By Dan Thompson
3: Methodology: In Defence of Oral History
4: The Significance of Live and Locality
5: The Need for Music Venues in Oxford and Beyond
6: A Case Study: The Cellar
7: The Musician
8: Oxford: A Case for Hope?
CDJ – Compact Disk Jockey Cellar – The Cellar
DJ – Disk Jockey
MVT – Music Venue Trust PT – Purple Turtle
Plush – The Plush Lounge
A stone’s throw from one of Oxford’s most distinguished landmarks, Carfax Tower, lies a thin alleyway. To the city’s millions of yearly visitors, it is nothing more than that. To the more curious, it is the illusion of two clubs, one loudly presenting itself as The Plush Lounge (Plush), and one with its shutters down, complemented by a lonely sign. To many Oxford residents, Frewin Court is the former home for two of the city’s most popular clubs, Purple Turtle (PT) and The Cellar (Cellar). Since 2018, Plush has replaced PT and the shutters have replaced Cellar.
Whilst it can be described as physically lonely, Cellar cannot be described as lonely in the emotional sense of the word. It is remembered, revered, and missed throughout the Oxford music community. Once the city centre’s last independent music venue, it sadly closed its doors in 2019 due to a dispute between venue and landlord and has taken with it a part of Oxford’s grassroots music scene, the value of which cannot be understated.
Much of the previous work on music venues, (Cohen1) the live performance (Bennett2; Finnegan3, MacKinnon4), and nightclubs (Malbon5) separate the three with defined boundaries between the club and the music venue; the live performance and pre-recorded music. Cellar was unique in this sense; it bridged the gap between live performance venue and nightclub, providing a space for both. Not only did this leave the door open to countless genres, from psytrance nights to gothic metal, but presents itself as a useful historical tool to fuse and develop a mixture of these studies. Thus, this study will look to apply a defence for grassroots music venues in British cities through a history of both social and economic issues, arguing they hold a great cultural significance that is increasingly undervalued, using the lens of Oxford and, to a greater extent, Cellar to demonstrate this.
Experience and Memories
This work is primarily one of experience and memories, looking to demonstrate the value of grassroots music venues to a city such as Oxford. Interviews will provide the bulk of evidence to ensure that a convincing account of the experiences had at grassroots venues in Oxford, helping to justify their use. Nevertheless, I cannot rely alone on the testimony these interviews have afforded me but will also need to argue for the validity of interviews as a historical tool in a study such as this. Hence, this work will begin with a defence of the use of my methodology, namely oral history and online primary resources. The likes of sociologists Richard Hoggart6and Ben Jones7 will allow the development of this explanation through the lens of experience and its validity, whilst addressing its criticisms.
A common critique of a history of experience stems from a cynical view of human experience due to its subjectivity. However, this approach defeats itself through the suggestion that any historical account can be anything less than subjective. The cultivation and maintenance of communities, subcultures, and local identities are the product of human relationships and interact, so surely the experiences of those involved are an important part of their histories. Defining social fabrics is not an easy task, but the responses in interviews I have received have helped to develop a strong picture of the ones surrounding Cellar within Oxford.
Introducing Live Performance
The next section will introduce the significance of live performances, and locality, to the cultural fabric of Oxford and the wider country. In doing so, this piece will be situated within the existing literature. Locality, in this sense, is referring to the spaces in which we operate and the organisational structures that surround them. Grassroots music scenes are an essential part of many musical subcultures. They provide the spaces in which subcultures can sustain themselves and create organisational structures8 which allow for the financing and social structuring of spaces such as music venues. By supporting and encouraging interactions between residents, these spaces lead to the dissemination of individual identities into a group, creating shared experiences which allow residents to remove themselves from the wider city to feel a part of something else, a piece of a subculture9.
The connection between performer and audience is also much greater at these smaller venues and should be recognised as important in forming relationships between composers and consumers. I will therefore be arguing that these shared experiences need protecting in cities, and music venues are often crucial parts of this process.
Grassroots Music Venues
Cellar was one such venue, and yielded a great cultural importance in Oxford; as a historical tool, it is a prime example of a grassroots music venue that allows us to explore social issues in the city alongside pointing to the fiscal hardship that comes with running one. For those connected to the music scene, be that as a consumer, performer, or an active member, Cellar became somewhat of a reference point, resembling a home away from home for many. Throughout the interviews, a red thread became the outpouring of love and support for the lost venue, alongside the insistence on its importance to the respondents and their city:
“Cellar was basically the main place for everyone to go for music…it wasn’t even an option really10”.
“It was a totally unique space. Clubs and gigs happened there that simply couldn’t find a home anywhere else…To me it felt like home11”.
“I can’t even begin to do justice to how much it contributed to Oxford culture…it’s such a loss12”.
The wounds of losing an asset with this much cultural significance are still sore and exemplify the immense impact that a small music venue can have. Despite contributing to the economic and social framework of the British cities, political powers at both a local and national level continue to underappreciate them.
