The last few months have seen innumerable upheavals in the cultural sector. Culture was once centred on shared spaces: clubs, galleries, theatres, community buildings and city centres. Memories of such hustle and bustle now seem increasingly distant.
Likewise, as the furlough scheme ends, countless job losses are imminent. Fatalism is hard to avoid, a bleak winter approaches.
Against this backdrop, United We Stream provided people with ten weeks of quality live-streamed content as well as some much-needed financial support during the first lockdown period.
“We just kinda went for it, I’ve no idea how we did it, we managed to pull it together in five days,” says Gareth Williams, the Night-Time Economy Lead at Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority (GMCA), who led United We Stream alongside Sacha Lord.
“United We Stream was an incredibly intense period, the team were working 60 and 70 hour weeks. The filming crew were doing more than that. We had brilliant people at Badger & Coombes doing editing at four o’clock in the morning for the stream to go live the next day.”
United We Stream produced 207 hours of live broadcasting that reached nearly 15m people. In an intense ten-week period they managed to raise £477,000.
As the furlough scheme ends, countless job losses are imminent. Fatalism is hard to avoid, a bleak winter approaches
This money was then distributed widely: 70 per cent went to businesses and individuals in the cultural sector, 22 per cent to the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity and 8 per cent to Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Charity. There were also a series of special one-off events to raise money for other affiliated charities.
United We Stream was about more than just the money. The brand was conceived in Berlin, where it naturally centred on club culture. DJs were streamed playing to empty, darkened rooms. This highlighted the key message: “Here’s a dancefloor that should be full of people and it’s not.”
United We Stream soon morphed into an international initiative that – in its Mancunian iteration at least – was purposefully uplifting: “We wanted to make it more upbeat […] it was a public service we were providing, to entertain people, to really push that stay at home message, to have a bit of positivity, and to raise cash for those struggling.”
The result was output that varied from the Royal Exchange Theatre – “one of the leading production houses outside of London… just left shut, high and dry” – to a night run alongside Contact Theatre that celebrated performances by young people from ethnic minority communities.
“We had someone who had performed only a handful of times before, not very old, and stand on a platform and deliver some of their poetry. And I think that was really important […] It was a way of taking something that was pretty grim for a lot of people and trying to make something positive.”
Likewise, there was an attempt to move beyond the confines of the city centre: “You’ve got some amazing venues in places like the Old Courts in Wigan, and in Bury, the Met – where United We Stream was hosted.”
But, as much as United We Stream was an idealistic venture – taking culture online in reaction to it being taken off the streets – for many, the economic realities were beginning to bite.
It was a way of taking something that was pretty grim for a lot of people and trying to make something positive
At the start of the year, 414,000 people in Manchester were employed in jobs that were significantly active at night. This night-time economy employed a third of the cities’ workforce, and nearly half of these people were employed in the cultural and leisure industries. A fifth of those employed full-time in the night-economy, and half of part-time workers, earned less than the living wage.
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The night-time economy has since suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus crisis. In response, United We Stream invited struggling businesses and individuals to apply for grants ranging from £500 to £10,000:
“We were inundated. We really did not have enough cash to go round. It was brilliant that we were helping people, but it was really hard as well. We had so many people who were clearly in really desperate need, those people who had sort of fallen through the cracks.”
“People like freelancers, for gigs, freelance artists, sound techs, riggers […] didn’t qualify for furlough schemes, didn’t qualify for help from the government, and ended up in situations like applying for universal credit and not getting the money in.”
Demand for help, however, exceeded capacity. £477,000 only goes so far. I asked where these people were now: were they still in a fight for survival?
“100 per cent.”
“Furlough has been a brilliant thing. But the end of furlough is a cliff edge. It absolutely is. The announcements from Rishi Sunak are frankly not good enough.”
“I think we are going to see an awful lot of redundancies. I think we are going to see a real step back for a lot of institutions in Greater Manchester.”
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The Labour Party say Rishi Sunak’s Winter Economic Plan will consign more than a million jobs to the scrapheap. Sunak’s comments, suggesting that artists should ‘retrain’, have not instilled confidence: they indicate a shameful ignorance about the importance of the cultural sector.
“Who decides what is legitimate culture and what isn’t? If the West End and the Royal Opera House and the National Ballet are protected, but the likes of Bury Met or Wigan Old Courts or Night and Day Café in town don’t get similar support, then I think that indicates then they are not viewed as comparable types of culture.”
Furlough has been a brilliant thing. But the end of furlough is a cliff edge. It absolutely is.
“There can be a snobbery to arts and culture. Going to see a band, or an open-mic night, or going to see a DJ. That is culture to a lot of people. And that is just as valid as going to see the National Opera or the Ballet.”
Without proper support, this grassroots culture is under threat. On Monday, it was announced a number of iconic organisations and venues would receive emergency funding. Over 1,300 theatres, museums and cultural sites are to receive a share of the government’s £257m survival fund.
Included were Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, who will receive £804,000 and £740,000 respectively. Such actions are welcome, but the headline recipients are noticeably ‘high’ culture institutions. The grassroots continue to be neglected.
For months, United We Stream gave fifteen million people the opportunity to get as close to seeing a band or poet or comedian as was possible under the circumstances. The situation is changing fast: ‘there will be some more things coming from United We Stream.’
Nothing online is as good as it is in person, but schemes like United We Stream don’t want to replace culture as we know it. They have adapted to adverse circumstances. They want to make sure that culture is protected, that it survives, and that it is still there to come back to once the ruptures through which we are living have finally run their course.
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The cover art for this piece was created by Phoebe Brightmore, you can find more of her work on Instagram.
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.