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Last Updated: Monday, 11 July, 2005, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
This is Cambridge calling...
Andrew Walker
BBC News

For some time budding pop stars have crafted their work not in elaborate recording studios but on home computers. Now, the rise of podcasting is allowing them to reach a global audience through the internet. Even the man behind the Beatles senses a shake up in how new bands will break through.

For Michael Rundle, a lively and charming 20-year-old Cambridge University history student and musician, 2005 has been an eventful year.

In January he launched a weekly 40-minute music podcast, produced in his room at Trinity College and featuring Cambridge bands of varying degrees of ability. Three-hundred people downloaded the first show.

Today, that number listening to the Cambridge Independent Podcast has risen to around 4,000, and he has recruited a co-host, Matt Richardson, "to make the show less stilted and to bring in more variety".

Beyond this, Mr Rundle - and his witty, professional and well-produced programme - has been one of the main inspirations behind a burgeoning UK-wide network of university podcasts.

"Starting a podcast only really made sense for me once I had made a link between the potential of the medium and my own frustrations of being a musician without a way to get my work heard."

Michael Rundle
Podcast pioneer: Cambridge student Michael Rundle
But Michael Rundle is not alone. The past year has witnessed a silent revolution in the media business.

Even though first reference to "podcasting" is to be found just last October, there are now tens of thousands of people throughout the world creating and distributing their own.

Podcasting - a rather inaccurate term, combining "iPod" and "broadcasting" - allows listeners to download the shows as MP3 files. Anyone can subscribe to their favourite shows over the net - a process that has been simplified by the newest version of iTunes, Apple's popular online music store, which includes an option for downloading up to 3,000 podcasts.

So, armed with a computer, a microphone and a broadband internet connection, budding musicians and broadcasters can be heard around the globe within minutes.

There's little doubt that podcasting is set to become huge - and prove a new way for unsigned musical acts to reach a global audience.

Independent spirit

Time was when the only way budding bands could reach a large audience was to be fortunate enough to be spotted, signed by an agent and then land a recording contract. Then, in the 1970s, came rudimentary home recording systems. In the punk era, bands and independent record labels sought to free themselves from what they saw as a capitalist stranglehold.

Elvis and Sam Philips at Sun Studios, Memphis
Fading scene? Sam Phillips (r) and Elvis (l) at Sun Studios, Memphis
But the power of the market, combined with the ephemeral nature of the medium itself, conspired to prevent a radical restructuring of the music industry.

Today, though, with simple recording software, like GarageBand or Cakewalk, bands can perhaps forget record companies and agents and get their product straight to a worldwide audience.

For the first time ever, it seems that independent musicians have the ability to be truly independent.

Adam Bunch, staff writer at Future Music magazine, and an expert on the new wave of digital recording systems, senses a shift in the market.

"There's no denying that there has been a dramatic reduction in the power that record companies have over musicians, largely thanks to improvements in technology.

"Not so long ago, the process of recording your band well would have involved a costly visit to the recording studio, but the digital era has meant that it's now possible to construct releasable quality tracks in your own bedroom, and what's more have the facilities to broadcast them across the world."

Beatles backer

And, on the music front, sites like garageband.com - endorsed by no less a figure than Sir George Martin, the Beatles' faithful producer - feature thousands of free tracks by new, unsigned, artists.

Sir George Martin
Sir George Martin: From The Beatles to broadband
For its part the music industry already battered and bruised by illegal downloading of songs, is keeping quiet while it ruminates on how to respond.

The British record industry's trade association, the BPI, seems to be struggling to find an answer to this hugely complex legal and logistical problem.

A recent statement says that if a podcast "features music, the podcaster must have the permission of the copyright owners before making it available."

Could it be that, instead of frequenting the traditional smoky, booze-fuelled music venues in search of The Next Big Thing, record companies' star-spotters, the fabled A&R men, might now be found hunched over a laptop, headphones at the ready?

And might the next Coldplay, Norah Jones or Pink Floyd emerge not from one of the "big four" record companies, but from podcasts?

Pink Floyd playing at Live8
Will the heirs to Pink Floyd be discovered on podcasts?
This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, if reports of artists in the US and Canada who can boast of up to 60,000 downloads, are to be believed.

But Mr Bunch says the breakthrough is cautious.

"Podcasting is very unlikely to change the shape of the music industry as a whole. When it comes down to it, these record labels have been going for years and have built up such a strong position globally - both financially and in licensing rights - that they certainly won't be going anywhere for the foreseeable future."

The real impact of the podcasting phenomenon may be in other areas. As Michael Rundle puts it: "The key is the creation of communities, groups of people willing to support live music and internet-based mechanisms together and help create a new way of hearing each other's work.

"Podcasting is crucial in allowing these communities to bypass the playlists of Radio 1, but it is also crucial to foster communities, online and off-line."

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