‘The physical music revolution of some years ago has proven to be more than a flash in the pan.’

Karen Emanuel, founder and CEO of Key Production

Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs with the potential to become the global business power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Karen Emanuel, Founder and CEO of UK-headquartered design agency and music manufacturer Key Production, which recently expanded its operations into Germany. Trailblazers is supported by TuneCore.

IFPI‘s recently published Global Music Report highlighted the value of the physical music market worldwide.

Last year marked the third consecutive year of growth for physical music (across all formats), driven by what IFPI said were “strong gains in CD revenue and the continued expansion of interest [in] vinyl”.

According to IFPI’s report, recorded music trade revenues generated by physical formats like CDs and vinyl grew 13.4% YoY to USD $5.1 billion in 2023, accounting for 17.8% of the total $28.6 billion global recorded music market (up from 17.3% in 2022).

Commenting on physical music’s global growth story, Karen Emanuel, founder and CEO of music manufacturer Key Production, tells us that “overall, the physical music ‘revolution’ of some years ago has proven to be more than a flash in the pan”.

Emanuel adds: “Demand worldwide is officially growing, supply is more than meeting the demand and we’re seeing younger generations get into physical music.”

Key Production is a prominent creative design agency and music manufacturer headquartered in the UK, the world’s third-largest recorded music market.

The company has its own growth story to tell amidst the global vinyl boom.  As reported by The Times in February, the company posted sales of £24.2 million in 2022, with a pre-tax profit of £2.7 million.

Key Production specializes in vinyl pressing, CD manufacturing, DVD replication and special packaging for physical music, having worked with artists such as Radiohead, Nick Cave, Alt-J, Idles, Little Simz, Ezra Collective and many more.

As Emanuel explains in our interview below, she launched the company in London in 1990 using “a couple of thousand pounds” from a redundancy pay-out from Rough Trade Distribution where Emanuel worked her way up from a reception role to head of the company’s production department.

“I asked the suppliers I had been using [in her previous role] if they would support me with a line of credit if I were to set up on my own and asked one of the clients that I had a good relationship with if they would come with me if I gave them a cheaper price than they were currently getting for manufacturing,” explains Emanuel.

“Not only did they say yes but they offered me space in their offices and Key Production was born. I’m proud to say that they are still one of our clients today. My attitude was very much – ‘I’m young, I have a good work ethic, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll get another job’.”

Key Production has since grown into a group of companies that includes Think Tank Creative, Breed Media and MODO Design, with offices in London, Sheffield and Brighton.

“I started on my own and along the way I have acquired a number of competitors alongside companies that complement our business,” explains Emanuel.

In 2016, for example, Key Production acquired Brighton-based rival and packaging specialist MODO, which had worked on products for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Oasis. In 2019, Key Production acquired London-based vinyl pressing firm Disc Solutions.

“And we are still growing,” Emanuel adds, pointing to the company’s recent expansion into Germany, with its operations in the market headed up by Andreas Kohl, (European Operations Manager at Key Production).

Commenting on the company’s expansion into the EU, Emanuel explains that the “German market is such a strong market for physical products this was a natural place to launch our expansion into Europe”.

“Our successes here will formulate our growth strategy as we open up further markets,” adds Emanuel. “We can easily replicate our award-winning and renowned quality, creativity, services and systems worldwide using local knowledge and input.”

“Physical format sales are going from strength to strength (double-digit increases in places), having been all but consigned to the scrap heap by the wider industry only a few years ago.”

Karen Emanuel

Weighing in on the strength of the vinyl sector in the wider European market and in the UK, Emanuel says that “we are beginning to see the stabilization of vinyl to the ‘new normal'”.

Adds Emanuel: “There is a rebalancing of order and re-order quantities after the Covid ‘over ordering’ boom. Physical format sales are going from strength to strength (double-digit increases in places), having been all but consigned to the scrap heap by the wider industry only a few years ago.

“We’ve been here for 33 and a half years, and we never once gave up on these formats, so it is incredibly rewarding to see the physical industry in the best place it has been for years. Long may this continue. We intend to be there every step of the way.”

Here, in the latest installment of MBW’s Trailblazers series, Key Production CEO Karen Emanuel tells us about the origins of the company. Emanuel also shares her predictions about the physical music market, and the reasoning behind her decision to set up an employee ownership trust instead of “selling to the highest bidder”…

Tell us about why you decided to launch Key Production?

