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Industry Profile: Kate Koeppel, Record Dividers

Kate Koeppel (pronounced kep-ul) is a San Francisco-based graphic designer. Her product design studio, Koeppel Design, is most well known for producing clean, minimally designed record dividers made of European Birch. They can be found in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, at Seattle radio station KEXP, and in local businesses in San Francisco. Stephen Mejias showed me Kate's Instagram account last year, and I've since been a fan of her aesthetic taste and organizational prowess. Her company's motto says it all: "We make record-hoarding look damn good."

Last month, our sister site AnalogPlanet.com published a brief post about one of Kate's recent releases: the LP Block ($76; engraved or stenciled, above). The majority of the comments on the blog criticized the LP Block and few of Kate's other products purely for being too expensive. When I read these comments, I felt that the value of her products weren't being appropriately considered. I believe it's because there isn't currently a huge market for record dividers, record stands, and casual record-carrying totes. Consumers have little to compare and therefore lack perspective.

For me, someone trying to live in New York City off a magazine staffer salary, everything is "expensive." But I've always lived by the mindset, "I'm too poor to buy cheap things." I prefer to spend my hard-earned money on long-lasting, quality goods. I live for farmer's-market greens, natural wines, and slabs of sashimi-grade tuna. I look forward to dropping off my weekly compost and taking the extra time to make my own nut milks and butters. I will gladly pay more (in time and/or money) for environmentally friendly, carefully made products built in the USA by workers who are paid and treated fairly. I think, largely because I have been taught that these things matter and make a difference. Since I've entered this industry, I've been puzzled by the recurring combination of desire for quality and lack of understanding for why such quality inevitably costs more.

That's why this Industry Profile focuses on Kate as a person, and the worth of her designs.(footnote 1). After reading this interview, you might still find her products too expensive for your personal budget—but are they still too expensive for what they are? -

Jana Dagdagan: Are you considering using any other materials besides European birch for the record dividers?

Kate Koeppel: The short answer is no. The long answer is: people ask for it all the time. We have a very small production studio and I'm cautious about introducing or offering other materials, primarily because the glue quantity content in lots of other types of wood is very high, and usually includes formaldehyde. Aside from additional formaldehyde being in your home when you're already breathing in PVC off gasses, that—for me—knocks a lot of different woods completely off the table, because I don't want to introduce anything that's going to reduce your air quality and degrade to the vinyl itself. Because of that, that's generally my answer to other materials. We don't use plexi for the same environmental and health concerns. I did a lot of testing before choosing this neutral, light colored wood, and we don't offer staining because I haven't found a satisfactory stain or finish that doesn't degrade around the 10-year mark. Again, I want this to be a product that you only buy once, and one that doesn't affect the quality of your music collection over time.

JD: Are there more eco-friendly materials than wood that you considered but decided against for aesthetic purposes?

KK: We are, in some ways, limited by laser cutting of what works well visually. The birch we use is clean, legible, and a light color. We have such a small studio space, and we try to focus on what is a good, clean material that can be most pleasant for a wide selection of people versus unique, niche, specific types of materials for very specific types of customers.

JD: Tell me about the process of conceptualizing, designing, who does what, making, packing, shipping, etc.

KK: I'm the boss in all areas. Some of the team members I work with have helped me figure out efficiency and reduced waste, so we're not creating a lot of waste material. We use resources really carefully, and we stay as lean as possible. All of our packaging is flexible and adaptable to different products so we're not throwing a lot of garbage out into the world. We try to be as minimal but as protective as possible.

For example, we worked with another manufacturer for the record tote (below). We worked together to figure out what the bag was going to feel like, how heavy it could be loaded up; we did lots of experiments carrying every type of record tote bag we could find. We're not trying to compete with insulated DJ bags—just a casual bag that anyone could pick up and use for record collecting. We tested out different strap widths and materials trying to find something durable and good looking. Working with Japanese salvaged denim is nice because it's finished well and has beautiful details. Being able to use a wood base in the bottom means that we're able to take a waste product from record dividers and repurpose it for the bases itself, which is really satisfying as a designer.


Photo by Elysa Weitala (https://elysaweitala.com)

JD: Are your customers audiophiles or non-audiophiles?

KK: I definitely have clients in both groups. Part of why we have so many product offerings, small sets, and the stencil style (which is more affordable). I have customers who own $70,000 speakers and I have customers who own Crosleys. I definitely have a lot of customers who are younger—I'm technically a millennial. I have customers who are just starting out, just starting to build their collection, customers who don't care about their equipment at all but own maybe 3000 punk LPs. So it's within that range of your audience—the Stereophile audience, and people who might be listening on a wireless speaker.

JD: Do you consider yourself an audiophile?

