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27 August 2019

From Ride to Radiohead, Supergrass to Foals, Oxford’s musical legacy is assured. Despite the closure of popular city-centre venue The Cellar, its promoters aren’t in mourning, they are finding alternatives and even expanding the number of music events they stage. Allan Glen reports

While the loss earlier this year of one of Oxford’s most popular venues was undoubtedly a blow to the local music scene, there is still much to celebrate in this historic city.

Take, for example, a reported rise in the number of shows. According to former Future Perfect promoter Simon Bailey, now in the Crosstown Concerts camp, this has been one of the biggest recent changes.

“The scene in Oxford is thriving just now and there is a much higher volume of shows than there has ever been since I started promoting here,” he says.

“It’s really busy, which means that it is much more competitive, of course, but that’s not necessarily always a bad thing. It means you have to keep trying to raise your game.”

Elsewhere, editor of local music magazine Nightshift and former promoter Ronan Munro says another big positive is the explosion in the number of smaller independent operators putting on shows.

“The loss of established venues has led to some inventive use of new spaces,” says Munro. “The music scene here is more fragmented than it was in the ‘90s and noughties with more smaller, part-time, indie promoters putting on nights.”

On the down side, the announcement earlier this year that The Cellar (cap. 150), a staple of the Oxford music scene for decades, was to shut following a protracted negotiation between the venue and the building’s landlord.

“We went on to raise £92,000 via Crowdfunder UK to save the venue and make necessary improvements,” says Vez Hoper, who promotes under the banner Irregular Folks, and handled marketing and PR for The Cellar.

In the end, the two sides were unable to agree and, consequently, the venue was unable to accept the Crowdfunder money.

Originally named The Dolly, and hosting acts such as Thin Lizzy, Steeleye Span and Johnny Cash in its early years, The Cellar has been integral to a city that, with a population of less than 160,000, has produced acts such as Ride, Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals.

Also lamenting the closure of The Cellar is the aforementioned Simon Bailey.

“The big concern for me is that because we’ve lost The Cellar, we’re losing the O2 Academy [1,000, 436] headliners of next year,” he says. “Personally I’ve done shows in there in the past from acts such as Shame, Easy Life, Fontaines DC, and at least another half dozen artistes who, within 12-18 months of playing The Cellar, have gone on to headline the O2 Academy, and then sell it out.”

With the backing of Crosstown Concerts, Bailey says he hopes to increase the number of shows he puts on.

Among his current shows are Fontaines DC and Rhys Lewis each at O2 Academy and Low Island and Cate Le Bon at The Bullingdon (280).

He is also responsible for multi-venue festival Ritual Union, now in its third year, which takes place in all the main venues in Calais Road, including O2 Academy, The Bullingdon, Truck Store (100) and The Library (70).

“I always wanted to do a one-day event,” says Bailey. “The first two years have gone really well. Last year we had Gaz Coombes as the headliner and some great performances from other acts, including Nadine Shah, Ghost Poet, Fontaines DC. and Lovely Eggs.”

This year’s headliner is Teleman, while others playing include The Comet is Coming, Ibibio Sound Machine, Pigs (x 7), Self Esteem, Young Knives, Working Mens Club and Twin Peaks.

“The plan is now to expand,” he says. “We’re looking to do the first Bristol Ritual Union in March 2020, and we’re already getting some really strong interest about that.”

Academy status

One of the key venues in the city is the aforementioned O2 Academy, which hosts more than 240 events a year, with the majority being concerts, as general manager Caren Ashton-Penketh explains.

“Club trade is also very healthy, with dance music of all genres incredibly strong,” she says. “Due to our size we attract high-profile acts such as The Kooks [promoted by SJM Concerts], and intimate warm-up gigs ahead of festival appearances.”

Among others playing the venue are Belle and Sebastian, AJ Tracey (both SJM), Sleaford Mods, Yonaka (both Crosstown), The Chats (Live Nation Entertainment/LNE), Happy Mondays (DHP Family/Academy Events), Feeder, The Dead South (both Academy Events) and Kate Tempest (Kilimanjaro Live).

“As we have a high tech-spec that’s production-ready, promoters and agents know they can put their national touring acts in for intimate shows and warm-ups before they go to London. Our second room has a lot of history. It’s a great space that bands love to play and it’s one that local bands must play in the city.”

Another important venue is the New Theatre (1,175), which hosts around 50 concerts a year.

Acts playing the venue include Kelly Jones, The Australian Pink Floyd, James Morrison, Squeeze, Heaven 17 (all SJM), Will Young, Shakespears Sister, OMD, Art Garfunkel (all AEG Presents), Tom Chaplin (LNE), Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls (Kilimanjaro), Mike and The Mechanics, Van Morrison (both Kennedy Street Enterprises/KSE), ABBA Mania (Handshake Group) and The Proclaimers (No Third Entertainments).

“Live music is a key part of our programming and there is a lot of variety that takes place on that stage,” says communications manager Stephanie Tye. “As a result our overall programme appeals to a broad audience.

