Coping with lockdown – insights from Manchester's cultural sector

On March 16th  2020 the cultural sector went into lockdown and remains there still.

For an industry which prides itself on delivering high quality and meaningful in-person experiences, this was seismic. More importantly perhaps, it revealed in an instant the big gaps and disparities in digital capability and capacity across the sector.

This came as no surprise to us – we have been working for some time to help encourage cultural organisations to see digital as part of the experience and not just as a 1-way communications tool – and the pandemic has hammered that message home. Too few cultural organisations were ready to engage meaningfully online and the rush to digital was littered with poor quality content and practice as organisations competed for attention in a crowded market place – at best trying to deliver business as usual and at worst hoping to become an overnight YouTube sensation.

To be fair the national disparities showed – all organisations are not equal and whilst National Theatre found it relatively easy to stream theatre productions that has already been filmed and showed in cinemas around the globe – few Manchester organisations are blessed with those budgets or content distribution partnerships. Those who stood out already had engaging content, and/or recognised that their audience’s needs and attention had shifted. And looking back with the perspective and hindsight which the last 12 months affords, there have been some standout interventions from Manchester’s cultural sector which we think are noteworthy.

In our view - best in class was Manchester Collective. A relative minnow in the city’s orchestra scene they showed themselves to be agile and forward-thinking, and seemed to switch onto digital overnight. Of course it wasn’t overnight - because they are aiming at a non-traditional and younger audiences they had already been investing in their online brand experience capturing quality digital content which was ready to be repurposed for such an occasion as a global pandemic. And they did it well. They suit the online space as they are all about intimacy and performing in found spaces and the sense of occasion isn’t lost too much over a broadband connection. They branded what they were doing, Isolation Broadcasts, and put together a schedule of performances alongside a proper marketing campaign and engaged publishers like our own consumer-facing website,, to promote their programme, and found trusted voices like BBC Radio 3’s Elizabeth Alker and their own star violinist and Music Director Rakhi Singh who have big profiles. 

We’ve seen similar examples from Band on the Wall who were the first to make an event and schedule around re-watching their archive concerts, and the Old Bank Residency – a twelve-month creative occupation of a disused bank in Manchester – who has shifted their entire schedule of tutorials and workshops online, even moving the focus of their sessions to cover things like mask-making and improving the lighting on your Zoom calls – all the more relevant than ever in this new normal. 

Contact Theatre was a great example of an organisation which focussed on using its platform to support its socially oriented goals – and gave young people a much needed voice during the pandemic by letting them take over their website and social media. 

Manchester is a city which doesn’t need to be asked twice to indulge in a bit of ‘80s nostalgia. United We Stream, was set up by Greater Manchester Combined Authority, working with event promoter and Night Tsar Sacha Lord. A rapid response to the need to raise money for the beleaguered night-time economy, it programmed and live streamed events in April-May, reaching 14.5 million people and raising almost £500k. At the same time it built the digital capacity and reach of Bury Met who have since gone on to stream more events and who have found a global audience for elements of their music programming.  

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