Fighting back: How musical minnows are hoping to hang on to their hits

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The Independent Culture

According to the man from the independent record label that discovered him, Coldplay's Chris Martin was little more than a "gibbering fool in a tank-top with Leo Sayer hair" when he first started out in the music business. Unfortunately for the label, Martin's global celebrity, his glamorous relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow and his nascent taste for macrobiotic food only blossomed after he had jumped ship and signed his band with industry giant EMI.

It is a leap made all too often by the hottest new acts to hit the charts in recent years, among them Keane, The Darkness, Snow Patrol and Kaiser Chiefs.

From today however, a unique music industry initiative is being launched which could, if successful, help small labels keep hold of the big bands they discover. It also promises to give artists greater control over their music as well as allowing the smaller labels the time to grow and flourish in a market increasingly dominated by the multinational behemoths.

The new company, Integral, will bring marketing know-how, administrative and technical support to the labels it works with. The first act to receive its support will be the Swedish folk singer Jose Gonzalez, whose song "Heartbeats" came to international attention as the soundtrack to the advert for the Sony Bravia LCD television - the one where the giant multi-coloured balls cascade down through the streets of San Francisco. Gonzalez's label, Peacefrog, has already achieved silver record status for the single having sold 60,000 copies. The album from which it is taken has been chosen as Radio 2's album of the week and the singer crowned his achievement last night with an appearance on Top of the Pops.

But for an independent record company, the moment that one of its artists approaches the big time is often the one most fraught with danger. Assuming the major companies don't choose that moment to wade in, waving their chequebooks, then the small label must risk major investment to meet demand. With nothing like the capital reserves of their rivals, it is not unknown for labels to face closure if the hoped-for success fails to materialise.

Pete Thompson, managing director of the distributor Vital which is one of the backers of Integral, hopes to help small labels build their stable of successful artists, enabling them to sell hundreds of thousands of records if not a million at a time. "We want to enable new labels to develop at a realistic pace and if an artist of some significance emerges then we want the label to be able to utilise the functions of Integral to firstly keep the artist and secondly sell as many records as possible," he said.

Independent record labels accounted for 19.6 per cent of all CD and DVD sales in 2004 and the sector is worth £500m a year.

According to Sam Shemtob of the Association of Independent Music, the market is buoyant. Major labels have been caught napping at the success of bands such as Arctic Monkeys, the four-piece outfit from Rotherham which surprised the music world by toppling Sugababes from the number one spot in the charts last month after building up their following on internet fan sites. They eventually signed with the indie label Domino. The independent sector has made impressive strides in recent months to seek out new markets, signing deals to license content for mobile phones and the internet. But it still faces the obstacle of far larger rivals. "The market conditions are still difficult. The traditional channels, music TV, major record stores and mainstream radio, are all clogged up with the major labels," he said.

Indie scene to mainstream

* COLDPLAY

Chris Martin's band were signed by indie label Fierce Panda after its founder, Simon Williams, attended a gig. As the buzz around them grew, and after band members had completed their finals, they signed with Parlophone, part of EMI Group.

* SNOW PATROL:

The Northern Irish band are signed to mainstream Polydor Records, after their relationship with London indie label, Jeepster Records, frayed. Their fourth album, 'Eyes Open', will be released this year.

* KEANE:

Tom Chaplin, Tim Rice-Oxley and Richard Hughes were first signed by Simon Williams of Fierce Panda Records. After a couple of singles under the indie label, they signed to Island and released the album 'Hopes and Fears' in May 2004, which reached No. 1

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