This time next week we will know the name of the best student band in Britain. Jennifer Currie reports on the first National Student Music Awards
Chris Jenkins knows all about putting theory into practice. In the second year of an arts and music administration diploma at Bournemouth Arts Institute, he has devoted most of his spare time to coordinating the first National Student Music Awards.
Now, with a team of press officers at his disposal, a host of radio and television networks, including the BBC, MTV and Channel 4, scrambling to get involved, and a soon-to-be-confirmed big-name band headlining next Friday's grand final at the Brixton Academy, he can sit back and enjoy the contest to choose Britain's best student band.
"It all started thanks to a weird twist of fate," Jenkins recalls. "When I was in a student band, all we ever wanted was for someone to give us a chance. So a friend and I decided to try to set up these awards. After a couple of months, we were thinking "how are we going to do this?" but then we were approached out of the blue by mudhut.co.uk (Mudhut Records). Things have just snowballed from there."
After a judging panel of industry pundits, sponsors, musicians and students whittled 200 demo tapes down to a shortlist of 48, the battle commenced. The three finalists - Higher Ground from Cardiff; Cinefilm from Glasgow; and Fierce Black from Chichester (see box, right) - will take to Brixton's stage in a week's time. The winners will record a three-track CD sampler at Abbey Road, pose for a professional photo shoot and receive free independent legal advice and equipment. Jenkins thinks this is exactly the kind of help struggling student bands need. "Three bands get the chance to play in front of 4,000 people. It's the kind of breakthrough we all want."
Despite the fact that undergraduates make up a large proportion of the music-buying public, Jenkins feels that the relationship between the music industry and its student audience is too distant. He hopes the awards will help bridge the gap.
"We want the awards to be a credible showcase for new music," Jenkins says. "There aren't many opportunities for new bands, unless they are very lucky, as no one supports student music. It can only be good if we can lower those odds even slightly."
Senior staff at mudhut.co.uk, a relatively young record label, echo this aim. Alison Hussey, mudhut's special projects manager, says: "We see these awards as a way of encouraging student music and hope that it shows that as a label we are putting our money where our mouth is."
Yet Mark Grimshaw, head of music teaching and studio production at Salford University, warns that academic courses in pop music should not be regarded as a fast-track into the music business. "We don't think of ourselves as a fame school. Students who come here with dreams of making it as a pop star do not leave with them shattered, but we certainly make an effort to ground them in a sense of reality," he says.
There are more than 900 applicants a year for the 40 places offered on Salford's BA honours course in popular music and recording, which allows students to focus on technical skills such as studio design and recording and choose between specialising as a performer or a producer. Many graduates of the course, which is now in its tenth year, are comfortably ensconced in the music world. A trio of Salford alumni produce the group Steps, which has had a string of top ten successes. According to Dr Grimshaw, the Top 40 is full of Salford graduates.
Final-year students from Surrey University's music department took things a stage further last year when they released a CD as part of their course assessment. Ken Blair, a Surrey graduate who now heads production company BMP Recording, returned to help the students put the album together. "Within a day of snooping around the music department, I discovered a wealth of talent in the shape of bands, solo artists and writers," he says.
Regarded by many as the poor relation of classical music studies, popular music courses have suffered in the past from academic snobbery. Bruce Findlay, an artist manager and visiting lecturer at Edinburgh's Jewel and Esk Valley College, says: "A career in the music business has never been taken seriously by teachers, parents or bank managers.
"But there are a lot of passionate people running these degrees. These courses are becoming essential to the music industry, which needs to invest more in their future."
Jojo Gould, a lecturer in music business administration at North Glasgow College, manages the band Cinefilm, one of the three NSMA finalists. "I hope the awards become an annual event, as anything that gives young bands a higher profile is a good thing," he says.
Ross Clark, 20, a second-year medical student at Glasgow University and lead singer with Cinefilm, agrees. He toyed with the idea of studying music at university but chose medicine because it was "more realistic". He, too, thinks universities should forge closer links with the music industry. "Everybody wants to be a pop star when they are a teenager. By the time you get to university, you are mixed up with new people and you come up with new ideas. A lot of good music comes from students."
The three bands slugging it out in next week's grand final at Brixton Academy
Lead singer Ross Clark, 20, second-year medical student at Glasgow University "We all bumped into one another at university although we had met before. I went to primary school with our drummer.
"We're a fairly straight pop band with quite a disposable sound, we just happen to use guitars and organs. We've been together for 20 months.
"In term-time we rehearse once a week. It's difficult to find the time and to get the band the exposure it needs when you're studying full time.
"We try to avoid playing the local pub circuit as there are only so many times you can expect your mates to come along and support you. We try to make the gigs slightly bigger. Last year we played at the Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow as part of BBC Music Live.
"It's not easy to get started, so it's good that something has been created to help new bands further their careers."
* Higher Ground
Drummer Richard Crane, 17, BTec national diploma in rock and pop, Ebbw Vale College, Wales.
"We've been playing in the current line-up for about ten months, but I've been a member of Higher Ground for six years.
"We rehearse for a couple of hours every Thursday night in my front room. Someone described our sound as indie punk pop.
"We try to get gigs every weekend - sometimes even twice a week - but we'll play cover versions at most of those. We perform our own material once a month.
Some of the work we do as a band ties in with my course work, but I'm not as keen on the academic side of things.
"We heard about this competition at college, and a tutor suggested that we enter. The chance to play at Cardiff University was too good to miss, and now we are about to play the Brixton Academy.
"It's nerve-racking - we had no idea things were going to get this big."
* Fierce Black
Lead singer Jimmy Hall, 19, diploma in TV production, Chichester College of Technology.
"We think we've got a good chance of winning the NSMA.
"Our confidence is based on reality. We've already had interest from record labels, we've got good managers and we've been together for five years.
"Loosely speaking, we're a rock band although our influences are wide-ranging.
"We borrowed money from our families to rent rehearsal rooms and we practice four times a week. Having your own space is a great advantage.
"For all five of us, the band takes precedence over everything. Two members have deferred their university places for a year as we want to see if we can make it as musicians first.
"We prefer to think of ourselves as a band that happens to be students, rather than a group of students in a band."