Finally, when considering the role that venues play in the formation of local identities, we must look to the future to see if they can be sustained. In the national context, lobbying by those such as UK Music and Music Venue Trust for legislative recognition of venues as cultural assets will be vital for the survival of small music venues. Locally, campaigns such as Save The Cellar, which crowdfunded over £92,000, give us hope. However, the uncertainty of social cohesion and the world economy in the coming months, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, poses a threat to Oxford’s music scene. I will look to assess this threat through respondents concerns but must be aware of claiming speculation as fact; this dissertation will not be a music venue’s manifesto, yet I will offer a defence of their vital contribution to the UK and look to offer reasons for hope.
3: Methodology: In Defence of Oral History
With regards to methodology in this dissertation, most of the primary research and subsequent analysis will be oral history, with some online resources such as archives and reports utilised; experiences and memories are the drivers of my analysis. I conducted a series of interviews in March and April 2020, with all participants connected in one way or another to the Oxford music scene (see Appendix). Not all of the interviews could be carried out as initially anticipated, with face-to-face interviews, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, most were conducted online through email or video chats (by way of consistency, I have labelled them all “interviews” in footnotes and the bibliography). Despite this, all participants still cooperated fully, offering consent for their responses and names to be used in my work. The printing of names feels important in a study such as this by making the experiences and memories discussed a more personal matter. The topic of Oxford and it’s music venues is one that I have many experiences with, and thus wish to connect these interviews to the people who were willing to give up their time to assist me, whilst highlighting their affiliation to the Oxford music scene. I am thankful to every interviewee for their contribution to my work and hope I have done Oxford and Cellar justice in their eyes.
Before any study is presented, a justification for histories based on experience must be pursued alongside addressing its critiques. Local identities are the formation of social identities in a specific spatial location. Thus, these identities are pertinent in music venues which provide the location for the creation of communities and subcultures, and a space in which they can be sustained. This emphasis on space and local identities is a more pressing matter in my section of the importance of music venues, yet it urges us to consider how we, as historians, can sustain and record these local identities and define their geographical location.
Jones provides a persuasive defence of experience as a historical tool in his work on working-class Britain in the twentieth century. Stemming from Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, he argues that a rejection of history as experience “arguably narrows the horizons of historical practice and is in danger of privileging the textual and the linguistic over the social and the experiential13”. Indeed, whilst other methods of historical analysis remain equally as crucial, the cultivation of memory and experience help to solidify the relationships between people. In Jones’ case, these relationships are ones of class structures and in the case of music venues, the shared experiences of live music and a community.
Joan Scott, a critic of experience as a historical tool, contests that “when experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject…becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built14”. Yet, in the context of local identities and music venues, surely this “bedrock” is our essential building block upon which we can piece together its history. The significance of the live, as described by Henning and Hyder as having the ability to “construct and assert local or ‘scene’ identities to the key focus of musical creativity which is ultimately tied into the production and wider distribution of distinct musical identities and genres15”. In other words, it is the experiences of those attending that allow for the building of identities through creative processes. Thus, we cannot account for a history of live music scenes without experience as the basis of our work; people’s lives and experiences in attending these music venues are what reinforce local identities and their importance, and interviews are what allow us to explore these themes.
The experience of live music is subjective and different for each participant, so memories are the apex of a history of them. Scott is accurate in her assessment that experience cannot be regarded as absolute truth, yet this is not what a defence of oral history means; instead, it is arguing that experience as history is not more or less reliable as a basis for historical analysis as any other. As musicologist Sarah Cohen writes, “the experience of a gig…is subjective and personal16”, and therefore a history of them must acknowledge so. By suggesting it lacks credibility based on objective truth, Scott is here implying that historical objectivity could be achieved, which is inaccurate. She argues that “It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation – as a foundation on which analysis is based – that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference17”. However, there is no implication here that these accounts of experiences are wholly truthful to anyone but those who recount them.
Once we accept all accounts of history as subjective, the history of experience becomes as valuable a tool for the historian as any other. It is the subjective nature of a personal experience which makes social spaces, such as music venues, so important to a community and the formation of local identities; the gig-goer is sharing and expanding upon their personal experience into that of a group experience. Alongside the use of interviews and answered questions, I will be employing primary online resources, namely research from the Oxford council on the city’s inequality and gentrification issues, a report on the UK’s music industry, and two YouTube clips to help explain performer-audience relationships. YouTube has risen exponentially in size and stature in recent years; the disseminating of online content, much of it musical, has become increasingly easy to both produce and access, increasing the channel’s worth to the observer and the historian. In response, we have seen numerous studies regarding its relationship to music and the industry (Hiller18; George & Peukert19). Historical sources come in many forms, and YouTube has created another lens by which we can view and analyse music, it is nuances and levels of participation, which will be explored through the musical participation studies of Terry Gates20.
