Interview with Ronan Munro, Editor of Nightshift, Oxford
The following is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 23rd October 2017.
Nightshift began life as Curfew in March 1991. I’d been going to gigs for years, ever since I moved to Oxford in 1984, and pre-internet it was very very hard for any Oxford band to move up and get noticed by the music industry. In fact, the only way for Oxford bands to get a look-in—apart from Ride and Talulah Gosh—was to move to London and hope that Melody Maker and the NME would pick up on them. I started doing this, then, with the aim of getting people to go out to hear all of the great music that is being made in Oxford. In fact, the entire point of my life has been trying to get people to go to gigs.
Curfew ran for four and a half years until the end of 1994, when all three of Oxford’s main venues at the time—The Jericho Tavern, The Venue on Cowley Road, and the Holly Bush in Osney—closed down within about a month of each other. There was a group of dedicated people who all knew each other—people like The Venue’s Nick Moorbath and Adrian Hicks, Mac from the Jericho, and Ride’s manager, Dave Newton—and when the venues closed down, we realised how close we all were to losing everything. We were all each other’s safety net and we were all co-dependent on each other, so we all pulled together and really went for it. Nick and Adrian got going with setting up The Zodiac and Mac started promoting again, this time in the room above the Hobgoblin pub. He put on bands like the White Stripes, Coldplay, and Muse, and was probably even more successful than when he was at The Jericho. We had to have a bit of a rethink with Curfew and decided to relaunch in the summer with a new name. And so Nightshift began in July 1995 and has been running every month since then.
The best thing about live music in Oxford right now is that there’s lots of it! October’s edition of Nightshift, for example, has eight pages of gig listings which is about as much as there ever is. Since we began, there have been venue closures and the threat of venue closures but also the massive global success of Oxford bands like Radiohead, Supergrass, Foals, Stornoway, and Glass Animals. This has raised the bar and raised the ambitions and expectations of everybody. Musicians come to Oxford to form a band because they know that they can get reviewed quite early on; you won’t get lost among all the other bands like you might do in London or Manchester. I think Oxford’s become more like that since the success of bands like Radiohead, and I think that this is a good thing. Also I think that one of the problems with the music press nowadays is that people don’t write critical reviews. But you have to be honest and not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers. We’ll say it’s crap if it’s crap, and I think that that’s really important for musicians to hear so that they improve.
One of the most difficult things about putting on live music in Oxford is that, while there is a lot going on, Oxford is still a small city—it’s half the size of Reading and Northampton—and it’s hard to get people to go out. People think that because there’s a lot of students here then it should be easy, but it’s a battle to get people out to see anything other than big names. Even though there are thousands of students at Oxford Brookes University, for example, it feels like it has shut itself away a bit, and we’ve been banned from distributing Nightshift there. The Oxford colleges want people to stay in college and drink in the junior common rooms and there’s still also a bit of an attitude, I think, that anything outside of college is a bit scary. So getting students to go out is really difficult and I’ve learned not to expect much from the student population. On top of this, Oxford’s very expensive, and the music is quite white and quite middle-class, but it’s always going to be because of the nature of the place, I think.
Live music is incredibly fragile and the main threat to the scene is the closure of venues. There are lots of little pubs putting on music but only four venues: the O2 Academy, The Bullingdon, the Wheatsheaf and The Cellar. The Cellar is still under threat of closure as the building’s owner, a charity, wants to turn it into retail space, while the Wheatsheaf’s lease is up for renewal in a couple of years. So live music is massively affected by market forces, exacerbated in Oxford by the fact that the University owns virtually everything. The Cellar got over 13,000 signatures for the petition to save the venue, but it’s not enough to just sign a petition; why not go to a gig there as well? We need to use the venue; use it or lose it, I say. It’s even worse in places like London and New York where expensive property prices mean that thriving music scenes get ruined by people who move to the city because of its music and then complain because of the noise of the venue next door. We need to protect venues against such threats.
It would be nice if politicians realised how important music is, not just in terms of its economic impact but also about how many jobs it sustains, from about a dozen people in Oxford in the 1990s to well over a hundred people now who are actually making a living. Apart from the five band members of Radiohead, their management, studio, and touring crew, are all based in Oxford, so Radiohead alone are probably responsible for at least twenty jobs. And just look at the venues; they employ bar staff, cleaners … But for me, outside family, music is the most important thing there is, and has been for most of my adult life.
I think that Nightshift has lasted so long because it is so parochial and so detailed; it clings to its little place. But Nightshift exists on the breadline. I could earn more money working part-time in KFC than I do running Nightshift. We’re slightly more secure now with some regular advertising from venues like the O2 but that’s only so long as people still go to gigs. The reason that Nightshift is still going is pure stubbornness on my part, and an enduring sense of optimism even in the face of evidence to the contrary sometimes. Also, after 27 years, I’m not sure what else I would do or whether anyone else would employ me! And, of course, because I love music. The day I stop loving music is the day I stop doing this.