The case for supporting a culture of local music

Grass roots music venues and enthusiast-driven not-for-profit music events manned by volunteers provide the essential footing which underpins the music industry. Local music meets social and community needs which the larger commercial venues and festivals would be unable to provide.

If we lose the healthy grass roots music culture, we also lose a substantial tapestry of ideas, creativity, and talent. We lose that which makes the nation's music industry viable and we lose an important element of society and community.


Local rock and pop music in Oxford is genuine and sustained

Klub Kakofanney has been promoting independent local music since 1981, and this year will be its 30th anniversary year, an impressive track record by any standard.

Since moving to the Wheatsheaf in 1999, Klub Kakofanney has presented over 500 bands, duos, and solo artists, and many of these artists and bands have appeared on our stage more than once. The vast majority of music played by these bands and artists is their own original compositions.

This number is for Klub Kakofanney events alone, and we put on one event per month, covering a broad range of genres. We are just one of the many event organisers who regularly use the Wheatsheaf.

Another long-running monthly event is organised by Gappy Tooth, and it too covers many different genres. Other promoters focus on specialist genres such as metal. Countless events are organised by Osprey and others each month covering many themes. Outside of the rock and pop genres, the Wheatsheaf venue also hosts a well-attended weekly Jazz Club night and a stand-up comedy night, making it an important local hub for stage-based entertainment.

Prior to the enforced shut-down of all leisure venues across the UK due to the coronavirus pandemic, the only time in its history that Klub Kakofanney had failed to put on its monthly event was in March 2018 when "the beast from the east" snow storm was approaching the UK and we decided to cancel the event in the interests of safety, (a decision which proved to be completely justified once the blizzard hit).

This level of activity demonstrates the enduring popularity of diverse grass roots music in Oxford, and the large number of opportunities it creates for local musicians to express their art.

The local independent music scene embraces all sectors of society

A common misconception is that rock and pop music events are primarily aimed at the teen to early-twenties age group and, I am sad to say, often dismissed as being some sort of troubled and non-establishment youth culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Looking down the list of people who have performed on stage at Klub Kakofanney in the last few years, there are some surprising and impressive occupations that spring out at me, people for whom music has no connection to their day job.

There are university lecturers, professors of particle physics, researchers into ecology and evolutionary genetics. There are doctors, GPs, NHS frontline workers, someone who is an immunology specialist and developed one of the rapid tests for Covid 19. I see teachers and teaching assistants, people who work for charities as mental health support workers, people who work for local government in roles such as climate change officers. There are journalists and theologians.

There are people who are business entrepreneurs, someone who has started her own independent fashion shop, a landscape gardener, a videogrpaher and independent film maker, a chef and proprietor of a pizza restaurant, and a former F1 aero-engineer who now runs his own high-tech company which, amongst other things, is designing and building the next generation of wheelchairs.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, a few musicians who I happen to know personally, but it is plain to see that the rock and pop crowd is not a splinter on the edge of society. It is an integral part of the fabric of society itself. Yet, once on stage, the performers become simply musicians, and social status or occupation outside the event is unimportant.

The same broad spectrum is seen across age groups, genders, sexual identities, disabilities, nationalities, and so on. Perhaps our oldest performer in recent years would have been the late Larry Reddington, who last played for us at the age of 78.

How many other social activities in Oxford can boast such a wide-ranging spectrum of social representation? How many other clubs or societies have such broad integration with the community?

The local music scene is highly inclusive, not exclusive

The covid crisis has been a stark reminder that we are social creatures. Do not underestimate the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the physical and mental health of an individual.

There is compelling medical evidence that links social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer's. People are also more likely to take to smoking and alcohol when they are socially isolated. Social research shows social isolation and severe loneliness adversely affecting as many as 1 in 20 adults in the UK.

Unfortunately, whilst agony aunts are quick to recommend that people feeling chronic loneliness should "go out, join a club, and meet people with similar interests", it just isn't that simple. So many clubs and societies have barriers to inclusion, whether that be membership fees, the need to have knowledge or abilities or equipment, or perhaps they are well-intentioned but create an air of pressure and expectations on newcomers.

Local music cuts across all of that. For the majority of events, people can just turn up and pay on the door. There is no need to be a member, no requirement to furnish ID, and it is very affordable if not free. There is no dress code and people wear whatever they feel most comfortable in. If people want to dance, they can dance, and if they want to stand in the shadows and just get used to the feeling of being out among people again, they can do that too. Gigs are non-judgmental and friendly places to be.

