POP / And others too numerous to mention: This year's Brit Awards celebrate a decent haul of new talent, for once. But who should take the credit for the discovery? By Giles Smith

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The Independent Online
On Monday morning at the Hard Rock Cafe in London, they announced the nominations for this year's Brit Awards. It was the usual music business affair - people in loud jackets, a thicket of mobile phones, a live link with Radio 1 - but just under that surface the British record industry's annual awards ceremony is in a transitional phase. An easy target, mocked to within an inch of its life (for vote-rigging, for being out of touch, for semi-literate presentation by topless models, you name it), the Brits are trying to shake off a wobbly past and take on some of the slightly more academic gravity which attaches to America's Grammys. Coffee and croissants were served.

This year the voting academy was expanded to 500, widening beyond the record companies themselves to include people from record stores, the press and various trade organisations. It's hard to guage the difference this has made, though certainly the Best Newcomer list hasn't looked quite so pert and fluffy in years - which is to say, it contains a clutch of acts whom one could reasonably expect to be still around and qualifying for the grown-ups' awards at future ceremonies. In fact, some of these acts find themselves also nominated in the solo, group and album categories, suggesting there is more to them than mere novelty. The nominees are Gabrielle and Shara Nelson (two high-calibre soul-singing dance acts); Jamiroquai (a funk band modelled explicitly on sounds from the Seventies); Apache Indian (the sound of young Asia with a bit of ragga thrown in); and Suede (the much written-up rock band who made a rather fetching appearance at last year's ceremony, but are still considered wet enough behind the ears to qualify as newcomers this time). That's not a bad haul of talent and you might be tempted to congratulate the major labels on a good year - the pay-off for all those long nights in dark places, grubbing among the unknowns, seeking just the faintest glimmer of stardom. Actually, when you look at how each of these five acts was signed, it's not always as strenuous as that.

Sometimes when the labels want to get hold of some new music, they go to the record shop like everyone else. Gabrielle was signed to Go] Discs in September 1992 by Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, the youngest staff member on the label. 'Saturdays,' he says, 'I go record shopping and I drag my girlfriend along. We're in Manchester. I'm out shopping for big house tunes and she's looking for this soul tune which she's heard and thought was quite jolly. We go back to my place. I play through all my records. Load of old toss, I'm gutted. Then my girlfriend puts hers on and I'm staggered. Everyone else moves next door to watch Baywatch and I stay in the room and play this record about 137 times.'

The record was Gabrielle singing 'Dreams' released by Victim Records, an independent label based in Slough. Ferdy got Gabrielle's home number from a friend and talked her into re-recording the song for Go] Discs. Ferdy says there were 'a couple of legal hassles' to do with the ownership of the song, which he can't talk about because they're not entirely resolved. But a few months later, he was in a meeting and someone came in and told him the single had gone to the top of the charts. In his excitement, he covered himself in boiling tea.

If you can't find your star in the store, you can always try the radio, which is where Trevor Wyatt first heard Apache Indian, singing 'Movie Over India', released by Jetstar, an independent. Wyatt has worked at Island Records for 20 years, so he knew what to do. 'I tracked his manager down, then I tracked him down. Young Asians had been buying reggae for some time, and then along comes Apache, mixing the vitality of the Asian continent with the reggae. And of course he looks great. Plus he'd been championed by the Asian press.' It must have taken courage to plunge in and invest but to some extent Apache Indian came pre-proven.

Similarly, Lincoln Elias from Sony ended up signing Jamiroquai from another label rather than from scratch. 'We signed them from Acid Jazz,' says Sony's Mark Richardson. 'We bought them out of the deal. But we were very early, very committed.' Indeed, by the time Jamiroquai's first single came out on Acid Jazz, the band was already signed to Sony. But as Richardson admits, 'the whole thing had its own momentum. Jay (the singer) just needed some good advice - leading rather than changing. He had his own story, you weren't giving him an image. Opportunities like that are rare'.

Shara Nelson, meanwhile, was signed to Cooltempo by Ken Grunbaum. Again, she was not exactly a 'discovery' - Nelson had been a singer with Massive Attack, where Grunbaum had already decided that she was 'the closest thing this country has got to Aretha Franklin. What she had done - a smart move, this - was spend time writing and building a collection of songs.' Grunbaum hands some of the credit over to Nelson's publishers, Warner Chapel, who financed her demo tape. He followed where they lead.

In fact, only Suede's tale has the classic shape to it. Made redundant, Saul Galpern thought he would try to start a label from a one-bedroom flat in West Hampstead. He was sent a tape of Suede by a sympathetic friend who ran a club called the Railway Tavern. 'Thing is, I was a bit distracted; and I thought it was interesting, but I took it off. I thought it was odd, that's all.'

Eventually he got an office, called the label Nude and moved his tapes out of his flat. And later he went to see Suede playing at a gig organised by the NME. 'Here was a band that had elegance, unlike all these other sad indie groups. And the shirts] They looked ridiculous.

'But there was a whole load of other A&R people there, and I thought there was no chance that I would get this band - everyone must be seeing what I'm seeing. But on the Monday, I was the only person who called them. Everyone else was signing Family Gotown and a bunch of other acts who went nowhere.' After phoning, Galpern searched his office for that old Suede tape; he found it that night at home, alone on top of his CD-player where he had orignally left it. 'A bit of an omen, that.' Subsequently, Nude signed its international business over to Sony but it continue to trade in Britain as an independent.

We think of the major labels as talent- finders but more frequently they are forwarding houses. They do that job very efficiently - enough to warrant an annual shindig. But amid all the corporate back- slapping at the Brits next month, it will be worth remembering that what is being celebrated would be impossible without the ingenuity of, say, some tiny label in Slough, or a bloke in a one-bedroom flat in West Hampstead.

OTHER NOMINATIONS: Male Solo Artist - Apache Indian, Paul Weller, Rod Stewart, Sting, Van Morrison; Female Solo - Beverley Craven, Dina Carroll, Gabrielle, P J Harvey, Shara Nelson; Group - Jamiroquai, M People, Stereo MCs, Suede, Take That; Album - Stereo MCs, Jamiroquai, Dina Carroll, Suede, Sting; Achievement Award - Van Morrison.

The Brit Awards will be broadcast by Carlton on 15 Feb at 8.30pm.

(Photographs omitted)

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