How to host a gig in lockdown: Behind the scenes at United We Stream

United We Stream

The lockdown announcement echoed around the Manchester nightlife scene like a death knell.

With lumps firmly lodged in their throats, bewildered venue owners got to work on hastily boarding up their premises, whilst downbeat musicians apologetically cancelled their upcoming shows.

When the due diligence was done, the industry turned to its members with a solemn shrug and asked: What now?

Just like that, gigs were gone. The sweeping government decree confirmed that, for now, the music must stop.

Nobody danced in Manchester that evening. Perhaps for the first time. The city’s resident night owls had been forced into hibernation by the shifting climate, and with this came a sobering reality.

Our city’s nightlife was in serious danger.

In times of crisis, the people look to their leaders, and soon all eyes turned to Sacha Lord, the Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester.

It sounded like he had a plan.

“Tomorrow pm, we will announce something that we have been working on,” he said on Twitter on 27 March.

“It will entertain everyone whilst we are at home and at the same time help the most vulnerable. MUSIC IS IN OUR DNA.”

The next day, United We Stream Greater Manchester (UWS) was unveiled to the world.

It would be a platform that turned live shows digital; giving stages to artists, gigs to audiences, and a crucial financial funnel to the nightlife scene. All performances would be free, Lord confirmed, but viewers could donate if they wished. People were encouraged to think of it as “buying a virtual gig ticket.”

UWS was a bold, ambitious concept, but it took off faster and more emphatically than anyone could have hoped for. Within weeks of launch, it was the country’s go-to streaming service for performances.

Since that historic debut online gig in April, millions have tuned into UWS to watch DJs spinning, chefs cooking, comedians riffing, bands jamming and singers singing. Huge names have been speckled across every weekend bill – including five-figure numbers for the marathon events streamed over 12 hours.

Strongly backed by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, UWS has raised £380,000 and counting – with proceeds going towards the nightlife industry, homeless charities and music therapy organisation Nordoff Robins.

As inelegant a question as it may seem, we couldn’t help but wonder: How the hell is all of this even possible?

Those behind the scenes at UWS were willing to briefly pulled back the curtain to show The Manc how they create gigs for the lockdown age.

United We Stream

Hidden away inside The Met Theatre in Bury, the UWS studio is a majestic cavern of roving cameras and snaking wires – illuminated in a blue glow cast by a glittering wall of beaming monitors.

All the action is captured by eight pieces of photographic equipment – with streams managed by a socially-distanced team of around half a dozen pros on any given evening; give or take.

Planning and production meetings are conducted remotely via video link. Members of the core team are still waiting for the day when they can meet face-to-face.

It’s baffling how something as big as UWS is being successfully manned by a small group – many of whom didn’t know one another weeks ago.

“The delivery is managed by a mix of on site and off site teams, and we handle much of the pre-production and international feeds off site,” explains UWS Director, Colin McKevitt.

“On site is a very small team of two camera operators, one engineer looking after the graphics, output stream integrity, social media integrations and other tech, and I direct, vision mix and move one other camera.

“We have another production member who during the longer 12 hour broadcasts handles any artist movements and general advancing. At its smallest the team on site is four at its largest seven – with the venue’s lighting and sound engineer making sure everything looks and sounds fantastic at home.”

United We Stream

Camera Supervisor Katie Hall, who captured many of the amazing behind the scenes images, has said that operating as part of a tight-knit team actually has its benefits.

“Working under social distancing rules has been strange,” she admits.

“However, I think that working with a smaller condensed crew has helped to bring the team closer together and we have a new appreciation for each other’s individual roles.”

Manchester-based Digital marketing agency Modern English has also gotten involved in the process of bringing gigs to living rooms in lockdown, and CEO Andy Hirst has said the team bond over at UWS has played a big role in making that happen.

“It’s a small team but (everyone is) hugely committed and literally on it every day and night,” he explains.

““Sacha has obviously been key in a lot of areas and it’s been great to work with him, but the GMCA side of the team with Laura running the publicity, James on the tech and digital side, and Gareth and Marie Claire from Culture policy have all been amazing too, and the Salford Uni media guys have been relentless – some of the things they’ve done have been remarkable.

 “It feels like it’s genuinely from Manchester with love.”

United We Stream

Over the past eight weeks, the UWS stage has played host to Hacienda legends (such as Peter Hook, Graeme Park, and K Class), as well as Erol Alkan, The Black Madonna, Todd Terry, DJ Pierre, Roger Sanchez, DJ Paulette, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Yoda, Crazy P, Roisin Murphy (Moloko) and Horse Meat Disco.

New Order have appeared in a special tribute show to Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, Spice Girl Mel C has spun a belter of a set that had the whole city fist-pumping in unison, and Manchester actress Maxine Peake has smashed out some tunes from home whilst rocking an NHS t-shirt.

Elbow, Jack Curley and Slow Readers Club have streamed some thumping live performances, whilst comedian Jon Richardson and his gaggle of comedians served up a side-splitting set on bank holiday Monday.

There’s even been a moving rendition from Manchester Survivor’s Choir.

Of course, the talent pool doesn’t sit in a single spot – nor can its artists necessarily reach the UWS studio. Creatives are quarantined in various parts of the planet right now due to coronavirus regulations, and UWS collaborates with other digital experts overseas to successfully stream the live performances happening across the pond.

“Our various stream servers are located in various locations with secure backups,” director Colin tells us.

“We have worked collaboratively with a wealth of digital talent from all over the world who support various artists.”

United We Stream

The insiders at UWS have credited the platform’s success to passion and variation – with the team constantly finding new ways to push the boundaries and serve up different types of online entertainment.

Defined by those involved as an “epic project”, UWS has moved at lightning since day one – attracting hundreds of artists and local breakthrough talent to the digital stage in the space of eight weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations have been generated by viewers alone – leaving Manchester nightlife now with an essential support pot.

Local music venues, restaurants, bars, freelancers and cultural organisations are all set to get a slice of the pie.

United We Stream

Gig venues lie dormant for the time being. But the lifeblood of Manchester’s nighttime economy is still pumping thanks to UWS.

Whilst the ball has been rolling at an unstoppable speed, the team haven’t lost sight of what they set out to do.

“Keeping the team small and agile whilst maintaining the quality will always be difficult, what we remember all the time is that we are doing this to highlight an incredibly important issue,” says Colin.

“The arts, culture and night-time economies of the world are suffering. The sector will be very difficult to re-boot and what we are doing is to show the world that Greater-Manchester has a fantastic digital skills capability.

“We’re very proud to be able to bring brilliant Greater Manchester moments to the world.”

UWS will start winding down its shows from 7 June to focus on rebuilding the economy as it begins to make its comeback.

It’s been a saving grace – and the reason why the future for Manchester nightlife, against all odds, still looks bright.

Learn more about United We Stream on their website.

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