So many people come to gigs because they want to feel part of a community. The physical and mental health benefits of that are enormous.

Local music events are a safe space for everyone

Klub Kakofanney has long believed in providing a safe space for everyone, a non-discriminatory environment, and like every other Oxford promoter, we have a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, underage drinking, drugs, misogyny, racism, and sexuality prejudices. We do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to it.

The broad demographic range in most gigs also means you generally have a lot of responsible adults present throughout the audience, rather than insular groups, so any sort of unsocial or unwelcome behaviour is quickly noticed and brought to our attention.

It is quite normal and unremarkable for women to come to gigs alone. They can come to our events knowing it is a safe environment, and that if anyone does behave inappropriately towards them, in any way, that we have no hesitation in dealing firmly with the matter.

Equally, we regularly have audience members who come as gay couples, audience members who are transgender, etc. They all know it is a safe, accepting, and non-judgmental environment for them. Everyone is made to feel welcome.

Alcohol, the root cause of many antisocial problems and dangers, isn't the driving factor at music gigs, and a music gig simply isn't attractive to the people who want to drink to excess. People at our events enjoy a drink, of course, and drinks act as a social lubricant, but a lot of people at gigs consume soft drinks or even water. Since we invariably have expensive equipment and instruments at events, it is very much in our interest to ensure we do not have intoxicated people lurching around the room.

The UK is currently having a national conversation about creating safer environments for women. This is an issue that grass roots music has already been addressing for many years.

Local music provides essential experience for new performers

The UK has a great international track record on the modern music stage, and the grass roots live music segment directly contributed a very healthy £1.1 billion to the UK economy in 2018. Leading acts and household names contribute several billions more to exports, but almost every one of those major artists has started their career gaining their essential experience in grass roots venues.

Grass roots venues are great for inspiring budding musicians. Major festivals and concerts in large venues may also inspire, but the music enthusiast at the major shows cannot talk to the musicians after their sets, ask questions, or seek advice. In a grass roots venue, the musicians are accessible and always willing to share information and talk about the music to fellow enthusiasts.

Performing in front of an audience is a skill which has to be learnt. Grass roots venues let musicians learn their stagecraft in front of small supportive audiences, and alongside more experienced bands. The more mature musicians tend to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of younger performers, generous with praise, helpful with advice.

In many cases at gigs, the more established bands allow the novice bands to use their amps and drumkits. House engineers show upcoming musicians how to set up equipment and balance their vocals. The venue is providing the expensive high-quality microphones and PA systems needed to make them sound great. Promoters and organisers are helping young bands understand how to structure their sets for best impact, and how to promote themselves on and off stage.

Without local music and grass roots venues, our mainstream media will be poorer, and the barriers to people becoming musicians will be considerably higher for everyone.

Local music is a source of creativity and innovation

You may have heard in the news recently that Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have both set records for the number of Grammy awards they have won. Whilst this might be a measure of how successfully they have been marketed, it is also a reflection of how little innovation and diversity there is in mainstream music.

Grass roots venues are innovative environments. Much of our rich heritage of folk music, fusion music, and ethnic influence is virtually unknown in the mainstream media, yet on our Klub Kakofanney stage we have heard people playing instruments not often associated with pop bands. This includes stringed instruments such as violins, cellos, the orchestral double bass and the sitar, ukuleles, mandolins, balalikas, and Irish bazoukis. We've seen traditional percussion instruments such as the djemba, the cajon, the conga, and the tabla. Wind instruments include the flute and the clarinet, the saxophone, and the trombone. We have even had appearances from rain sticks, digeridoos, ocarinas and kalimbas, all instruments which you will rarely encounter on any mainstream media.

Creativity extends beyond mere instruments. Bands are able to explore presentation styles, formats, and lighting to tell a story, and experiment with costumes to challenge cultural stereotypes, to create truly inspirational artistic experiences.

Exposure to different cultural norms reduces barriers between people. Music knows no frontiers. Without grass roots music and the opportunities it generates, we risk losing innovation and the enrichment of cross-culture fusions, becoming more insular in our tastes, and the music industry as a whole will become poorer as a result.

