Forget 'Pop Idol' and music moguls. A shoestring indie label offers the best chance of platinum fame

For anyone who has played air guitar or sung into a hairbrush in front of the mirror, a deal with a major record label is the ultimate pop star fantasy.

But new statistics suggest that the best way to achieve platinum, gold and silver discs is not by signing with the corporate mogul puffing a big cigar but with the independent label run on a shoestring.

Fatboy Slim, Craig David and the White Stripes are among artists who had hit albums made by independent record companies last year, despite the slump in music sales. New figures compiled by the Association for Independent Music (Aim) show that smaller record companies are proportionately far more successful than the big names in achieving silver, gold and platinum sales for British artists.

Independent record companies have 21 per cent of the album market in the UK but a remarkable 38.5 per cent of British artists who achieved platinum status (more than 300,000 sales) in 2002 were signed to "indies".

Aim said 31 per cent of British artists who reached gold status (100,000 sales) and 33 per cent of those who attained silver awards (60,000 sales) were with independents.

Alison Wenham, Aim's director, said independent labels were better at coping with the crisis in the music industry because of their greater flexibility. "They are agile, they are on the ground, they are entrepreneurs and risk takers." Fatboy Slim's Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, produced by his own independent Skint label, was among 14 original albums by British artists to go platinum in 2002. Four of the others ­ by Ash, Muse, Craig David and Liberty X ­ were also on indies.

Among the independent artists achieving gold and silver status last year were several established names, including Paul Weller (Independiente), Chris Rea (Jazzee Blue) and Alison Moyet (Sanctuary). Weller, who recently switched to another independent label, V2, denounced the big labels as "scum" at a conference called by BBC Radio earlier this year.

The indies have enjoyed critical acclaim and sales successes, and five of the 12 nominees for next month's Panasonic Mercury Music prize are from such labels, including Dizzee Rascal and Lemon Jelly (both on XL Recordings), Martina Topley-Bird (Independiente), Eliza Carthy (Topic) and Soweto Kinch (Dune). Richard Russell, owner of XL Recordings, said he worked only with artists "whose absolute first priority is the music".

He said: "We try not to get bogged down in all the problems of the music business, all the negativity and the moaning. Instead, we're just trying to help our artists make the best records they possibly can."

Ms Wenham said independents were more patient with artists than the big five companies (BMG, Warner, EMI, Sony and Universal) and were not under the same pressures to produce immediate results.

She said: "Independents are willing to work with artists over many years." She added that the proportion of indie-signed artists achieving awards would be higher but for a culture among many small companies that were not interested in trophies from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

Ms Wenham said: "The multinationals all tend to apply for awards because they are part of the rewards process for staff." She also said that many independents had been swallowed by the larger labels.

But Aim's claims were challenged by Peter Jamieson, executive chairman of the BPI. "Developing new artists is not just the prerogative of independents. There is a great independent spirit of artist development among the majors as well as independent labels."

SMALL PLAYERS THAT TOOK ON THE INDUSTRY GOLIATHS

XL RECORDINGS

Home to Badly Drawn Boy, White Stripes and Lemon Jelly, XL won three gold discs and two silvers last year. Lemon Jelly and XL artist Dizzee Rascal, above, have also been nominated for this year's Mercury prize. Part of the Beggar's Group, XL is also the label of Basement Jaxx, The Prodigy and Electric 6. Last year's most successful British independent record label.

V2

Part of Richard Branson's Virgin empire but separate from Virgin Records, which was sold to EMI. The V2 artists Liberty X went platinum last year with Thinking It Over and Elbow went gold with Asleep in The Back. V2's best-known signings are the Stereophonics and Paul Weller, who joined from the Independiente label. V2 was set up in 1996.

Skint

Norman Cook's label is based in Brighton, where it sponsors the local football club. As Fatboy Slim, Cook, above, made the first Skint track in 1995 and last year won a platinum award for his Halfway Between The Gutter and the Stars album. But Skint is also home to artists including Midfield General, Freq Nasty, FC Kahuna and Lo Fidelity Allstars.

Telstar

Set up 21 years ago specialising in chart compilations, Telstar will release the first album by the Cheeky Girls, above, next week. Home to Mis-Teeq and Victoria Beckham. Set upWildstar, with Capital Radio, to promote British talent. Wildstar's great success has been Craig David, who went platinum last year with Slicker than Your Average.

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