Andrew Cowen assesses a mobile phone company's commitment to grassroots talent...
In these days of Pop Idol and the XFactor, it's easy to assume that the business of finding new music stars has passed from the hands of the talent scouts and A&R men and been given to the light entertainment TV producers.
Today's big names are seen as a commodity, something to be exploited and then dumped before the next year's series kicks in.
The general perception that today's record labels are not interested in long term career development holds true in many cases.
And yet, as the phenomenal success of the Arctic Monkeys proves, bands are seizing back the initiative and using modern technology to break through.
Digital downloads have removed the need for cumbersome distribution channels, the internet has given bands direct contact with fans and new media such as mobile phones are rapidly making in-roads into the territory carved out by the killer combination of iTunes and the iPod.
In the middle of these shifting sands stands O2, the mobile phone company, which is the first of the major players to actually take new music seriously.
With the launch of its O2 Undiscovered competition at the end of last week it has committed to find, nurture and promote the act that it considers stands the best chance of becoming the next big thing.
This competition is so far removed from the Pop Idol/XFactor formula that it warrants serious consideration.
Working at the grass roots level, it's shorn of false showbiz glamour and provides a credible avenue for any band or individual dead set on a career in the industry.
O2 Undiscovered is not aimed at making the winners instantly famous but will identify, support, nurture and develop their creativity and emerging musical talent through a bursary and assistance from a panel of industry experts and pace-setters.
The bursary will include workshop sessions with members of the industry panel as well as studio and producer time to record a track, digital release of the track, an opportunity to perform at the O2 Wireless festival in June 2006 and the chance to perform live to influential industry figures as well as promotion through O2 Active to O2's 16 million customer base.
Russ Shaw, marketing director for O2 UK, said: "O2 has demonstrated a commitment to music at all levels in the past three years, from major sponsorships such as the O2 Wireless Festival to bespoke and innovative services such as a tie-up with up and coming band The Upper Room."
O2 wants entrants to drop a demo into an O2 store or by uploading it onto the O2 website.
In return, the company promises to listen to each demo, whittling down the best to 100, then 30, then a final ten before choosing the winner.
The spoils for the victor are many. As well as the digital record deal and grooming for stardom, the company will make sure the band gets exposure through its Wireless Festival event in summer and via the phone's growing digital distribution network.
The partnership with Polydor is significant and having a major label on board will be vital for the eventual winner.
Polydor's head of A&R Simon Gavin said: "We've been working closely with O2 for the past few years on developing the commercial side of our digital business. We're incredibly excited to partner in Undiscovered and showcase mobile as not only a platform to sell content but to help develop talent of the future."
The judging panel too is impressive.
On board are music impresario Vince Power, music critic Lisa Ver-rico, Music Week publisher Ajax Scott, XFM's Drivetime DJ Lucio, Polydor's head of A&R Simon Gavin and former guitarist with Elastica Paul Jonze.
Also on the panel is O2's head of music content, Matt Cockett, a musician himself and the person responsible for steering the mobile phone company's digital music service.
He told me: "It's incredibly hard for any new band to get the breaks. What we are doing here is moving them up the first four or five rungs of the ladder.
"The winner will be guaranteed exposure through a digital record contract and live gigs at our venues and festival.
"O2 is committed to creating a mobile community through our phones and website and people can truly interact."
With the massive success of online communities such as MySpace.com, O2 has spotted an area with great potential.
Said Matt: "We want to take the idea of MySpace and bring it into the mobile environment.
"Our latest handsets allow the downloading and playback of music and any music bought will also be there on your P.C."
O2 is looking for acts in any genre of music, with any level of expertise.
A commitment to playing live is essential but experience is not such a major issue.
The winner will have the full backing of O2 and Polydor to progress to a larger audience.
"Attitude is vital," explains Matt, "and real talent will always shine through."