4: The Significance of Live and Locality
At the core of my research is the importance of music venues in terms of live music and their locality, both of which need to have their value to the historical discipline justified. Music and its venues are, of course, a large part of British culture, both socially and economically. This dissertation will not concern the financial aspects to a great extent, but its importance shall be noted. Rather, the social significance of the live and locality will be the focal point of my work. The artist produces the ‘live’, which is consumed by an audience in a specific location and leads to a combination of what is described by anthropologist Ruth Finnegan as “visual, kinaesthetic and interactional [and] auditory elements21”. The ebb and flow relationships between these actors are the essence of subcultures and communities within a city’s music scene: they are the local identities that can be formed in spaces such as music venues.
These concepts are certainly not confined to Oxford’s city centre, as sociologist Andy Bennett’s work on Newcastle, and Sara Cohen’s on Liverpool aptly demonstrate. Bennett22 describes Newcastle’s ‘underground’ club scene in Newcastle at the start of the millennium; it is incoherent and thinly spread around different venues. Without a coherent scene and a location to maintain themselves, local identities become diffuse. This is what this dissertation will be arguing in the context of Oxford; without the likes of Cellar and The Jericho, few venues (notably The Bullingdon) remain in terms of locality for grassroots music, and we are at risk of losing the scene’s identity and thus the subcultures which exist within it. Of course, there are still those who are helping to keep the scene afloat, such as the independent music magazine Nightshift Magazine, yet it is the loss of social spaces which allow shared identities to thrive that will hurt the most.
Club Culture vs The Gig
The parallels between Bennett’s assessment of Newcastle and Oxford continue when he goes on to speak of Newcastle’s club culture. His view of Newcastle nightlife is one heavily inundated with a drinking culture mixed with a “staple repertoire of contemporary chart music23”. Indeed, many Oxford nightclubs (The Bridge, ATIK, Thirst Bar) target the student population, who accounted for as much as 24% of all adults in the city in 201124, and produce chart-based club nights. This has left Oxford with very few clubs dedicated to grassroots and underground music, and little funding to create more. Finances are certainly a salient issue with regards to Cellar’s difficulties which speaks more widely about music venues in UK city centres. As one interviewee in Bennett’s work describes, “any place that sells beer will be full. Newcastle has never felt the need to embrace the underground club culture25”. Similarly, with Oxford, the main issue with the survival of music venues is making profit being viewed as the primary motivator, not the protection of subcultures and identity formation. The Cellar was closed by St Michael’s and All Saints charity to maximise charitable income, yet it remains closed a year on from Cellar’s demise26. This problematic relationship between profit and musical subcultures will be discussed in more detail later on, but for the purposes of this paragraph, it allows us to view the significance of locality through the lens of sustainability.
If then, we are to accept the importance of the live performance and its location to individual actors, we must consider how this constitutes a type of social identity when translated into a group setting. Hardly any experience in music venues is the individual’s own. There are a band, staff, and an audience, and others (such as journalists) who interact to form a shared experience. The sense of identity then becomes not the individual’s identity for a brief moment, but the identity of a collective; “individual senses of identity become…less significant than the nature of the social situation of which they are a part27”. If these same people return to these venues on more than one occasion, as is generally the case with smaller music venues, then these experiences become repeated and help to form a local identity. We can relate this notion to Malbon’s study of the shared experience in clubbing. By arguing that clubbing stimulates a relationship between the specific customs of nightlife and the emotions experienced28, he reinforces the notion of clubbing as a unique experience with its own specific nuances, only known to the clubgoer. We can describe these shared experiences as unique human interactions which facilitate the building of relationships between individuals and thus of subcultures.
The same can be said for the experience of a gig; the entrance, the support act, the main act, the dancing, the interactions, the drinking, are specific norms and values of a subculture that is inherently binding of those involved and separates those who are not. This is not to say that these venues are exclusive (as one interviewee put it, Cellar “fought for inclusivity which meant preserving subcultures29”) but it is only through experiencing these values that one can truly understand the relationships forming within a music venue. The emotions produced through a shared space and intake of music may be specific to each individual, yet these emotions will be, for the most part, very similar and hence another key element of this subculture and the identity that comes with it. Indeed, the potential experiences that could be created are too numerous to count, yet these individual performances combine to forge a collective identity; those involved are both consuming and contributing experiences. Thus, my work will expand on the club experience to grassroots music venues, which encompass both clubs (such as Cellar, The Bullingdon) and more traditional music venues, such as The Jericho Tavern.
