Indie Opinion: You gotta fight for your right to party
Short-sighted developments are killing Oxford’s night-time culture.
By Paul Wightman – Paul is a filmmaker, brand consultant & music promoter campaigning for more popular music & creative spaces in Oxford.
“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang and the music played in a de boomtown”
So sang The Specials in the early 1980s, an era of societal upheaval with distinct parallels to 2023. But where 80s Coventry boasted a surfeit of empty industrial buildings which might have housed clubs and venues had the economy not been flatlining, historically, Oxford has suffered the reverse. A robust economy which avoids the worst downturns, but a limited supply of affordable commercial properties.
Yet that doesn’t fully explain why the Oxford scene has become so dire, that it recently came last out of 61 UK university cities in a national survey rating nightlife. Nor why, for the first time in living memory, Oxford is in the embarrassing position of having no dedicated popular music venue in the city centre.
In a city with 42,000 undergraduate and postgrad students and the second youngest median age in England and Wales (31) 2, alarm bells should be ringing.
Granted, the pandemic and cost of living crisis have had an impact, but if lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that humans are social animals with an innate need for meaningful interaction, whether it’s enjoying live music, comedy, drag, cinema or just dancing.
The social capital these interactions foment is critical to any functioning society, yet Oxford is rapidly becoming an anti-social capital because of the short-sighted policies of a handful of developers and landlords.
It hasn’t always been this way. It’s time to fight for your right to party!
Oxford lacks enough safe, inclusive and affordable spaces in which diverse social circles can share cultural experiences and form networks that cross societal barriers which then stimulate social cohesion (a process called Bridging Social Capital). Yet, the centre is shape-shifting into a characterless identikit retail / student hall/ science lab model instead of grasping this once in a lifetime opportunity to build an independent night-life and culture hub.
Oxford is in danger of becoming a medieval architecture theme park like Bruges; pretty, but devoid of the vibrant night-life proven to stimulate the creative industries, which employ 5.7% of Oxford residents. As Einstein astutely observed: “A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity”.
I believe it’s in everyone’s interest to address this cultural imbalance as a matter of urgency and that people have the power to effect this change, but only if we address the elephant in the room, which is that Oxford University and its colleges (some more than others) have a virtual monopoly on property here.
Combine this with an institutional disinterest in popular culture and it’s clear why so little of its estate is available at affordable rents to foster grassroots music, dancing, comedy, drag and popular arts, which feed the souls of Oxford’s young people and the everyday citizens who make the city function, yet don’t resonate with the University’s intellectually refined worldview.
It’s no coincidence that opera, classical music and theatre are already well served here, yet it’s a disparity that will only widen when the £175m Schwarzman Centre opens in 2025, helmed by a director who comes from the world of opera. So I challenge the venue to set aside significant venue time at affordable rates to cultivate grassroots music in particular, because while money talks, it can’t sing like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, or Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley (who claimed Spotify’s 2nd most streamed song globally in 2022).
As Beverley Whitrick, COO of Music Venue Trust explains. “Oxford has a stellar music reputation due to the international success of bands who honed their craft in the city’s grassroots music venues. With the closures of The Cellar and The Wheatsheaf, the likelihood of talented musicians from the area following in the footsteps of Radiohead, Supergrass, Foals and Glass Animals, has all but disappeared. Artists and audiences must now leave the city centre to experience emerging talent, something wholly at odds with the cultural reputation of the city. Oxford and the surrounding area deserve better.”
Nobody is more aware of the deteriorating local scene than Ronan Munro, editor of Oxford’s Nightshift music magazine for the past 30 years and formerly organiser of the annual Oxford Punt new artist showcase. “Of the 18 city-centre venues which hosted gigs for the Punt between 1997 & its demise in 2016, not one still hosts live music, even occasionally” he opines.
Meanwhile, just three dedicated nightclubs remain (which ethnographic studies have proven to foster tolerance and acceptance) in a city where 30% of the population is aged 18-292. It’s small wonder Oxford has such a dismal reputation for choice.
It’s a frustration shared by Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), who worked as operations director at The Regal on Cowley Road before it became a church. “It’s often a distraction to discuss night-life in purely financial terms, because its social benefits to society far outweigh its economic impact,” he says. “Nevertheless, pre-pandemic, the night-time culture economy was worth £36.4bn which accounted for 1.64% of UK GDP and 425k jobs4, but we need affordable spaces to survive”.
Meanwhile, Oxford’s planning authority and another significant landowner, Oxford City Council, is so impoverished after a decade of austerity and pandemics, that every planning decision it takes seems driven solely by money, which sees it neglecting its own cultural policies. For instance, www.Oxford2050.com states that: “Smaller venues – including music venues, cinemas, libraries, pubs & community centres, will have been nurtured, encouraged & protected as community assets.” Yet the council owned Odeon George Street will likely become whatever raises the most money when it’s redeveloped next year, bar an afterthought to creative and community use on the ground floor.
For too long, Oxford’s urban planning has been geared almost exclusively to daytime functions, with precious little regard for what happens after dark.
Nobody doubts the importance of properly funding things like social housing, but this is not a zero sum game, because supporting night-time culture properly is actually a shrewd investment, both socially and economically. A truly visionary council would start by appointing a Night Czar like London, Bristol and Manchester.
It’s time for the people of Oxford to rise up and demand bold action to redress the city’s cultural imbalance. Encouraging the Council and most importantly, the University, to support night-life and popular culture by releasing more of its estate at affordable rents on a long-term basis or temporarily through organisations like Makespace’s Meanwhile project, utilising its ‘daytime-oriented’ assets more fully at night, or perhaps even by creating and supporting a new ring-fenced popular music and culture fund.
Let’s get this party started!
Ways you can help support the Oxford music and night-time culture scene.
- Follow Oxford Music Guardians (OMG) on Facebook & Instagram, join the separate OMG Facebook discussion group and sign the petition!
- If you have influence with the University, Council or another organisation with the power to effect change, use it to start a conversation.
- If you are a custodian of an underutilised space which is suitable for creative culture events, particularly at night-time, reach out to the community.
- Follow, and consider donating to Music Venue Trust’s game-changing www.SaveOurVenues.co.uk initiative to buy grass roots venues across the UK.
- Follow and consider donating to savenightlife.com the Night Time Industries Association campaign.
- Raise your concerns with your MP, local councillors and in the media.
- If you’re lucky enough to have some spare cash, support your local independent venues, clubs, cinemas and night-time culture events. Check out listings at: nightshiftmag.co.uk Oxfordshire Music Scene magazine and dailyinfo.co.uk.
- If you have a hidden creative talent, the world needs to hear it at an open mic night, or at the weekly The Catweazle Club.
2 2021 UK Census