Cellar's closure and the future of independent venues

Photo by  Johan Mouchet  on  Unsplash

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

On 11th March 2019, The Cellar closed its doors for the last time after 40 years. While many students will mourn it as a nightclub, others will be sad to see the loss of one of the last remaining independent venues in Oxford. The closure is reflective of a larger, more worrying trend. Small, independent music venues are closing their doors in droves up and down the country. Between 2005-2015, 40% of small venues in London closed their doors. This is concerning. Without independent venues, the music industry is likely to shift irreversibly in a more corporate, impersonal direction.

The rise of digital music streaming has lead to a fundamental change in the function of live music. Where concerts were previously used to sell physical music media (this was the primary reason for the rise of concert halls in urban areas in the 19th century - to sell sheet music), the rapid decline in the market for physical forms of music means concerts take on a different meaning altogether. Concerts become a musician’s primary source of income. In order to stay economically viable, ticket prices are pushed up to extortionate levels. The more this takes place, the more people will be priced out of live music. Independent venues, by booking lesser-known talent, help to keep prices down, and make live music more accessible.

This showcasing of new talent also supports innovation. As much as we do not like to think that it is, music is a commodity as well as an art form, and artists therefore need certain support structures in order to be able to gain themselves the financial backing to continue making art. As explained, the most integral of these is the opportunity for live performance. In large venues owned by big corporations, acts are booked based on what will sell tickets, and it is unlikely that promoters will take a chance on an act that sounds significantly different from the formula they know is successful. All new bands sound like the old bands and nothing ever changes. Independent venues are necessary in order to experiment - bands can try out new ideas in a low-pressure setting. Cellar in particular was notoriously easy to rent out by anyone, sometimes even operating at a loss in order to promote new talent and encourage anyone to try their hand at something new. In doing so, it not only acted as a springboard for some acts onto bigger and better things, but kept viable those who couldn’t quite crack the mainstream. Cellar tirelessly provided a vital service, protecting subcultures and encouraging creativity.

Without small independent venues like Cellar, Oxford not only loses its musical future, but its musical history

Small venues like Cellar are inextricably linked with creativity and culture. Venues often become legends in themselves. New York’s CBGB has become synonymous with punk and new wave. The Windmill Brixton is currently churning out its own brand of gritty garage rock. Cellar might not have launched any movements in its 40 year history, but it kickstarted the careers of household names such as Foals and Supergrass. Without small independent venues like Cellar, Oxford not only loses its musical future, but its musical history.

All of this shouldn’t matter. There are millions of reasons why we would regret Cellar’s closure, but at its core, music venues like these have an intrinsic value as a place where people can let go and express themselves without fear of judgement. Most of us will look back fondly on the memories we made there (good and bad). It wasn’t perfect, but it had its own charm. There will never be another place quite like it.