A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away (i.e., 2007), musicians affectionately called Ventura County, Venue County. From theaters to coffeehouses to taverns to clubs to fairgrounds to wine bars to restaurants to skate parks . . . well, you get the point. But fast-forward a decade and the Ventura County we’re living in, when it comes to places to play, couldn’t be further from that boom period. The venue obituaries over the past few years, including places that still exist but have ceased having live music, make up a long list.

There are, however, still a few brave souls out there willing to open and operate a new venue, and a new space in Ojai just may have found the key to making a live music performance space actually work in 2017.

Meet Bernie Larsen and Cassidy Linder. The definition of working artists, Larsen is an accomplished musician and producer, having worked in the studio and on tour with a host of artists, including Melissa Etheridge, Jackson Browne and Rickie Lee Jones. While the Los Angeles-based Larsen devoted his life to music, halfway across the country in Chicago, Linder was doing the same in the world of professional dance.

When the two kindred spirits met and fell in love, they found themselves looking to start a life together outside of the bustling big cities where they both lived and worked. Like many artists before them, they were drawn to Ojai.

In no time, the two decided to marry their mutual loves (no pun intended) and open a space where Linder could teach dance during the day and Larsen could hold live performances, as well as be able to record, on the weekends. With that, the Ojai Arts Exchange was born and officially opened this past January. Larsen and Linder have purposely kept things quiet, letting the news spread naturally on social media and by word of mouth. With a slew of recent shows, however, including an appearance early this month by two big-name singer-songwriters, Ben Lee and Josh Radnor, Ojai’s best-kept secret is out.

What makes the OAE so unique is its “dual purpose” aspect. While Linder teaches adult dance classes like tap, ballet and theatrical jazz during the day, Larsen takes over on weekend evenings, transforming the venue into its alter ego, the Underground Exchange. The intimate performance space with seating for about 50 people is not just exclusively for music: All art forms are welcome. Along with musicians, the venue has also hosted spoken-word readings and dance performances.

Larsen knows firsthand the many issues that artists encounter when performing live, and he’s focused on making sure the Underground Exchange is the very definition of a listening room.

“It’s important to us to make sure this is a place where people can actually listen to music,” explains Larsen. “We treat every show like an art opening. We are really striving for it to be a different type of venue. We have a proper sound check before the event starts. We record live to multitrack. We film the performance. We’ve had artists that have toured the world, and they’ve said this is one of the best experiences they’ve ever had playing live.”

That type of praise comes as no surprise. The Underground Exchange is essentially a musician’s dream venue, with owners who are performers themselves and audiences that appreciate and quite literally come to listen. 

In these trying times it’s the dual purpose that truly gives the OAE such a great shot at longevity. Where normal venues couldn’t afford to keep the doors open doing only one to two small shows a week, OAE remains a full-time dance studio with a growing clientele. And if there’s one thing both Larsen and Linder are clear on, it’s that they are in no way trying to compete with any bars or clubs.

“We position our performances in the 7:30 to 9:30 time frame. We like to think we’re the early part of the date,” laughs Larsen. “Then after the show, you can head into town for dinner, drinks and have the Ojai experience.”

With an attitude like that, there’s not much more to say besides, welcome to the neighborhood.

The Underground Exchange is located at 1016 W. Ojai Ave. and features Jade Hendrix and Jeff Uzzel on Saturday, May 20. For dance class schedules and upcoming performances visit www.ojaiartsexchange.com or the venue’s Facebook page.