Saving The Cellar: Venues, History and Self-Expression
"The Cellar represents something all too rare in the lives of people today, and that’s a space where race, creed, gender and sexuality fades away and all that’s left is the thing which unites us all: the desire to express ourselves."
It’s hardly a ground-breaking piece of information to report that live music venues, event spaces and nightclubs have, over the last decade, undergone a decline in numbers that goes beyond surprising, or even disturbing.
In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the places where those – young and old, black and white, queer and straight, male and female – come to listen, to perform, to dance, and to express, are currently performing a kind of very sad disappearing act. Just under half of London’s nightclubs have closed in the last five years alone, and 151 LGBT venues have closed in the capital over the same time period. Soaring rents, a disinterested attitude from councils, deliberately oppressive licensing laws and the replacement of huge swathes of city centre real estate with luxury flats have all contributed to the tragic closure of these bastions of culture, colour and life all over the country – and let’s not mention the effect of noise complaints from new tenants of buildings which are built plainly and obviously within earshot of live music venues which have often been open for decades.
The latest potential victim of this depressing trend? The Cellar, Oxford’s last truly independent grassroots music and arts venue, and one which has been providing life-affirming nights out for music fans across the country for 45 years, since its inception as rock pub The Corn Dolly, later shortened to simply The Dolly, before taking on its current incarnation in 1999. As the current holders of the lease above The Cellar, Lush Cosmetics, are moving into the new Westgate Centre, the owners of the land put forward a planning application to convert The Cellar into a retail space (of which, of course, we are incredibly short of in central Oxford, so close to the grand opening of a £440m shopping centre). The planning application has since been withdrawn due to an unprecedented backlash from the local community, but the fight to save The Cellar isn’t over yet. We spoke to Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust, to find out a little more detail.
“Across the UK, we’ve lost just over 35% of our small, grassroots music venues over the last 10 years, and each one of these is a very specific case that’s unique in its own circumstances,” Mark explained. “In the case of The Cellar, we’re very pleased to see that the planning application to change the premises into a shop has been withdrawn, although that’s not the be-all and end-all of it. There’s still a reasonable threat to The Cellar’s continuation that we need to keep on top of, but it does show how strongly the venue is valued in the Oxford community. The response to its potential closure attracted almost 15,000 people to sign a petition against the proposal and hundreds of objections to the planning application. That really shows how much the local community values this space.”
Not only a community-centred space, The Cellar has also been a family business for four decades. Current owner Tim Hopkins, whose dad Adrian first established The Corn Dolly (as it was), told OX Magazine that the response from supporters of his venue has been “astounding”.
“I can’t believe the outpouring of support we’ve had from bands, DJs, promoters, staff and attendees alike – councillors and MPs as well,” Tim continued. “It’s been incredibly humbling. Obviously I knew that The Cellar is hugely important to lots of people because it’s unique as an independent space for music in Oxford city centre, but the extent of support we’ve been shown has been absolutely staggering.”
For the time being, it’s a long, slow grind for The Cellar’s team, but Tim is cautiously optimistic: “The owners of the land still want to renovate the building, and they are looking at other options, but without planning consent, they can’t turn our space into a shop. Having said that, we still need to go through some procedures to renew our lease. At the moment, we’re just going through the motions and crossing our fingers and toes in the hope that everything goes smoothly. Let’s hope for many more good nights ahead.”
With Tim’s final sentence in particular, we couldn’t possibly agree more.
What It All Means: The Cellar in the words of those who know it best
Jamie Halliday, long-standing DJ for The Cellar
“The Cellar is the beating heart of Oxford’s nightlife community. It has – and hopefully will continue to – shape the future of Oxford’s musical output for years to come.”
Toby Hambly, promoter of hip-hop night Deep Cover, based at The Cellar
“The Cellar represents something all too rare in the lives of people today, and that’s a space where race, creed, gender and sexuality fades away and all that’s left is the thing which unites us all: the desire to express ourselves.”
George Trotter, long-standing performer for The Cellar
“The Cellar allows for people to find their feet when it comes to performing, appreciating, and promoting music from all corners of the UK and beyond. Amongst so many institutions in Oxford which conjure up thoughts of division, it is a unifying, liberating space which stands alone in the city centre.”
John Davis, owner of techno night Pitch Black, based at The Cellar
“The Cellar has been the lifeblood of Oxford’s live and electronic music scenes for as long as I can remember, and long before that. It’s more than just a venue: it provides an invaluable platform for local people to get involved in music. Countless local bands and musicians have honed their craft and started their careers here. The important role The Cellar plays as a creative incubator for musicians and promoters just can’t be overstated. The proposed closure of The Cellar has highlighted not just how close you can come to losing thousands of people’s musical home from home, but also the sheer vulnerability of grassroots music venues across the country.”
Top Image © Jeremiah Jones
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