Take your eyes away from the Oxford bubble for a moment, and let’s transport ourselves to the exotic paradise of Norwich. A local venue, the Owl Sanctuary, has been bought without the knowledge of its owner and is closing its doors on the 31st of January. It has become a great DIY venue that has had international acclaim due to its owners projecting an ethos that’s all about the music that they’re putting on. The venue has become something of a pilgrimage for anyone around the alt-rock and punk scenes (using this in extremely broad terms), and has helped launch many of the big bands currently in the scene such as The Skints, Reel Big Fish and Neck Deep. The news of the shifty circumstances over the purchase of the venue, along with the likelihood of the Owl Sanctuary being bulldozed, has unsurprisingly created a backlash within the scene: a perfect showing of how much these sort of venues mean.
And in actuality, these venues aren’t all that far removed from Oxford at all. Beneath the grandeur of the dreaming spires, the gloriously unregulated underbelly of the UK scene ticks away. Within this scene, punks rub shoulders with grime producers whilst Balkan beats are fused with Jamaican grooves, all to the end of producing music that is as creatively progressive as it is obscure and unknowable. From this thriving melting pot rise the stars of tomorrow’s scene, and our city personally has led this assault from the front. From Stornoway to Radiohead, from Foals to This Town Needs Guns, Oxford has produced critically and commercially successful bands in spades. A sense of quite why our music scene has spawned such notable bands can be seen when promoting shows at these special venues. Last November, we held our inaugural ska punk show within the hallowed walls of The Cellar. As the sweat dripped from every wall whilst the skankers and moshers moved in ever-wider circles on the dancefloor, sucking in the uninitiated into a vortex of gleeful madness, the sense that something strangely intimate was going on was undeniable. Every shouted lyric, every failed dance move, every last glorious stage dive has to be savoured and enjoyed; venues like this are a rare breed which makes moments like this extra special.
But the allure of smaller venues and DIY shows stretch beyond dingy rooms with dodgy PAs. The true joy of the indie venue is the relationship that the institution has with the music. These venues are labours of love. Tim Hopkins, of Cellar fame, lives through music. His knowledge is expansive, his patience when dealing with inadequate promoters is endless (trust us on this); his commitment to the music is absolute. What truly makes the scene so special is how everyone chips in – punters, musicians and promoters alike. We don’t do this for money, which makes us a little vulnerable (and out of pocket). These venues are often in wealthy, downtown areas and the land they occupy is prime real estate. A combination of unyielding tenants and unreasonable noise regulations has seen many venues close, and threatens many more. Only last year we saw Manchester’s iconic Ducie Bridge close its doors. The co-operative, who own the land, say that it could now be ‘office space’ within the next few years. This follows the closure of The Cockpit in Leeds, and The Roadhouse (also in Manchester). Gentrification of our cities is threatening the rich culture that made them so desirable.
The argument to keep indie venues is not solely based on idealistic bleary-eyed wishing, however, rather independent venues are a mainstay in making the touring of today and tomorrows musicians financially viable. The much lauded American punk rock band Bomb The Music Industry! were famously reliant on independent venues to keep going. Despite recording all their music without a record label or producer, the Long Island band were able to stay as a professional band because of the cheap ticket prices and smaller shows offered by these venues. From a hard-nosed, almost capitalist mindset (sorry) we can therefore also see that these venues are a necessity and not a luxury. To this end we need to work to prevent a repeat of what’s happened at The Owl Sanctuary, we want to make it abundantly clear that this will not happen in our city.
This brings us to Independent Venue Week. A week celebrating all the wonders of independent venues across the UK. Oxford is particularly blessed, with The Bullingdon, The Cellar, and The Jericho Tavern all producing gigs for local and up-and-coming talent year in, year out even with (our experiences of) the difficulty in getting the University to give support: asking every college to put on a small set was met with a whopping 6 shows last term. As small promoters promoting a relatively unnoticed scene (see another piece we wrote), independent and novel venues are the perfect medium for us to present the new bands we love. All three venues have gigs on during Independent Venue Week, which we highly recommend going to for a heady cocktail of scene-supporting, feel-good and excellent music. We have mainly worked with Cellar, but have attended The Bullingdon and The Jericho and can attest to their brilliance as venues. See if a band you love is playing, or get down and find something new: either way, you’ll have a whale of a time and maybe rekindle a love for live music that we believe exists in everyone.
Joe and Adam are Dreaming Squires Promotions, best known for writing articles in exchange for exposure.