The following is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 24th October 2018.

Ring Out, Oxford (c) Emma Webster 2017
Ring Out, Oxford (c) Emma Webster 2017

I started at Oxford Contemporary Music in 2009 but the company has its origins in the early 1990s as a contemporary music festival which was started by students at the University of Oxford. This then grew from a festival into one season and then two seasons of events, before eventually becoming a year-round programme. Around the same time, we started to develop our education and outreach programme, and we now also have talent development programmes. One of our strengths is in developing work in outdoor and unusual spaces and we also commission work which we tour all over the UK and abroad. We couldn’t do what we’re doing, however, without support from funders like Arts Council England and the local city council, who sustained their support even in the face of government cuts.[1] It gives us the opportunity to take risks, and means that whilst the work we commission might have commercial potential, we don’t have to work on a commercial model when we’re developing it.

We try to work with and support emerging and established Oxford-based artists as well as artists from across the country, so, for example, we’ve worked with graduates and lecturers at Oxford Brookes University (OBU) as well as co-promoting the OBU Sonic Art Research Unit’s annual audiograft Festival. We recently commissioned Ray Lee, a professor at OBU, to create ‘Ring Out’, which took eight enormous bell-like structures to squares, car parks and city streets in places like Hull and London, everyday spaces that people could just stumble across. In this way, we reached far more people than if it had just stayed in a concert hall.[2]  While OCM is not just about Oxford any more, our outreach and education work is still mostly based in Oxford. We’ve consistently sought out where there is need and delivered a programme that addresses that need, so I think that that grassroots access to music-making is something that has had a sustained benefit to the city.

Oxford has a remarkably sustained, very vibrant music scene.  The best thing about it is its breadth. Not just that there’s lots of it, but there is an enormous wealth of amazing quality, what with college choirs, classical promoters bringing in big names, a thriving rock/pop, jazz and underground scene, a big folk weekend, good quality open mic nights, and groups like the Oxford Improvisers pushing the experimental envelope.  New promoters pop up, and it seems that as one promoter leaves, someone new will pop up to fill the gap. We’re quite spoiled, really! But this is very much the case across the cultural spectrum in Oxford. Every night of the week you could go to something really brilliant, whether it’s music, the performing arts, or the museums. I really believe that the fact that the cultural scene in Oxford is so rich is why people want to live here. It’s cheaper to live in nearby Reading or Bicester but culture is a huge part of why people want to live here instead. People come here and stay here because there’s such a wealth of culture; it’s really something that people talk about, why they ended up staying.

It’s only a small city but there are two universities. There is lots of college activity and while it does enhance Oxford’s cultural activity, that’s not the reason that there’s lots on offer. Lots of people come here from all over the world who are intelligent and gifted; there is a constant influx of educated and diverse people. So there’s something about the type of people coming to university in Oxford: they are often already engaged with the arts, and if they stay, that is definitely one reason why there is such a rich music scene. Either they’re already interested in music or they start up their own bands. Also, there is an amazing rich and healthy scene of people who are from Oxford. I think that there’s something about the fact that Oxford has the history of bands like Radiohead and Supergrass which leaves a legacy of aspiration in the people that are born and grow up here. Nightshift brings that scene together and keeps it vibrant. There’s also our proximity to London and Bristol and the south east, so it’s not that far to get to the south coast or to the Midlands and means that we’re well positioned for artists touring.

Having said all of that, there are a lot of 100-200 capacity venues which can sometimes make it tricky to turn a profit. The larger venues, 400-500 capacity, are often church or theatre venues so they’re not always necessarily the right kind of venue for what we need. Theatre venues, for example, can be expensive and, while the seating is great, they can sometimes have a challenging acoustic. The O2 Academy is a larger space and we sometimes use that. The Sheldonian Theatre is a unique and beautiful space that works well for classical music in particular but it is very uncomfortable for audiences and there are restrictions on amplified music. So there’s not really a big gig space other than the O2 Academy. Because we’re not tied to a particular venue, then we try to choose venues which are accessible. If we know it’s not accessible then we are careful to make it clear in our information about the event. Parking is eye-wateringly expensive and venues often don’t have their own parking but at least Oxford has a decent public transport system and there is a strongly cycling culture.

There is a delicate ecology of people doing different things off their own bats, so we work hard to try to fill the gaps, and will try to co-promote or co-produce with them rather than replicate what they are doing. At times, however, the great range of cultural activity can cause diary clashes meaning that the audience gets divided between two or more events, which can make it risky for promoters. But there are some incredible people bringing music to the city, nurturing local talent, putting on nights, doing their own promoting, taking those risks off their own bat, and bringing artists into Oxford. I have a huge amount of respect for them because it’s not easy promoting and taking that risk yourself; it’s a tricky and quite stressful thing. But amazing promoters like Bossaphonik, Catweazle, Irregular Folks, Gappy Tooth, and PinDrop, these incredible people are at the heart of why the music scene in Oxford is so great. Long may people like that, with that kind of passion, continue!

[1] We are very grateful to our funders, who support and see the value of what we do. Arts Council England have consistently supported us and believed in our business plan, the PRS for Music Foundation is another long-standing supporter, while the local city council has sustained its support even in the face of government cuts. We partner on almost everything that we do.  We’re a small team so for large-scale work, partnering brings not only richness in terms of the actual work, but also opportunities for presentation to a new audience, new funding opportunities, and allows us to bring resources together to achieve something bigger. Partnerships bring their own challenges, of course, but we’ve got very good at working in partnership and we enjoy it.

[2] One piece I’m really proud of is ‘Furious Folly’ by Mark Anderson, which was breath-taking and challenging and felt really unique. We want to nurture cultural engagement wherever we go with people from all walks of life. With Errolyn Wallen’s diverse and barrier-breaking Orchestra X, we also had an opportunity to do some role modelling, to present work in a different way for audiences.