key Production, we were only women! All of my staff – men and women – work with passion, knowledge, determination, accuracy and a love of what they do. Men and women might approach things differently and some clients might respond better to one or the other but I think it would be wrong to say that as women they climbed the ladder any differently to any of the men in the company. They are great at what they do and took the opportunities that were presented. Sadly this is not the case in all music companies. As a company and as a woman who runs the company, I treat all staff equally regardless of gender, ethnicity, disabilities, etc.

Karen Black & White

Karen Emanuel

WAF: As Key Production has grown, have you seen your customer base grow among women who aspire to be the next Adele?

KE: To be honest, not really and it’s something I wouldn’t have particularly noticed as we get such a wide spread of customers and artists, it would take a while for me to work out the statistics. Overall, as an industry, I do still feel that it is male dominated, and there are not enough women in senior positions. The U.K. Music Taskforce recently found that women make up 59% of entry-level business roles, but only 30% of senior executives.

WAF: To what extent was the traditional (i.e., major labels) record industry’s contraction over the past decade a blessing for Key Production?

KE: I suppose twofold in as much as the artists that are moving away from the majors and “doing it themselves” often with the help of label services companies or through managers brings us work that we traditionally wouldn’t have got. Also, as we are specialists in our field, as overheads are reduced in larger companies, they turn to us, particularly for bespoke packaging, knowing that we have the product knowledge as well as the buying power. We like to think of ourselves in partnership with our clients.

WAF: How important is vinyl to Key Production’s overall business, and are you surprised by its major return?

KE: Vinyl has always been an important format for us; we’ve never stopped pressing it. (Editor’s note: Key acts as a broker for several vinyl pressing plants – and doesn’t actually press records itself – CD replication, and print and finishing factories.) It’s never gone away. I love the fact that the younger generation has embraced the format and it’s here to stay. I’m surprised (and happy) at the huge increase in volumes. It’s been wonderful for us in some ways, being experts and loving the format ourselves, but it’s also frustrating as the turnaround times are so much longer than they used to be.

WAF: Are women as into vinyl as men?

KE: If you ask anyone in my office and my circle of friends, I’d say yes. Statistically if you see who buys vinyl, I would hazard a guess, no.


Emanuel’s production company

WAF: Who is your favorite musical artist? Might she be a woman? And what is your all-time favorite song and album?

KE: I do love Siouxsie Sioux (of Siouxsie & The Banshees fame)! Those are DIFFICULT and unanswerable questions. I don’t have a favourite all time song or album – there are too many to love.

WAF: What are you listening to now? 

KE: I’m currently listening to my office heater! I don’t tend to listen to music whilst I work.


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