IT WAS hailed as a victory for music-lovers, but Oxford’s Cellar nightclub may be forced to close after all after failing to negotiate a new lease with its landlords.

The music venue, in Frewin Court, off Cornmarket, was destined to close earlier this year after failing to meet fire safety regulations, but was rescued by a massive public fundraising appeal which saw more than 2,000 supporters pledging more than £92,000. The money, raised in a crowdfunding initiative backed by members of Oxford bands Radiohead, Ride and Foals, was due to pay for a new fire exit and internal improvements.

However, the club has revealed it is closing its doors next month because it has been unable to negotiate a new rent agreement with its landlords St Michael’s and All Saints’ Charities.

It is the third setback faced by the club – the last truly independent gig venue in the city. In August 2017 the nightspot was served notice to leave by its owners, who applied to Oxford City Council for permission to redevelop the basement venue into storage space for the shop above, previously occupied by cosmetics store Lush and now a souvenir shop.

More than 13,600 supporters, including musicians and politicians, backed a petition to save it. Then last year, the venue was ordered to cut the number of people it allowed in from 150 to just 60, after inspectors deemed its 70cm fire escape was 30cm too narrow. The restrictions made it unviable as a live music venue.

Fans of the venue pledged funds and bid for items donated by members of the local music scene, including a drum from Radiohead’s Philip Selway.

The work, which would have raised capacity to 270, was initially supposed to have been completed by next month but has been delayed due to the negotiations. In an email to supporters, venue manager Tim Hopkins said: “Whilst we are still in negotiations with the landlords, time is sadly running out. We cannot operate at this capacity any longer, and as a result we will be closing our doors in March.

“We are hoping that this will be temporary.

However, unless we finalise a workable rent agreement and establish a firm plan to start building work, all within the next two weeks, our closure will be permanent. These processes take time and we are grateful to the landlords for trying to find a solution to our needs.

“If the worst happens, which we really hope it won’t, we cannot accept the crowdfunding money. To reassure all our kind donors, if we decline the money, it will automatically return to your bank accounts.

“However, there is still a bit of time left, so we do still hope we can save The Cellar and not let the people of Oxford as well as those further afield, down. Thanks again to you amazing people for your support. We will update you further when we know more.”

The Oxford Times:

Gaz Coombes backs the campaign

However, the owners insisted they wanted to see the venue continue to host live music.

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Rupert Sheppard, Clerk to the Feoffees at St Michael’s and All Saints’ Charities, said: “At the forefront of the minds of the charity is the music scene of Oxford. We have made considerable changes to our plans for the building and that’s cost us a lot and led to a big sacrifice of income. But we want it to survive.

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“On top of that, we have agreed to pay for work to make the premises safe – which is indicative of our commitment. But the tenant is offering not much more than half of what our agents tell us is what the property is worth.”

He added: “It would be sad if it closed and we hope these negotiations will have a favourable outcome for us all.”

Mark Davyd of The Music Venues Trust said small, independent venues like The cellar were under intolerable pressure to survive.

He said: “Right across the country, grassroots music venues are operating on a non-profit basis, spending a national average of 130 per cent of gross ticket revenue on presenting live music.

"Excessive rent increases and business rate rises were identified as a potential closure threat by 31 per cent of such venues.”

The Oxford Times:

Foals started their careers at The Cellar. Picture by Paul Tipping

What is being planned?

As well as a new fire exit, the work would see the inside of the venue remodelled with the main central bar removed, allowing for a larger viewing area in front of the stage.

Drinks would be served from two existing side bars. The worn-out dancefloor would also be replaced.
Oxford City Council’s planning department approved The Cellar’s plans at the start of the year. It said: “This area of Frewin Court comprises a number of openings and entrances to various businesses.
“The door would relate to the pattern of development in the area and would be visually in-keeping. The inclusion of a new door would not have a harmful impact on the site and is therefore considered acceptable.”Alex Hollingsworth, the council’s board member for planning and transport and councillor for Carfax, said at the time: “I’m really pleased to see that the planning permission has been granted. The Cellar is critical for culture in the city.”

The Oxford Times:

Willie J Healey at The Cellar. Picture by Ian Wallman, courtesy of The Cellar

An iconic venue
The Cellar, previously known as The Dolly – opened by Tim’s father Adrian Hopkins – is on the site of former pub The Corn Dolly, and has been hosting live music for five decades, seeing shows by breakthrough local bands like Foals, Stornoway and The Young Knives and international acts such as Mumford & Sons, Crystal Fighters and The National.
Tim said: “This place has been a home of live music for at least 45 years, making it one of the oldest gig venues in Europe. There’s a lot of history and it’s been a stepping stone for a lot of bands.
“There is already a shortage of venues, and to close a place of this size would leave a massive gap.
“It’s used by breakthrough bands, students, different sections of the community and for fundraisers. We have everything from rock to dance and Latin music and one of the oldest goth nights in the country.

"It stands for freedom of speech and independence. To lose it would be to the massive detriment to Oxford.”