This cultivation of experience is no coincidence; many of these venues are well structured and well run by grassroots workers behind the scenes. Finnegan documents this well in her work on English folk music, whereby she demonstrates the value of an organised system in creating a subculture such as that of English folk in Milton Keynes. In her study, she emphasises the organising aspect as crucial to musical heritage; the bands, the performance, and the community surrounding them, all have structured arrangements created by those involved which carry “the co-ordinated efforts of a whole series of participants working within specific cultural conventions30”. Similarly to Cohen, she emphasises live performances (labelled “musical performances”) as key sites for the creation, consumption and replication of these cultural conventions. MacKinnon’s study of English folk goes further to contend whether “the survival of the folk scene and folk music is not more connected to the form of performance and the nature of the musical event than it is to musical content31”, suggesting that the live performance of music could be considered more important for the survival of a subculture than the music it creates. Oxford echoes an emphasis on the significance of venues to provide live performances through its grassroots music scene. Jon Spira’s documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar32 provides evidence for this, through the lens of music venues such as The Jericho and Oranges and Lemons, and the labels which followed, of which Shifty Disco is the most prominent. These all required a certain level of organisation and input from those involved to be sustained. Likewise, smaller venues with little outside funding require
significant input from those who frequent to the venue, providing consistent levels of income for the venue. Here, we can see another segment of our relationship between venue and residents; the social aspects of live music and locality are the defining aspects in the formation of local identities in such spaces, but the continual flow of money in these businesses is crucial in sustaining identities that have developed.
Thus, we can describe live music and its consumption as both a social and economic activity. The relationships created between performer, consumer, the venue location, and its owners help to shape and reinforce local identities. By allowing personal identities to diffuse into collective, social identities, spaces akin to music venues are crucial in cities for the maintaining of subcultures. With assistance from works detailing locality and live performance in other British cities, I will stress the need for music venues in Oxford and use Cellar as an example of what a venue can mean to its residents and what we lose when they are gone.
5: The Need for Music Venues: Oxford and Beyond
Music venues, as with many other cultural assets, contribute significantly to the British economy. We can, therefore, make an economic argument for sustaining them. A report published by UK Music in 2019 exposes the numbers involved: in 2018, the British music industry contributed £5.2 billion to the UK economy, and 29.8 million fans attended music venues33 (UK Music, 2019). The live music alone contributed £4.5 billion and helped to bring in tourism. Venues and the consumption of live music are an integral part of our culture and economy, yet the government has no specific business rate for music venues, so many are either treated as bars, pubs, or Sui Generis. Thus, they are taxed harshly and receive little or no cultural funding and financial relief34.
John Street’s work on Norwich’s Waterfront35 argues that this relationship between state and music venue is increasingly important, with the state having four direct forms of influence: regulation, finance, cultural policy, and industrial/economic policy36. Of course, the exact levels of influence are devolved through local governments (thus economic and social support depends on area), but his assessment of how the state can impact the sustainability of music venues remains valid. How the state views music venues and their importance to wider society will be a decisive factor in the fight to keep grassroots music venues open. As Street acknowledges, whilst the power for running the music industry lies at the national level, the local level plays an influential role in the creation and consumption of music at venues. He describes the prime focus of local activity, including local structures and organisations (such as schools and music societies), as the live performance37. By recognising the validity and significance of locality and local structures to the consumption of music, Street further solidifies the value of the local when understanding the relationship between a music venue and its audience.
Forces outside of local government structures also contribute to sustainability issues; financial implications for the wider community play a role in all concerns of local businesses, and gentrification can affect music venues. Alongside the state and national level’s direct contribution to the music industry at local levels, rising rent also does nothing to soothe financial pains; according to a Centre for Cities study in 2017, Oxford was the least affordable UK city to live in, just behind the capital38. Oxford’s extortionate housing prices will not be surprising news to residents, but it is another serious barrier to the sustainability of grassroots music venues. Economic issues are, of course, salient in this discourse and deserve a more rigorous analysis, but it is not what this study shall focus on; I will instead turn to social factors.
A few months ago, as I began to consider what this dissertation would be arguing, I was looking to surround my research on the gentrification issues that Oxford certainly has, and how this has led to the closure or dilution of music venues. However, my findings revealed that for many of these venues, and especially Cellar, gentrification was not a primary factor in their downfall. I have been told that with regards to Cellar’s closure, “brilliantly, gentrification had absolutely zero influence39”. Instead, other factors such as changing of ownership and landlord disputes were most pressing; of course, as we have seen, many rent issues are caused by gentrification, but in many cases, it is the agency of the landlords to increase the rent rather than their hand being forced. This led to a realisation: the monetary side to music venues is a meaningful issue and thus is noted, but it is not what I should be arguing. As I have discovered, whilst music venues contribute significantly to the British economy (UK Music, 2019), many of these venues do not make a profit at all and are run for the love of doing so. Thus, my focus should be on the experiences of people who run and attend them, and how they are crucial to the cultural fabric of cities, in this case, Oxford.
If we have accepted that locality and venues are pivotal to sustaining subcultures within music scenes, we can see a natural relationship between Oxford local identities and venues. A recurring theme throughout my interviews, notably with those describing themselves as a ‘clubgoer’, was the idea of Cellar (or other such inner-city venues) as the ‘place to go’; a hub where people could meet their peers and enjoy music. One interviewee described Cellar as a venue which provided space such as this: “everyone’s going to the same spot…you’re always gonna see the same people and you’re gonna have good memories of that specific night”. Again, we return to Malbon’s approach to the consumption of night life and “sense of belonging40” people crave. The music venue acts as a local structure that plays a role in the wider community, wheree residents can frequent to and expand their social ties within the city.