“We are an intimate space with an electric atmosphere.”

Breaking records

At the other end of the spectrum is Truck (80), a record store-come-venue, which, according to several promoters, plays a pivotal role in the development of live music in the city.

“Losing The Cellar was a big blow,” says store manager Carl Smithson. “However, other venues on Cowley Road stepping-up, such as Fusion Arts [110] and The Library.”

As Smithson explains, most of the shows put on at the store are album launches in conjunction with record labels with acts including Ride, Drenge, Mark Morris, Rozi Plain, William the Conqueror, and Marry.

“We have a variable capacity depending on how much of the racking we move,” he adds. “For most shows we create a kind of café vibe with tables and chairs in front of the stage, and standing room elsewhere in the shop.”

Over at The Bullingdon, as well as its part in the Ritual Union festival, it hosts up to 150 shows a year, and is described by general manager Paul Williams as “a relaxed, friendly venue with high-end specs”. In addition to the venue’s cocktail bar recently introducing open mic nights, there have been production upgrades.

“We keep the venue simple and accessible,” says Williams. “This includes our rate card, which is competitive but fair, allowing bands to take home a bit more.”

Among artistes playing the venue are Easy Star All Stars, Shonen Knife (both Crosstown), Stone Foundation (AGMP), Wayne Hussey (Songs of Preys), Ferris and Sylvester (LNE), David Ford (The MJR Group) and Robert Vincent (AEG).

While pointing out that the market has improved over the past three years, Williams agrees the loss of The Cellar is a blow, echoing Simon Bailey’s point about it providing a stepping stone for new artistes.

Yet, as it has shown in the past, Oxford as a market has proved remarkably resilient, with local promoters constantly coming-up with new ideas on how to entertain audiences, encourage touring acts to visit and, perhaps most importantly, develop local talent.

One of those is the aforementioned Vez Hoper, who runs annual multi-venue event Summer Session, which has featured acts such as Bas Jan, Alabaster De Plume, Bellatrix and Tony Njoku.

Hoper explains that the Summer Session is taking a break while she concentrates on evening shows and develops Irregular Folks into an arts club.

“Irregular Folks has never been fixed to one venue,” she says. “For each gig I scout for a venue that fits the evening’s line-up best, including transforming non-music and performance spaces.

“St Barnabas Church [400] is one such building, where I install staging, PA, lighting and a bar. This is also why gigs only happen when the right set comes together. They’re labour-intensive but super rewarding. As well as giving the audience an extra special experience, it’s important to me that the artistes get the most out of the space, too.”

As someone who is actively involved in the local music scene, Hoper says one of Oxford’s greatest strengths is its ability to constantly produce new talent, pointing to emerging artistes Mother, Self Help and Solo Collective as ones to watch.

“What I love about Oxford is that not only is it a proven breeding ground for major artistes such as Radiohead, Foals and Ride and numerous others, it’s also got a super strong, diverse amount of up-and-coming bands all with their own sound.”

It is also, she adds, a city that does not rely on its university to develop talent.

“In terms of style, it could be so easy for some bands to try and be like the big names from Oxford, but I’m so proud to see it really hasn’t happened like that. I have a feeling this might be to do with the fact that Oxford is a super supportive place thanks to artistes, promoters, studios, photographers and the local press.”

Much of the credit in this area goes to Nightshift editor Ronan Munro, who promoted events such as multi-venue festival Oxford Punt, in the past.

He is another who is quick to point out the effect on the city of it losing The Cellar, but qualifies it with optimism for the future, and adds that promoters such as Irregular Folks and Divine Schism have worked hard to raise the profile of female acts significantly, with  “others following in their wake”.

Simply divine

Aiden Canaday is one of three friends who runs Divine Schism, his fellow promoters being Andrew Grillo and James Cunning. Between them they have already promoted 31 shows this year, up from only three a year in 2012.

Andrew used to run 3 Blind Mice, a monthly night at The Wheatsheaf, and I used to run Pop Up Night at Fusion Arts,” explains Canaday. “Then because we have similar taste in music we got talking about doing something together.”

Acts they are promoting include The Beths and Lankum at The Bullingdon, Damo Suzuki and Acid Mothers Temple at The Jericho Tavern (150), Kristin Hersch at Holywell Music Room (170), Free Cake for Every Creature at The Library and Mi Mye at Port Mahon.

“It’s great being part of a music scene with so many different musicians, promoters, and punters,” continues Canaday. “It really has radically changed and become more friendly, busy and inclusive, and although it still has a long way to go to be more diverse, a lot of people are doing their best and working together.”

Other Divine Schism shows include Kaputt at relatively new venue The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre (150). Canaday says expanding the number of spaces that can accommodate live music – orthodox or otherwise – is the way forward.

“As well as The Cellar closing, some venues are not accessible and others have age restrictions,” he says. “It does make you think outside the box, so there are a few places now that are getting busier for shows when maybe they were not thought of before, such as The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre.”

“We want to get more people to gigs, to experience and play live music, so we need more places.”

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