Prospering On: The Met & United we stream

There is no doubt that the past few months have been challenging for the cultural heritage sector across the UK. However, in the face of such adversity, the creativity that underpins the sector has also resulted in organisations persevering in connecting with their audiences in a plethora of innovative ways. Now that we see lockdown restrictions slowly lifting and organisations are opening their doors once again, a number of new challenges and opportunities lie ahead. To celebrate, we thought it would be great to catch up with some former Prosper North participants to see how they have managed to navigate these unusual times.

This week we spoke to Victoria Robinson, CEO of The Met – a cultural hub located in Bury, Greater Manchester – which took part in the first edition of Prosper North. Victoria discusses with us how her and her colleagues at The Met channelled their efforts into the United We Stream project where a whole host of organisations across the region have come together to stream first-class cultural entertainment online, raising money for vital charities at the same time.

United We Stream is a fantastic initiative and an incredible collaborative effort within the wider Manchester region! How did the MET get involved and do you see this regional collaboration continuing in a post-lockdown world?

We were so lucky this year to become part of the Culture Portfolio funded by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. As COVID started to strike, GMCA and Sacha Lord approached us and asked if we could work together to make the United We Stream project happen in Manchester. A similar project had already been successful in Berlin and they were fairly certain it could work here. 

We were absolutely delighted to be asked as it was becoming more and more apparent as March wore on that we would have to close for an indefinite amount of time. It was very new for us but very exciting to still be operating when everyone was locked down. 

In terms of collaboration it’s been a fascinating opportunity for the venue to embrace different programming, and to work with the technical streaming team coming in from the University of Salford. And there’s been collaboration with fantastic Greater Manchester arts organisations like Contact theatre, Manchester Literature Festival, Manchester Jazz Festival, and the Hacienda and so many DJs and promoters. Some we’ve always wanted to work with and this has proved a brilliant opportunity, and some we’d never crossed paths with but we now consider great friends.

For many viewers it will be their first experience of The Met, and it’s certainly impacted our perception of what we can achieve, in a very positive way. But we also hope that some of The Met’s unique character has contributed to and come across in the whole United We Stream experience for artists and viewers.  

United We Stream has been a phenomenal success, raising just under £500,000 for those in need across Manchester. The project will come to an end in the next couple of months but it’s been amazing to be its home for most of this year! 

The initiative has raised an incredible amount of money for a range of individuals and organisations, how has it directly benefited the MET and your staff? 

We’ve got some amazing profiles from the partnership and we’ve been able to build on our digital skills, starting to run our own events and developing a whole digital programme including workshops and gigs that have also been well received. It’s always been an ambition for us to start a digital programme and this has given us a massive surge of energy to do just that. We’re a small team and the project really has been vital for our wellbeing. Particularly at the start of lockdown, it gave us a real sense of hope! 

What have some of your production highlights throughout United We Stream been? 

I’m sorry to say that I’ve not been part of any of the real work, but for me, watching Hacienda classical was a huge highlight as 40 musicians were all streamed in, mixed and streamed out of The Met! The gig was huge, a 12 hour house party on a sunny day that was watched by over 1 million people. 

You have evidently been very keen to engage with and maintain your relationship with your existing audience, how do you feel like this has gone? And do you think you’ve forged any new connections within and outside of your community? 

We’ve been in touch with our workshops groups, running most online over the last 5 months. This will continue because we’ve definitely accessed new participants and helped people feel less isolated. Arts Centres have such a vital task at the moment and they fulfil a much wider social role than just being a venue. 

United we Stream have definitely helped build our audience. The Hacienda evenings had over 1 million people watching from all over the world and that’s not something many 400 capacity venues can say. At one point during lockdown Bury was tagged as the clubbing capital of the UK, which is quite an achievement for a small folk venue! 

We’ve just ran our first test event last week which had 16 people attending a stream inside the venue. This was a real opportunity for us to see how events will work in the future, but it’s going to be really, really, tough. We do have a really loyal regular audience that miss us, but we’ve had socials and we will open properly as soon as it’s safe to do so. We’ve been really keen to curate online content for our audiences, highlighting if an artist who would usually visit us is doing something on line. That’s also worked really well as there’s a lot out there! Venues should be supporting smaller artists as much as they can to stream and keep creating. 

Unfortunately we know that lockdown measures lifting doesn’t mean the end of the uncertainty for venues such as yours, what needs to be done on a local and governmental level to best support venues such as yours?

Starting with local – if you visit small venues and you love music, support them, buy advance tickets, become a member, donate, buy gift vouchers. Most small venues have cash flow issues and with no income they are really struggling. Small venues play a large part in the gig economy, they help grow and develop artists and without them there will be a gulf for future talent. Small venues also play a much wider social role as I’ve mentioned, so support, donate and lobby your MP to keep them protected and supported.

Governmental – for most venues the largest overhead is staff costs, so the obvious suggestion and one that is being continually put forward is an extension of furlough schemes for those businesses that can’t yet open safely. But also protecting tenants from evictions when they can’t afford to pay rent. There’s always a threat that venues become housing because that’s where the money is! And to be honest, devolving powers to local governments is the way forward so they can manage the process at a local level. 

Were there any learnings from your time spent on the Prosper North programme that helped you to navigate this uncertain time? 

I can’t recommend the programme highly enough. It made me tear up everything we knew and start again and that was a tough task when a venue has been running for 40 years and you’ve worked in it for 15! So it made me take some tough choices and evaluate risk differently. It was the start of something for us, because we got some fantastic staff on board including a fundraiser and an outreach manager and new board members which have been absolutely key to weathering this particular storm! It also made me evaluate the bits that didn’t work and start again with them too. The whole organisation works better as a result.

We went into this pandemic in the best shape we could have which is both devastating and reassuring, because this year we would have really started to grow but instead we have just remained stable. It’s the network from the programme that has also been helpful too. The people I was on the course with were really inspiring. We were all on different paths with very different businesses but the people (and the mentors) were passionate, open and supportive. Hannah also organised excellent networking events and really helped to facilitate conversation, which is so important!

You can find out more about The Met here and more about the Prosper North programme here.