Oxford is not a big city; according to ONS’s 2017 mid-year estimate, the population was 154,600, with 33,640 of these being students (the largest proportion of adults in full-time education in cities of England and Wales)41. Because of its size, Oxford has never had a substantial number of venues grassroots venues, yet a surprising amount of musical talent has been produced throughout the years; bands such as Radiohead and Foals are among its more famous residents. Anyone Can Play Guitar42 describes the music scene in more detail than I can afford and provides us with a useful starting point to assess Oxford’s need for music venues. During the film, we are introduced to scores of personalities in the scene, and venues from Oranges & Lemons, Oxford’s first punk venue, through to the Zodiac, now the o2 Academy. It is clear throughout both this documentary and my research that there is not a lack of want for a music scene in Oxford (an artist told me that Oxford, despite its size, still has the “demand for underground music venues43”) if not the push. Indeed, Cellar’s appeal for donations when initially threatened with closure led to donations of over £92,000 to the cause44. The city’s size may not, however, always be seen in a negative light with regards to its music scene. One interviewee maintains that “It is very easy to become part of a scene orsubculture in Oxford because it’s a small city and so very easy to get to know people45”. Cellar was not the only music venue in Oxford; the o2 Academy remains, as does The Bullingdon, The Wheatsheaf and others, yet it was Cellar’s importance seems increased due to its establishment as a point of cultural reference. These other venues put on gigs, but do not have the same connection to subcultures that Cellar did. One resident described the void left behind: “as soon as Cellar closed, so many different venues tried to jump on the market that was there and just failed so badly46”; the current lack of a consistent venue is not through a lack of trying, but the ability to return to a venue located right in the centre of the city is difficult to replicate. By way of a metaphor, we can describe Cellar in Oxford as a glue; the aspects that make a consistent subculture are there – the people to organise and attend, the desire for a music scene, the musicians and DJs, the willingness to contribute funds – but these parts need a base (or a location) to support them and bring them together; the music venue provides this. Music venues further contribute to the formality of an organised structure through informal personal relationships; a defined structure creates the base upon which these relationships can be formed. Local DJ Hamdi (see Appendix) told me that “everyone just always went to Cellar because we knew it would be something crazy and you could never really tell what it was going to be47”. This emphasis of the informal nature of Cellar repeated throughout interviews with those who attended and contrasted the level of organisation from those who worked with the venue, yet it was this contrast that was essential to helping local identities within it be sustained. As in Finnegan’s study, the structures of grassroots music venues such as this allow for a wider community around it to be created, meaning that live performances are rarely impersonal ones; almost all would contain relationships formed through these performances.
6: A Case Study: The Cellar
Having established my argument on the need for music venues in Oxford, I will now move on to the specific case of Cellar, the long-standing grassroots music venue and nightclub that closed for the last time on the 11 March 2019. Cellar’s importance to the city lies in its social impact more so than a financial sense. For musicians, gig-goers and clubgoers, it was a hub in which different scenes and subcultures could develop, grow, and be sustained. As previously discussed, having a venue such as Cellar is important to subcultures not just in terms of the venue’s welcoming attitude to those from all walks of life, but also retained geographical significance; a space in the centre of the city for these subcultures to base themselves around. As well as having subcultures created within it, Cellar acted as a physical element to which other subcultures can attach themselves. Vez Hoper (see Appendix) , an ex-employee of the venue, asserted that it is “really important to provide places where people feel like they can go with their own kinfolk and have their own individual scenes48”. Indeed, in an increasingly globalised, online world, these physical sites have become even more critical. Henning and Hyder’s work on Bristol’s music scene shares this sentiment:
“developments in online distribution, music sharing and streaming, may have actually made locality more important within independent music scenes, as musicians and audiences seek to establish distinctive patterns of identity and community against the homogenising effect of globalised musical production and consumption49” Instead of succumbing to the financial and social implications of online communities and streamed music, the importance of grassroots venues to sustaining inner-city subcultures has only increased. This is not to say that Cellar was exclusive to a specific age group, or class, but it held the capacity to prop-up multiple, often very different, subcultures in Oxford, contributing to resident’s identities and sense of belonging within the city. Local musicianDeSide (see Appendix) praises this diversity, stating “when it’s just the local people everyone got on…you’d see roadmen chilling with preppy posh students, it didn’t seem to have the same social barriers50”. The use of the term ‘social barriers’ is helpful when conceptualizing the importance of a venue such as this.
