Live Music Exchange Blog

Valuing small venues: The Cellar, Oxford – Live Music Exchange team


Anyone following the Live Music Exchange blog will be well aware that the UK has seen an alarming number of small music venue closures over the past decade or so.  The latest venue under threat is The Cellar in Oxford, an underground 150-capacity venue which has been a music venue for more than 45 years. The owner, St Michael’s and All Saints’ Charities, has served the venue a notice to leave as they intend to redevelop the basement site early next year and turn it into a retail space. The below is taken from the objection letter written by Live Music Exchange to Oxford City Council.

For more information and to sign the petition to keep the venue open, go to the Save The Cellar campaign page.

Definition of The Cellar as both a nightclub and a small music venue

First, The Cellar is as much a small music venue as a nightclub and should be recognised as such in the application.

Our research has shown that it can be difficult to categorise live music venues neatly as there are many grey areas between different venue types; the definition can have a significant bearing on the venue’s perceived cultural value, however.  The Cellar is a nightclub—in that it hosts club events for dancing to recorded music played by DJs—but it is also a dedicated music venue which hosts mainly standing gigs performed by ‘live’ musicians in what could very loosely be termed ‘popular music’.

For the UK Live Music Census, we have had to define what we mean by ‘live music’. Here we make a distinction between nightclubs which mostly revolve around drinking alcohol—which were not included in our definition of ‘live music’—and those for which the music is inherent to the event, the distinction for the latter being those events where the performer or DJ is named (e.g. Carl Cox at Fabric). As well as more traditionally understood ‘live music’ events, The Cellar also regularly puts on named DJ events, many of which mix up live and recorded music. For example, the Bossaphonik event—running since 2004—which recently put on Vadou Game, a French-Togolese funk band, plus DJ Dan Ofer playing Latin, African, Balkan, global beats and nu jazz.  We believe that to have a venue which hosts such unique, long-running, and regular events should be recognised as constituting a vibrant part of Oxford’s cultural life.

The cultural value of The Cellar

Oxford has a small number of small live music venues but these have been playing a vital role within the live music ecology of the city for decades and have been instrumental in developing such culturally (and economically) important bands as Radiohead, Supergrass, and Ride. We believe that to lose The Cellar would leave a significant gap in the city’s cultural provision.

The Cellar has been a stable part of Oxford’s music scene for a long time.  This is important for building relationships with artists, agents, managers, and other promoters, and for being a consistent space for artists to perform and for promoters to put on gigs. The fact that the venue is independent means that it is able to put on a highly individual and heterogeneous programme, allowing it to host, among others, dub nights, indie gigs, and grime events, which attract and engage Oxford’s diverse communities.

As others have pointed out in their objections, the Council’s own cultural strategy states that the Council’s ‘shared vision’ for culture is:

‘To work in partnership with key stakeholders to deliver and support affordable and excellent cultural activities and events; enhance and leave a legacy in the lives of Oxford’s individuals and communities; encourage youth attainment; engage our diverse communities; and develop skills and businesses in the city’s creative sector.’

Four comments from the UK/Oxford Live Music Census about The Cellar highlight how the venue already helps to fulfil Oxford City Council’s cultural vision of affordability, legacy, and youth attainment:-

  • ‘Great local venue in Oxford that puts on a variety of genres and supports local bands and artists both established and up and coming’;
  • ‘Saw Blue Aeroplanes there and many other up and coming bands. Great vibe and bar is right near to stage. Intimate setting and band are easy to see’;
  • ‘Had friends in bands as a teenager and loved being able to go to shows with affordable tickets to see local acts’;
  • ‘Cheap and cheerful underground venue, nicely rough around the edges, intimate, great soundman, reasonable selection of drinks and bar prices, excellent shows by regular promoters’.