Local music inspires people to learn more about music

People going to gigs and seeing other ordinary people, there in front of them, demonstrating fantastic skills on their instruments, sounding terrific through the house sound system, is often the inspiration they need to take up a musical instrument themselves, and to learn more about the intricacies of music.

When people are only exposed to professional music delivered through radio, TV, or the very large venues and festivals, there is an understandable tendency for them to believe that pop stars have amazing musical abilities, out of reach of ordinary person. Seeing local people who have day jobs playing like pros in a grass roots gig gives them the confidence to learn an instrument. The realisation that they too can perform on a small stage in front of a friendly audience gives them achievable ambitions.

Learning an instrument and the complexities of music requires many hours of dedication and application. We should applaud this, just as much as we would applaud someone choosing to learn a foreign language, or learning to drive, or any other non-trivial skill. For many people, this is also good for their self-confidence, especially if they feel they lacked academic skills at school.

A natural follow-on from learning an instrument is learning to play with other people in a band. This teaches people the value of teamwork on many levels, it teaches cooperation and compromise. Of necessity that improves their own interpersonal communication skills, which can have profound benefits in how they handle themselves in other walks of life, in their work and social relationships.

The experience of live music can be a major driving force in self-improvement, and a catalyst in unlocking the potential of individuals.

Local music has tangible economic benefits for the local community

Grass roots music is largely run by volunteers on a not for profit basis, but it generates economic benefits for the local community which go beyond the events. It isn't just about filling a pub and selling beer.

Many of the people who come into town for a music event are using public transport, which needs all the passengers it can get, especially passengers outside the typical peak travel hours. Sometimes people visiting the venue are also stopping off for food or coffee in the city centre, bringing valuable trade to burger bars, cafes, and coffee shops.

Musicians spend a lot of money on instruments, amps, and gig equipment. It is money which they simply wouldn't spend if they had little prospect of live performances. This generates business for local music shops and creates jobs for both retail staff and instrument technicians.

Musicians often record albums which keeps our local studios and sound engineers supplied with a steady stream of work, and which also creates additional footfall for our local record shop, The Truck Store, which stocks these locally produced CDs.

Bands and promoters often require T-shirts, posters, and promotional materials, which helps our struggling print companies, photographers and videographers.

People of all ages are inspired to take music lessons in both classes and in one to one settings, and that provides valuable income for skilled local musicians with a flair for teaching.

Musicians are quick to volunteer to play at charity fundraisers, which raises money and awareness for local causes.

When grass roots venues are lost, we lose more than just a music night. Local music generates real and tangible economic benefits for local communities.

Interesting bits of information and trivia

Retail outlets

The largest musical instrument and equipment retailer in the UK is PMT which has 16 stores nationwide including a store on Cowley Road. It was founded in Essex in 1991 where its three original stores still operate. The first city it branched out to, in 2001, was not London, Liverpool, or Leeds. It is here in Oxford, because of the strength of the town's music scene.

From supermarket storeroom to major music venue

The Oxford O2 venue was once an empty storeroom above the Co-op supermarket and first used for music by local rockers running DIY gigs in the 1970s. Today, it is a two-floor music venue, run by the O2 Academy Group. Oxford is only the 34th most populous city in the UK and yet is one of just eleven cities to have an O2 venue, and by far the smallest city in the O2 portfolio.

Recording studios and rehearsal spaces

Oxford and Oxfordshire has a remarkable number of well-equipped recording studios and rehearsal rooms, such as The Glasshouse Studios which are converted farm buildings in Cumnor. I know of at least 15 recording studios in the OX postcode area and at least four places that are kitted out as rehearsal rooms. Studios and rehearsal rooms have high capital overheads and are viable only because of the strong local music scene in Oxfordshire.

Music as a leisure activity in the UK

Research data shows that 34% of UK adults have played a musical instrument. Comparable research in the USA finds only 12% of adults able to play any sort of instrument. The YouGov data shows that amongst schoolchildren, 90% of boys and 96% of girls expressed an interest in learning to play a musical instrument. The most popular choices of instrument are guitar, closely followed by piano, with significant interest in the flute.

Gender balance

2018 statistics revealed a significant gender imbalance in favour of men in classical orchestras, and one especially surprising statistic is that there was not one female trombone player in any of the world's top 20 orchestras in that year. In that same year, Klub Kakofanney had headlined Storyteller in our very first gig of the year. The Storyteller line up featured two trombone players, one of whom was female.