We can, therefore, see a music venue akin to Cellar as a space that can disseminate certain social barriers such as class and help form social bonds between residents from different backgrounds without having to dilute subcultures to achieve this. Hoper succinctly described the attractiveness of expressing differences: “We need to celebrate coming together, and we also need to celebrate difference in this world…that’s what Cellar was naturally good at…it reflected the community out there51”. This quote further helps us conceptualise the relationship between Cellar and the community. It reinforces the idea that the venue was not one that stood separately to local communities and allowed them to occasionally use it, essentially a rental service for a subculture, but became so embedded within Oxford’s social circles that its location was a part of them. Hence, by reflecting the community around it, Cellar was an essential cog in the machinery allowing these subcultures to interact and sustain themselves. Musical variety was another big part of its appeal; “Cellar was known for having literally everything, every Friday it had a reggae night or a soul night, bassline, goth night, the residencies there were mad and it helped to create scenes and subcultures52”. The capacity to maintain its sense of individuality whilst accepting so many different worlds of music lends much to the openness of the owners, and their commitment to welcoming all sections of the community. It also speaks more widely about grassroots music scenes and their connection to cultural identities. Bennett argues that Newcastle’s Asian youth population rejection of bhangra, and connection to dance music, is a “celebration of otherness53”. The “lifestyle sensibilities” offered by the white-English population offer up a contrast to the home environment and a chance to disconnect from a more traditional, family-home lifestyle. Cellar can be said to have played a similar role in the community by offering a home to those who otherwise may have little attachment to customs and lifestyles of family and peers. One interviewee believes that “there were so many kids that would probably have gone off the rails if they didn’t have the Cellar54”. Alongside the relationships between individuals within them, there is also a relationship between an individual and the music venue itself, allowing for both the acceptance of lifestyles within it and the rejection of other lifestyles that surround them.
Oxford and Inequality
As in Malbon’s study of nightclubs and Cohen’s assessment of the relationship between audience and band, the ability to go to these grassroots venues help to break the social barriers that exist within a city. Oxford is a somewhat infamously unequal city, an issue that is perhaps more striking than in other cities owing to its size. Without spaces in which different social groups, and therefore classes, can mix, inequality becomes increasingly visible and thus divisive within a city. According to the city council’s research from 2012, Oxford’s average income in only just above the national average, yet house prices were, and remain, much higher. By the report’s own assessment, Oxford is a diverse and vibrant city but is home to:
“gross inequalities: life expectancy in poorer parts of the city is eight to ten years shorter than in the more prosperous areas, educational attainment is disgracefully low, and there are several areas amongst the most deprived in the region55” If then, we continue our path of social assessments; this inequality can be described as embedded within relationships between communities, and separate subcultures. This is not, however, to state that these spaces force the diluting and merging of subcultures, which are individual entities. Instead, it provides the arena for the preservation of them; we must make this distinction between a locality that helps subcultures to survive, rather than one that forces them together, as one interviewee did: “I remember they [Cellar] would really support subculture nights…it was very rare you would see people getting turned away56”. This issue of exclusivity is one that is often relevant in the study of subcultures57, but as have previously seen through Malbon’s work on clubbing culture, it is this separation from the wider culture, and specific nuances unknown to the outside that allow local identities to be spawned. Furthermore, the ability to return to a specific venue is an important aspect of venues feeding subcultures. Without Cellar, many of them do not have a base; somewhere to solidify relationships between members, thus contributing to their shared identities. As one local artist bemoans, “There’s been nowhere that you can get a weekly event… [Bullingdon] was always a good venue, but…it’s definitely not replaced Cellar, for sure58”. Recurrent nights provide further footing to sustain subcultures within a locality and add strength to the conception of venues as vital components of certain music scenes. This emphasis on the contribution made by weekly events at a venue is one embedded in both rave music from the outset. Venues such as the Hacienda which helped to initiate the shift in crowd appreciation from creator toDJ relied on recurring events and consistent clientele. As has been acknowledged, Cellar was a venue which crossed the borders of this celebration of either creator or mixer by having both live musician and DJ’s play there. Whilst the significance of the nightclub event has been laid out with support from Malbon’s work, it must also be recognised that these venues are just as important for local musicians.
7: The Musician
A case for Cellar, and other venues likewise, as a site of social and cultural production can also be made through musical production and consumption, and the freedom to create that grassroots venues provide. The relationship between performer and audience is another fascinating dualism in the world of live performance.
Participation, Composition & Performance
As with the ebb and flow interactions of different subcultures sharing the same space, performing musicians are separate to the audience, yet are sharing the experience. Whilst Cohen defines this is a live performance in which all instruments are played there and then, I would expand the unique dualism she describes to other styles of performance within small venues in the modern-day. The use of CDJs for the mixing of music from a DJ or to provide music for another performance, such as rapping, holds the same levels of spontaneity and unpredictability that Cohen describes within a gig59. This interaction between the two is much more prominent at grassroots level: in smaller venues with smaller crowds. This interaction can be described as crowd participation which, as shown by music theorist Terry Gates, can be defined by the nuances of music venue performance and involvement in the organisational structure: “acquiring the information that will allow one to engage in a specific activity; identifying oneself with an activity or expressing intent to continue involvement with others who identify with an activity; performing the activity-related behaviors of other participants; taking a causal role in an activity’s events; using one’s resources (money, time, energy, etc.) to support the activity’s economic and other costs; and patterning one’s behavior in accord with the values held in common among other participants”.