More generally, our research has shown that venues in general are valued when they:-

  • Form an essential part of people’s life stories;
  • Have symbolic status which in turn endows value on performers and their events;
  • Have good sound or acoustics, good sightlines, and/or allow for intimate, close proximity between performers and audience;
  • Support local or emerging artists or new projects;
  • Bring in high status artists and hence increase the cultural value of an area;
  • Allow for the discovery of new artists or genres;
  • Provide inspiration by seeing other artists ‘in the flesh’;
  • Allow audiences to spend time with friends or family or make new friends or acquaintances, or artists to build and develop networks;
  • Have a consistently good ‘atmosphere’ and/or friendly staff and audiences;
  • Are locally accessible, particularly if it is the only local venue of its type.

The Cellar has all these attributes. Furthermore, from the initial results of the Oxford Live Music Census, we know that people attend The Cellar from places outside Oxford as far High Wycombe, Leighton Buzzard and Northampton. The value of the venue is therefore important as somewhere for both locals and those from further afield to have a cultural and social space in the city centre. Thus, The Cellar plays a vital role in diversifying Oxford’s night-time economy and helping the City Council fulfil its own cultural and economic aspirations.

A national trend: the closure of small music venues

There appears to exist a ‘perfect storm’ of external pressures which are causing this decline and which include:-

Planning/property development of housing and retail spaces in city centres, which push land and property prices up and cause tensions between existing and new tenants: The Oxford case is particularly acute because of the high value of property in the city centre.

Noise complaints: often as a result of planning/property development wherein nearby residents complain about noise from pre-existing venues; for example, Night & Day Café in Manchester.

Business rates increase: recent business rate increases are impacting on the financial viability of businesses which are often already operating on shoestring budgets.

Parking: it can be difficult for musicians to load in/load out and venues because parking is often scarce, which causes problems for all concerned.

Licensing pressures, particularly for under-18s gigs, meaning that it can be difficult to develop the next generation of live music fans. As one venue owner in Cardiff said: ‘If you wait until they’re 18, then you’ve lost them’ (Guto Brychan of Clwb Ifor, Cardiff at Venues Day 2016).

Intense competition in the leisure market: pressures on people’s time and wallets mean that it can be difficult to encourage people to partake in live music activities outside of their houses except for festivals or large-scale concerts, exacerbated by competition from home-based online entertainment and cheap supermarket drinks.

(For more on these external factors (albeit with a London focus), see the Mayor of London’s Music Venues Taskforce report.)

However, as shown in a number of reports, the value of the creative and cultural industries to which The Cellar belongs cannot be overstated. For example, a report by UK Music in 2017 estimated that £367 million was generated in 2016 by music tourists visiting small venues like The Cellar, and that live music fans in general generated £4 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2016 by flocking to concerts and festivals across the UK.

Concluding remarks

We know that The Cellar is one of only a few small dedicated music venues for popular music in Oxford, the others being The Bullingdon, The Jericho Tavern, and The Wheatsheaf, with the O2 Academy being the only other notable live music venue for popular music in the city at present. However, only The Cellar and The Wheatsheaf are in the city centre, while the Jericho Tavern puts on much less live music than in its 1990s’ heyday. In addition, the Bullingdon’s live music provision has been less central to its offer of late and the venue is now partly a comedy club.

Our work on the cultural value of venues shows that the weakest point of the live music ecology at present is small-medium independent venues, but that supporting smaller spaces for live events has long-term impacts as they develop the talent which goes on to fill larger spaces. Illustrating how The Cellar helps to develop the skills of the sector beyond purely providing a musical platform, the venue played host to a packed event for Oxford musicians in January 2017—The Do’s and Don’ts of Live Music—featuring representatives from Arts Council England and Musicians’ Union and attended by many Oxford-based musicians and other live music practitioners. Losing smaller venues like The Cellar would mean that the next generation of bands like (Mercury Prize nominees) Glass Animals, Young Knives, and Stornoway will struggle to develop their art.

We can therefore give the opinion that the planning application which would result in the closure of The Cellar should not go ahead. The high cost of property in the city centre would mean that it would be difficult to fill the significant gap left by the loss of The Cellar as an important space for live music in the city.

We urge the Council to reject the Application for Planning Permission and to instead encourage The Cellar to continue its outstanding contribution to diversifying Oxford’s cultural life and night-time economy.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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