Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The fundraising platform United We Stream hosts concerts, DJ sets and other live performances in European cities to keep clubs from going out of business.
Many businesses are struggling during the pandemic, but live music venues and nightclubs are under particular strain. It’s not just that lockdowns make hosting shows unfeasible — it’s also that clubs and bars are likely to remain shuttered long after most shops and workplaces have reopened. Venues in Amsterdam, for example, will be kept closed until September 1 (and possibly longer) due to the contagion risk posed by crowds and confined spaces. When restrictions do finally lift, how many will have survived?
A fast-growing project created by nightlife advocates in Europe could provide one way to keep night businesses alive and working through the lockdown period, and the semi-lockdown that could linger long afterward. Called United We Stream, the combined live-streaming and fundraising platform hosts live music, DJ sets, performances and other live experiences from a growing roster of venues across Europe. Patrons are invited to drop into daily events staged for the platform, and invited via on-screen buttons to donate money if they can, either by buying merchandise or by splashing out on a “virtual drink.” These donations are plowed back into keeping music and nightlife scenes alive.
The idea isn’t novel — in the U.S., a now-defunct streaming site called Concert Window offered a similar experience — but the coronavirus crisis and the resulting silencing of live music gives the model a new raison d’être. Currently running in 10 cities — seven German metro areas, plus Amsterdam, Manchester and Vienna — United We Stream is considering expansion into cities across the world. In keeping with the electronic music scene that spawned the platform’s creation, the city streams mainly feature DJ sets, as well as sessions from live bands. There are sessions hoping to cater to as broad an audience as possible, such as Vienna’s 12-hour music stream marathon on Saturdays, as well as slots tailored to somewhat more niche audiences, such as those hosted by Berlin’s queer techno club Gegen.
So far, it has already proved strikingly successful: In Berlin, the project has raised more than 430,000 euros, a sum that could do much to keep the wolf from many venues’ (closed) doors. The funds the project raises are carefully divided, city by city, along the following lines. The first 10% of all money raised goes to Covid-19 relief projects that are not nightlife-related, such as local counseling services or food banks. The next 20% goes to the host venues, with a maximum of 5,000 euros per session going to pay DJs and other club staff. A further 20% goes into an emergency support fund for venues that find themselves right on the brink.
“A venue can apply saying, ‘if I don’t get 4,000 euros my lease is going to be canceled next week and I will lose my venue,’” says UWS volunteer and co-organizer (and former Amsterdam Night Mayor) Mirik Milan. “We can respond to that kind of appeal within 48 hours.”
The remaining half goes into longer-term support, much of which will be needed if venues — especially smaller, less commercial ones without financial buffers — are to survive. Some venues might need ongoing support to keep their rent paid, while other applicants might want funding to develop music or art projects that have been deprived of their usual venues. The platform’s potential to branch out into other forms of live, club-based performance is huge; already the streams are hosting events such as Manchester’s Art Battle, where 10 artists create a painting together live during a 30-minute session.
“We can’t afford to help everyone,” says Milan, “but we can help to support creative projects that will help to rebuild our scene in the future. It’s about supporting the ecosystem. If everyone has to find a completely different kind of job for six months, then when restrictions lift there isn’t going to be a scene to go back to.”