These levels of participation are seen in crowds and venues of greater size, but to a lesser extent. In the smaller venue, artists will naturally feel more of an affiliation with the audience, whereas larger crowds become too big to create personal connections from performer to consumer, thus limiting the participation available.
To conceptualise this, we can compare videos of two performances: one from Cellar (Eyez in 201661) and one from the UK’s biggest stage of them all (Faithless in 200262), Glastonbury Festival. Eyez’s performance is very intimate; the artist is essentially within the crowd and is touching members of the audience. Whilst the relationships between them are not necessarily personal ones, the experience becomes personal. Faithless’ performance is one that is personal when compared to other crowds of this size; the song ‘We Come 1’ is about unity and frontman Maxi Jazz reinforces this through a call-and-response routine with the crowd. However, the personal connection between audience and performer is not as powerful as in the Cellar setting. The band are far away from the crowd, which is too numerous to be considered personal, and the sense of spontaneity from a live performance is, to a certain extent, lost. Even the call-and-response routine is rehearsed with it being replicated in many other Faithless shows. The video of Eyez’s performance demonstrates a much less clean-cut and pre-planned performance, creating this unpredictability of a live performance we have spoken of, in a venue which was not created to be predictable. Hamdi: “It was grimy, it was stinky, dirty, and that’s what you need from an underground bass venue63”. Cellar was not pristine and clubgoers did not want it to be; it made the venue more personal and allowed people to feel at ease: “We each had our identity because we could dress how we wanted andbehave in a certain way64”. This collective sense of identity could not occur at bigger venues, owing to their impersonal nature.
As previously mentioned, Oxford has a fine history of producing musicians, but how important are venues to the musicians within the city? DeSide told me that for the hip hop scene in Oxford, it was “nice to have a consistent night where everyone’s going to the same spot…you’re always gonna see the same people and you’re gonna have good memories of that specific night65”. Another artist, Marcia Davies (see Appendix), acknowledged the contribution of music venues to aspiring performers; “without venues like Cellar that are welcoming, vibrant, and above all CHEAP, young performers cannot gain experience that builds the groundwork for a successful career66”. Again, these venues are seen as vital foundations for the development of artists who otherwise may not have the resources available to begin their artistic journey, be that through composing, performing, organising or so on. The use of the term ‘consistent night’ is also key when considering music venues being used as a base for subcultures. Another respondent argues that scenes in Oxford need a base such as Cellar rather than other venues, such as ISIS Tavern, who have been putting on live music events since, describing them as a “Very different experience to Cellar…replacement rather than a cure67”. Whilst the presence of a music scene and space to create music may not be as pertinent in the argument for these venues in Oxford than the preservation of subcultures and local identities, we can see another loss in terms of a space to create; composition often takes place at a grassroots level alongside consumption. Without a cure, many bands and artists who begin in Oxford will not have arenas to present themselves and get their careers started.
8: Oxford: A Case for Hope?
These are, of course, difficult times to be predicting future for culture-based ventures. I started working on this dissertation in December 2019 when normality reigned, so this is where I will begin, but we must also acknowledge the uncertainty of the British economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A question I posed to all of my interview participants was a simple one about their view on where Oxford’s music scene might head next, “What does the subject believe the future of Oxford’s music scene will be?”. The responses were varied:
“I don’t think there will be a revival…it’s quite a small city anyway68”
“There is definitely space for grassroots music to grow again, I just think it will have to coincide with as Oxford grows69”
“I genuinely fear the coronavirus pandemic could spell the end of the local scene as we know it70”
“I do want to stay hopeful but if it carries on like it is…71”
“I hope there will be some other places springing up at some point because we are really lacking them in Oxford now72” The answers give strength to both the optimist and pessimist, and their disparities allude to the fact that these responses are merely speculation. We cannot know what the future of Oxford’s music scene will be, but can we see it as a case for hope? In the time between Cellar closing and December 2019, no attempt has been made to replace it (as mentioned, its sign remains in front of a shuttered door). Instead, some similar nights have been created elsewhere; there are, I am told, “a couple spots but it’s never gonna be the same as Cellar73”.
Thus, although Cellar looks to be lost forever, we must look to other venues in the hope of retaining Oxford’s grassroots subcultures and musical local venues.
The vague nature of both my question and subsequent analysis does not escape me, yet it appears a delicate subject such as this does not require definitive statements and bold claims, but instead a cautious examination of the possibilities.