KK: I wouldn't consider myself an audiophile because I'm still learning. My ears are still growing, I'm still trying to train myself to hear differences in systems. My excitement really comes from the music side of things. I think that music can be a place for everyone. I don't want to create an experience for men or women that feels isolating. I think, if you like Crosley and you like Taylor Swift, or you have 3000 jazz LPs—there's something for everyone. There should be a community for everyone.

JD: What's in your personal system at home?

KK: A Rega P3-24 turntable with Elys 2 cartridge and Reference belt, a Naim Nait 3 integrated amplifier, Mordaunt-Short Avant 902i speakers, and The Chord Company, Carnival Classic speaker cables. We're kind of at a crossroads where we're thinking of upgrading a few pieces, getting power conditioning, a better record cleaner, and so on.

JD: What kind of music are you listening to right now?

KK: I've been listening to the new Feist album a lot on repeat. The bulk of our collection at home tends to be more indie rock and sub pop. I definitely have a penchant for '90s girl groups. I love TLC, SWV—it's just fun, guilty-pleasure music.

JD: Would you be able to provide a percentage breakdown of what media people are purchasing dividers for?

KK: Roughly 80% LPs and 45s, 19% CDs/DVDs, 1% or less cassettes. The majority of our sales are from the US, then Canada, Australia, and the UK are our next biggest markets. Not so much in Asia—though we do have some clients in Japan. It may have to do with customs and shipping costs because, as you can tell, our products can get heavy.

JD: What's the gender breakdown of your sales?

KK: This is a statistic I'm really proud of: 49% of our customers are female, according to analytics. This doesn't necessarily mean that all the products are staying with women, just that the buying market is 49% female. The owner of a high-end audio shop in San Francisco told me that his female customer base hovers around 23% and [he said] that's pretty much industry standard. So I'm very proud [of the 49%].

The online community can be really polarizing. There aren't a lot of women voices—not to say that women aren't interested, or aren't reading—but they just aren't as actively engaged in online conversations and communities centered around music and audio. That doesn't mean they don't exist. They're just not as well-represented, and not as eager to enjoy conversations that can sometimes be toxic and negative.

JD: What's it like being a woman in this industry selling a product that may not be considered a necessity to a male dominated market?

KK: I feel like I'm in a unique place, coming in as a novice into the audiophile world. With the language and deep knowledge that exists, it feels like there's a pretty high bar to get in to the conversation. If you haven't already had a few years of researching and figuring out what kind of sound your ears like, it can be a bit of a challenge to get in to that conversation. It's not necessary for me to be an expert to make these products and connect with my clients, but it's something that I'm curious about and want to explore.

Being a woman kind of positioned to be an expert on vinyl or organizing or telling people what to do with their collections—which, for many men who think they're experts on, is very personal—it can be off putting. I've definitely had some negativity and anger that I don't think has to do with me making a product that they like or dislike. There is a bit of sexism in this space that, in the beginning, hurt my feelings. But the more I've experienced it, the more I've realized it's not actually about me; it's about what's going on with them and their larger views on the world and a woman's place in it. If I had stayed in that space of having my feelings hurt and not speaking up, I wouldn't have stayed here, because it's very discouraging. Even talking about music is generally a man's place. Female critics get a lot more shit online. They're called groupies, while male critics are seen as experts on music. There's a lot of gross sexism that goes along with that.

Working with wood, I'm in a place where walking into a lumberyard or placing large orders with [wood] manufacturers/distributers is a man's domain. I get a lot of gross feedback from men who assume I'm here because I'm doing a hobby project, that I couldn't possibly know what I want, or that I don't even have the vocabulary/knowledge to speak about wood.

So, for me, there were a lot of challenges. The wood industry is not welcoming to women getting involved. The music industry and the audiophile industry, at times, can feel cold. There is a community that feels threatened—and they probably feel threatened by women everywhere. It's more about them, and it's not about music or audio, it's about their own stuff.

That said, this is what I want to do, and there are a lot of women who are navigating it well. It's a dying mindset to think that women should not be involved and should not have opinions.

Women just have to go for it. It's not personal. In the beginning, I'd Google my name and see my products talked about on Reddit or on audiophile forums with the nastiest, meanest stuff about me personally, and about me being a female designer. Now I don't Google it anymore because it's gross. And for every bad experience I've had, I've had a ton of fantastic, cool experiences with men and women alike who have been excited, who have wanted to share music, and who are interested in my opinions. That outweighs all of the negativity.

JD: What kinds of reactions do you get about your pricing?

