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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 08:09 GMT
Bringing on the Brit winners
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

The music industry, like all aspects of showbusiness, is extremely difficult to get into.

For every George Michael or Dido there are thousands upon thousands of ambitious young people looking for that elusive "break" - a recording contract, or, for most, a steady job.

Khadine Richards
Khadine Richards wants to produce records for a living

The Brit awards, held this week at Earls Court, London, were a celebration of the best of British popular music.

But this glamorous event also has serious implications for grass-roots music.

Every year, around 250,000 of the money raised goes towards the Brit School, an institution designed to bring on the best of UK talent.

Based in Croydon, south London, it prepares students aged 14 to 19 for a life in professional showbusiness.

Nominations

Producing, dancing, singing, playing, writing, deal-making: you name it, the Brit School covers it.

Two of its recent successes - Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse, both 19 - were nominated in this year's awards.

Director of music Tony Castro believes these were the first of many to come.

Tony Castro
I see this place as a bit of a greenhouse. We are the recording industry's Kew Gardens
Tony Castro, director of music

"I'm not interested in anything less," he said. "We exist to prepare musicians for the highest possible level.

"I see this place as a bit of a greenhouse. We are the recording industry's Kew Gardens."

Katie Melua is a student who flowered in the hothouse and has gone on to great success in the real world.

Last autumn, she met record producer Mike Batt while he was on a visit to the school. He heard Katie sing, offered to work with her and they ended up recording an album together - Call off the Search.

Hard work

It went to number one last month and has since gone platinum.

The Brit School's principal, Nick Williams, said: "Katie has a fantastic talent. She was also a good student

"It's wonderful that she's had this level of recognition. Of course it's unusual to go so far so quickly, but it is excellent reward for her hard work."

As part of the BTec music course - equivalent to three A-levels - students are exposed to a wide variety of styles, such as jazz and world music.

They learn aspects of recording, including writing, production and editing.

Katie Melua
Brit nominee Katie Melua is a high-profile ex-student

Mr Williams said: "The students who come here have to prove they are here to learn for their career. Having music, or dance, or acting as a hobby is not enough.

"We have to treat showbusiness as a vocational subject. It is what the industry needs.

"We are not looking at producing another Pop Idol or Fame Academy: this is the real world."

Variety

One student, Khadine Richards, 16, wants to work as a record producer.

Her BTec course takes up around 40 hours a week, while she practises playing the keyboard, saxophone and violin for a further 15 hours or so.

She said: "I listen to all sorts of music. R'n'B is my favourite and I think I want to focus on that when I leave.

"The course has given me a lot of variety, so I get to see a lot of different styles."

Her colleague Sami Sumner, also 16, added: "I want to try everything. I'm not quite sure what I want to do yet, but this should help give me a choice."

The Brit School, with its exposure to new musical experiences, has a buzz about it. Teenagers walk around its glass and wood atrium, animatedly discussing ideas.

Sounds emanate from keyboard suites, singing classes and remixing studios.

The sense of stimulation is central to the school's existence.

Studio
Students work with industry-standard equipment

Mr Castro said: "It's hard to make a living in music unless you're multi-talented and interested in doing lots of things.

"The technology is so advanced these days that anyone can produce a fully professional CD in their bedroom.

"But ideas and new sounds are what really sell. If you are exposed to lots of different styles, you are more likely to come up with new ideas.

"Both Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse are examples of students who have benefited from this."

The Brit School is funded by the Department for Education and Skills and the charitable Brit Trust. Some of the biggest recording labels, including Sony and EMI, are among its backers.

Gigs

Music stars Tom Jones and Duran Duran have visited to discuss the workings of the industry.

The Beatles' producer, Sir George Martin, designed one of the school's recording studios.

Students perform regular gigs in Croydon and record CDs of their work. As if the speed of her rise needed emphasis, the latest one contains one of Katie Melua's efforts.

The Brit School is the only one of England's 15 City Technology Colleges with a focus on the arts. There are three applicants for every place, all of which are free.

Mr Williams said: "People who come here must have a sense of adventure.

"A lot of the young people we take on would not be able to afford to do all this privately.

"As a nation, we rely too heavily on private tuition to keep our arts and music sectors going.

"We are the only school of our type in the UK, and possibly Europe. We need to have several more Brits around the country.

"There's so much talent here that it would be criminal otherwise."


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