The Pessimist in Me
Alongside the venues themselves, we must not forget those behind them and those who will fight tooth and nail to keep them alive, as we saw in the campaigns for Cellar. Music Venue Trust (MVT), a charitable organisation which supports grassroots music venues in Britain, has recently started a campaign, ‘#saveourvenues74’. The initiative is a brilliant one which will provide much-needed relief to over venues MVT estimates are at risk during the pandemic yet serves as a sobering reminder of the uphill battle that many will face in the coming months and years. The first few months of 2020 have demonstrated what many in the scene already knew; running a grassroots music venue is a fragile and precarious business. One interviewee stresses that “It’s [running a grassroots venue] is a massive losing battle75” and, as Insure4music’s ‘Small Music Venue Index76’ demonstrates, they are not wrong. The index provides evidence of the closure of small venues in Britain, with Cellar listed alongside many others, such as the once-famous Astoria in London. The number that close will only accelerate in the wake of inevitable economic downturn and campaigns such as MVT’s will be vital to keep venues on their feet. Within Oxford, it remains challenging to find a replacement for Cellar. As has been shown, since its closure, no other venue has truly taken up the baton of being a regular venuefor different nights, and thus different subcultures, to attend. The Nightshift magazine editor, Ronan Munro (see Appendix), ran an annual local music showcase which used to “utilise 7 or 8 city centre venues77” but now only uses one: The Wheatsheaf. This decline is described as “startling and depressing78”, which will not be an exaggeration to those whose livelihoods surround Oxford’s music scene. For there to be a reinvigoration, new venues will have to rise from the ashes, but with a damaged economy and potentially low levels of consumerism, this is unlikely in the coming years.
The Optimist in Me
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for Oxford’s music scene; with the help of those who have remained active within it, venues that are still open for the foreseeable future, and the wider community, it can survive. If lobbying groups can manage to make more noise through government and ease the taxation on venues around the country, pressure on current owners would be eased, making the task of running a sustainable venue more achievable in the eyes of perspective owners. During writing, the #saveourvenues campaign has passed £1 million; there is evidence to believe that support for grassroots music venues remains around the country. As I have shown, to save the local identities and subcultures surrounding Oxford’s music scene we need the spaces that venues providing so this ongoing struggle will prove crucial.
Cellar was unique in a city that does not always do justice to its musical heritage. Oxford is renowned for its world-famous university, tourists appreciate its beautiful buildings and meadows, yet few will know much detail about the music scene and its assets. You would be hard-pressed to find a city tour which takes you through the O2 Academy’s transformation from the days of The Zodiac, or the reinvigoration of The Bullingdon into a venue that truly supports independent music. If such a tour were to exist, the guide would rave about the bands with huge followings that have spawned from Oxford, the sense of community between its members and the numerous subcultures that it retains. Whilst it may not hold the same weight of economic income as the universities and landscapes, the music scene contributes to Oxford both economically and socially. Cellar has been used throughout this dissertation to demonstrate relationships between local identities and music venues in Oxford. The space it provided allowed for distinctions between the outside world and subcultures, whilst not excluding any subculture that wished to use the venue as its base. By becoming embedded within these subcultures, Cellar became a part of them. Oxford has the capacity to retain its music scene, but desperately needs more grassroots music venues like Cellar to do so.
From Jericho, through the city centre, to Cowley Road, there are numerous stories to tell and memories to be recounted. Throughout this work, I have looked to demonstrate the values of these memories and experiences to residents of cities like Oxford. Everyone involved (consumers, producers, owners, journalists, creatives, artists) contribute their own identity to a grander, shared experience through participatory mediums. These common experiences help to form a sense of community between members and thus create what we can consider local identities. However, these identities need to be sustained spaces in which they can return must be protected. With the loss of grassroots music venues, Oxford loses a rich part of its cultural fabric which means so much to those within it. Live performances, dancing, specific nuances, and an ability to separate from the culture of the wider city are vital to its subcultures, and without Cellar we risk losing spaces for them to be carried out. Reminiscing will not bring Cellar back, but it is those memories that can provide us hope in the fight for Oxford’s music scene and help to build a future in which it thrives once again.
1. Alexander Hamdi, known as Hamdi, is a producer and DJ who performed at The Cellar and visited as a patron.
2. Vez Hoper was formerly the PR & Marketing manager for The Cellar and is the founder of the Oxford-based music night Irregular Folks.
3. Samuel Mansell, known as DeSide, is a Hip-Hop artist who performed at The Cellar and visited as a patron.
4. Marcia Davies performed at the Cellar as a musician and visited as a patron. 5. Ronan Munro is the founder and editor of Nightshift Magazine which he started in 1991.
6. Thomas Guy organised several club nights at The Cellar and visited as a patron. 7. Thomas Downes and Maya Ward both visited The Cellar as patrons.
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UK Music, ‘Music By Numbers: 2019’, 2019, Available at:
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Interview with Alexander Hamdi, Brighton, 2 April 2020.
Interview with Maya Ward, Online, 10 April 2020.
Interview with Marcia Davies, Online, 20 March 2020.
Interview with Ronan Munro, Online, 23 April 2020.
Interview with Samuel Mansell, Online, 16 April 2020.
Interview with Thomas Downes, Brighton, 4 April 2020.
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