I looked for jobs in the industry (I was told the only jobs available for women were secretarial and I’d never progress beyond being a PA); checking the papers as there was no internet, calling companies, knocking on doors.

After much persistence, I got a temporary job at Rough Trade Distribution on reception which was a great place to start as I was able to learn about the different roles within the company by asking questions. I got to know the different parts of the company and how they interacted with each other.

I was asked to help out in the Production Department, checking supplier invoices and fairly soon afterward, an opportunity came up in that department for a job, which I got. I worked my way up pretty quickly, becoming head of the department.

The company was going through a lot of change and turmoil at the time and I was trying to come up with ideas of how to generate more income, which were pushed aside / dismissed / not listened to. Feeling I was unable to continue, I asked to be made redundant.

Fortunately, they said yes. The company soon failed and people didn’t get paid so I was extremely lucky to walk away with a couple of thousand pounds.

In what state was the industry when you were starting out?

Musically and culturally it was amazing, an incredible and exciting time to be amongst it. From a manufacturing point of view, the numbers were great, CDs were dominant with CD singles (remember them?) selling millions.

I started during the start of a recession which probably helped me exploit any gaps appearing in the market, also aided by my boundless energy and constant networking and partying.  When I say ‘partying’ it was the 90s. Everyone was partying, so that’s where I needed to be if I wanted to get those clients.

I was usually the last one standing and always the first one in the office the next day. It took me years of hard work and a lot of late nights to gain the trust to develop those relationships into long-term customers.

Can you tell our readers about your wide range of physical music services for artists?

From a product point of view, the variety of products we can provide is practically limitless. Vinyl can be made in endless colours, splatters, color in color, holographic, marble, picture discs, liquid filled [vinyl], flexis, more sustainable options and most recently “Inception Vinyl”.

Muse’s Simulation Theory box set (pictured inset) was a great example of one of our award-winning packages and I’m particularly proud of the one-sided etched vinyl and USB stick we made for the RAM Records 25th Anniversary box set.

We can make CDs, DVDs, cassettes and merchandise. We have complete flexibility using both internal and external graphic and product designers to bring our client’s imagination to life. We also have experts in-house who can advise and suggest on the range of materials and effects that can be used for packaging.

We like to be part of the artistic process from the very beginning and deliver quality products around the world. Most recently we worked on The Snuts limited edition pop-up vinyl for their new album. The team spent many hours refining the packaging and spec to deliver this unique sleeve. It ended up on TV.

As a certified B Corp [company] we are very sustainability-focused so can help and advise on all aspects of sustainability. We are happy to run workshops that help our clients understand the intricacies of the manufacturing process.

How is the company positioned in the physical music market today?

We’ve been going 33 and a half years and have weathered the storms of, amongst other things, recessions, a pandemic and Brexit. We are not only the largest company of our kind in the UK but also in Europe. We are proud to have worked on many award-winning albums, most recently we watched Raye scoop an unprecedented number of Brit awards and so far this year we have already delivered physical products for nine Top 10 releases, including The Last Dinner Party, Idles, D Block Europe and The Snuts.

We pride ourselves on our knowledge, passion and creativity. We have four ‘gurus’ (their actual job title!) within the company who are industry-recognized experts in their fields of vinyl, print, and packaging.

“As the first and currently only B Corp company in our sector within the music industry, Key is counted among businesses that are leading a global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy.”

As the first and currently only B Corp company in our sector within the music industry, Key is counted among businesses that are leading a global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy.  We are continually looking for more sustainable practices and to share our knowledge. We host cross-industry educational events, sit on panels and give presentations on sustainability.

We are recognized as industry experts and are called to speak to the media and at trade events. Through leading the conversations with VRMA (Vinyl Record Manufacturers Association) and the Vinyl Alliance and our lobbying via trade bodies, using our influence and educational activities there is a notable shift in the attitude and actions by suppliers and manufacturers. Key has significantly reduced the number of organizations working in silos and brought about a more unified approach with a culture of coordination and sharing of expertise.

What are the biggest challenges in the physical music market today?

We do love a challenge! The issues around the supply of vinyl during Covid have been well documented. Almost overnight the demand for vinyl went through the roof and the supply chain imploded. We are now at a point of over-supply which could see the demise of some factories, as a result of expansion to cope with what is now looking like a temporary pandemic ‘over ordering’ boom for vinyl orders.