KK: Every once in a while, I'll get a nasty email from somebody who says, "How dare you? You're too expensive. I'd never buy your products." I'm like, "Good for you. Are you also calling Tesla to let them know their products are too expensive? Are you spending all your time and energy telling people they're too expensive or alphabetical is wrong?" I will say: at record shows, it can be exhausting having men tell you their opinions to your face. I don't seek that experience out. It's exhausting to defend yourself to people who aren't interested. I can't imagine myself going into a store saying, "I really don't like your clothes and your brand. It's too expensive."

JD: It's because there aren't a whole lot of options for record-organizing solutions yet, right? There's no base line for perspective?

KK: I think hand making skills—having the skill set, tools, and time to make something from beginning to end—are increasingly undervalued. People want things fast and don't care where it comes from. Someone could easily have products made overseas and shipped here. I'm sure there are plenty of audio components made all over the world with countless amounts of waste and fuel, just to get cheap products to consumers. It's very important to me to not contribute to all those untold costs.

Making everything in SF is expensive. It's an expensive city. My employees are paid living wages (above minimum wage). Their skills are valuable. It's important to support local businesses. Everyone I work with, from my printers to my box makers, to the people who make my tape are all small or local businesses that are owned and operated in the USA. If that means that my products have to be more expensive because we're supporting a local network that I can actually see and talk to, that's satisfying and worth it to me. That's where I want to invest my money.

But that's a lifestyle choice. There're a lot of people who aren't interested in that, and that's fine. My products may not be for them. They can look elsewhere, and that's okay. But I want to invest my time and energy into something that excites me and makes me feel good. If that means taking six months to find a cotton webbing or a denim to feel good about, and work with a manufacturer who's working within his/her community, that is a good use of my time. I'm happier to put my name on a product that I know every piece of, versus some unknown variables.


Footnote 1: Robert Baird is currently in the process of purchasing record racks and reorganizing his massive music library. He will follow up more specifically on Kate's products later this year.—Jana Dagdagan

COMMENTS
spivechild's picture

Great interview Jana and Kate!

wgb113's picture

Nice interview Jana and nice products Kate. Keep up the great work ladies!

shib's picture

I use the Now Spinning LP Block. I purchased it because I support artisans and companies that value the qualities that Kate described in the article. Just like knowing where my food comes from, it feels good knowing that the products I purchase also adhere to some of the same values. I have many friends in the Bay Area who build custom steel bicycle frames. Kate, I know how hard it is to do what you do where you live. Thank you.

And, thank you, Jana, for following up with Kate and this article. I was put off and dismayed by the comments in Fremer's original article, but decided not to respond and start a war of words. I am glad everyone else did the same.

Axiom05's picture

It's all about perceived value, if you like it and are willing to pay the price, that's your decision. If not, just let it pass. I will never understand why people must voice their opinions about something that is purely for aesthetics. However if the record holder keeps falling over, then you have something to criticize, that's a technical issue. Personally, these products are not for me but I appreciated their uniqueness.

CG's picture

Honestly, in all areas of every hobby and elsewhere, there's products that are over-priced. There's also products that are under-priced. Neither is the formula for continued success, although I wonder about some of the over-priced ones...

Personally, I don't understand why people beat up on a company whose products do what the company claims. What's the point? Just what gratification is there in that? (Products that catch on fire or plain don't work fall into a different category.) But, that seems to be the thing these days.

If I ever get off my keister and set-up a turntable, I'll be looking at these much more closely.

Dorian's picture

I am not being snarky, I just don't know the answer. What is the difference between an 'artist' and an 'artisan'?

Jtycho's picture

Without turning to google I'll say that the artisan is more a craftsman than an artist. A great baker is an artisan, not an artist.

Dorian's picture

"An artist creates something whose only value is aesthetic. An artisan creates something that is functional -- bread, furniture, etc. -- but attempts to imbue some element of artistry or aesthetics in his craft."

Makes sense. Seems to be that I hear the term "artisan" a lot more lately. First-world problem I guess. Probably not too many 'artisan' products in the developing world.

A. Hourst's picture

I made a bunch of pen holders. They are basically a piece of 2x4 with a 3/8” hole in it.
76$. Anyone interested?

Glotz's picture

The markets in SF or NY are tough indeed, and I do understand the need to promote here. As an artisan product compared to other companies in the market, the pricing is fair.

In absolute terms (for me), if I was an audiophile that had it 'all', yes, I could see myself owning this or any of them. I still find the pricing of this, the Mobile Fidelity or the Vinyl Art displays... obligating the need to do it myself.

I would rather see in the pages of Stereophile blogs of accessories that have a more direct impact on audioheads, like Audioquest's latest record brush that touts a reduction of static on LP's (or any other host of practical-to-the-audiophile accessories: test LP's, set-up gauges, etc.)

IMO, Stereophile is losing it's entry-level focus in a number of ways.

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