“A real challenge we are working on is to bring the European factories together to work on sustainability.”

There has been talk of the high prices for vinyl at retail and the cost of living crises which could cause a reduction in sales. Brexit and VAT issues are causing challenges in shipping goods in and around Europe for clients.

A real challenge we are working on is to bring the European factories together to work on sustainability. We sit across multiple sustainability boards across Europe and are active in collaboration to create a more sustainable industry. Let’s find solutions as a collective!

Where are the biggest opportunities?

The BPI has issued some very exciting press releases already this year about the strength of the UK physical market. CDs and LPs purchases are driving so much of the chart results for new release formats and it is great to see the younger generation committing to ownership again. Many of our new album orders include bespoke formats to cater for this resurgence.

New, sustainable formats and packaging are particularly exciting and our research has shown that the younger audience feels this is an important consideration. Our insights have also shown labels and artists are consciously moving away from using plastic jewel box CD cases to cardboard for their CD releases, which is very rewarding as we have been actively encouraging this transition for a number of years.

“There’s also a lot of chat about ‘super-fans’ currently. We’ve been catering for this audience for years so we are perfectly placed to supply beautifully crafted high end products.”

Expanding into Europe and opening our first base in Germany has been a natural progression this year. We have a very robust supply chain and our strength and reputation precedes us. The European market is strong and many of our suppliers are based in Europe.

There’s also a lot of chat about “super-fans” currently. We’ve been catering to this audience for years, so we are perfectly placed to supply beautifully crafted high-end products.

And let’s not forget the high street. So many more new record shops stocking physical products, look no further than HMV returning to Oxford Street! Who would have been brave enough to predict that five years ago?

What format, creative, or business trends are you seeing in the market that we should know about?

I’ve mentioned the growth in vinyl, it’s been on the up for the last 16 years, according to the latest BPI figures. Supply can easily meet demand and as the industry realises this, more and more vinyl and multi vinyl formats are coming to market.

Fans are asking for sustainable formats which are starting to replace heavyweight vinyl, a format fans seem to hold less valuable these days. And rightly so, they have a much higher carbon footprint.

Vinyl releases are becoming more and more unique with the use of different colors and effects and we are getting some very exciting briefs now.  We have one new format exclusive to Key called Inception Vinyl, where it is possible to create small one-off runs that, through a detailed testing process, create beautiful, unique patterns within the vinyl itself.

We are also seeing the combination of physical and digital products such as SMinis, super-bespoke key-ring-like editions for super-fans, personalization of products, and, we would hope, more sustainable options such as “bio-vinyl” becoming the norm.

You recently established an Employee Ownership Trust. Tell us about the thinking behind this move, how it works, and the response you’ve had to it?

I’m not getting any younger and I wanted a mechanism whereby I could leave a legacy and ensure that by empowering the staff, the company can continue for the next 33 1/3 years. The response has been fantastic, the team is happy I’m not selling to the highest bidder and they become co-owners.

Suppliers and clients have had nothing but positive comments to make and I do wonder if we’ll see more companies following suit. But this does not change our day-to-day business structure. I am still very much front and center. I remain as CEO as well as a Director of both Key Production and the newly formed Key Production Employee Owned Trust.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting out in the physical music business today?

You need to be committed and passionate and you need to build a great team around you. In areas where you are weak, bring in knowledge. Never ever forget your relationships with your clients and suppliers. They need constant attention to build trust. And, most importantly, know your numbers.

If there was one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be and why?

More diversity in senior positions. More diversity of thought fosters more creativity and innovative solutions.

Should the music industry be concerned or optimistic about the global vinyl supply chain?

Depends on who you are. I can’t see it ever going back to the level of over-demand and under-supply issues that we had during and immediately after Covid. But at the moment, supply is stable and available. I would be concerned for some factories that won’t be able to get enough work to survive due to over-capacity.

Of course, we can’t predict world issues that might affect it again in the future, but as a business we take our learnings and continue to build and grow in the face of new challenges.

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Trailblazers is supported by TuneCoreTuneCore provides self-releasing artists with technology and services across distribution, publishing administration, and a range of promotional services. TuneCore is part of Believe

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