On any given night, it is very likely that you will find Michelle Edgar having a complete blast at a concert venue. When she’s not rocking out to hip-hop or classical music, this New Yorker devotes her time to Music Unites, the nonprofit she founded with an ambitious mission: connect people through music by finding innovative ways to experience it, provide emerging talents with an opportunity to perform, and raise money to support educational programs. With her brilliant mind and positive attitude, Edgar has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, from Sting to Mark Ronson. But whether she’s organizing an event with Lang Lang or attending a youth choir, what this entrepreneur really wants is to give people the chance to be inspired and freed by music.
Max Lugavere, a BR!NKer who recommended you for the site, referred to you as a “rockstar.” How would you define yourself?
I started Music Unites, a music charity dedicated to bringing music education to underprivileged children. I guess lately people have been calling me an entrepreneur, whatever that means nowadays. [laughs] I love creating things that make a difference in society and I enjoy seeing something through from start to finish that serves the community.
Before diving right into Music Unites, tell me about your relation to music.
I started playing the piano when I was five. I would sit for hours and practice while my parents would watch me and try to figure out how to support my passion at such a young age.
An entrepreneur sees something missing in society and does something about it. How was the idea for Music Unites born?
I wanted to figure out how to get back into music and make a difference in the community. As a journalist, I started covering charity events and became frustrated; artists didn’t know why they were there. A lot of people running around literally didn’t know about the core mission of the organizations and where their money was going. I wanted to make a difference through music providing opportunities for all students to be given the opportunity to experience and study. Music Unites connects people through music; exposing them to music across all genres from classical to hip hop to rock. I describe this as a movement of artists getting behind causes and coming up with solutions by inspiring the next generation of musicians. We are different in the sense that we create initiatives tailored to our artists so they can choose which music philanthropic educational program they want to support.
Was there an “ah-ha” moment where you knew this was the right idea for you?
A couple of years ago, I attended a benefit concert for the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation, which was started by Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. The concert included talents such as Billy Joel and James Taylor, and in the middle of it, the musicians integrated classical music performances and had their own children perform. The concert brought people of all backgrounds together to raise money for an important cause. The cross-generational representation of all genres, the authenticity, the rawness of experiencing music… it moved me in such a way that I experienced and interpreted music in a different light that evening.
One of the deeply rooted principles of Music Unites is the importance of music as a healing tool. Why is that?
Studies show a direct correlation between the arts and a student’s academic abilities and attendance rates. When you’re dealing with inner city communities, you hope that by offering an in-school or extracurricular music program that inspires them, it will have a positive impact across the board. Most importantly, what a great way express yourself – it’s liberating and helps shape you as an individual, not to mention the discipline and training required as an artist which is an invaluable skill to develop. I was fortunate enough to have music shape my life and make me the person I am today, and I want to give others that chance.
I want to hear practically how Music Unites has already made a difference.
It’s impossible to pick my favorite! They’re all so close to me and very different. Only six months after I started Music Unites, it was humbling and incredibly inspiring to do an event with Sting and Trudie. Of course, it was magical when our Music Unites Youth Choir made their debut at Michael Dorf’s The Who Tribute at Carnegie Hall last March, opening the show with “Tommy’s Overture.” I knew Music Unites had reached a new milestone when Mayor Bloomberg thanked the charity at Sting and Trudie’s Twin Spirits concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center – that’s a moment I will never forget.
What makes Music Unites different from other nonprofits trying to bring music to the disadvantaged?
We actually create initiatives tailored directly to our artists allowing them to choose where they want the funds to go. Melanie Fiona, Alexandra Richards, Diane Birch, Mia Moretti and Caitlin Moe were passionate about women’s issues and empowering young women. We’re currently creating an after-school rock ‘n roll club for Kate Nash which will kick off tied to women’s history month in March. At Music Unites, we don’t ever want to force artists: we are just giving them the opportunity to be passionate and serve the community.
Aren’t you afraid that celebrities just want to associate themselves with charitable causes to improve their public image?
I don’t believe in that. As a celebrity, the only reason they’re in that position is because they’ve achieved success through their hard work and talent and people look up to them as a role model and inspiration. You can see the ones that really care about the things they stand behind.
One of the many roles of Music Unites is to build a bridge between different types of music. Are you yourself a fan of many different genres?
Yes! There’s a good chance you’ll find me at a show at least four nights a week from Lincoln Center, at an opera or philharmonic, to a dive on the Lower East Side, or at Terminal 5 or a Brooklyn music venue like Brooklyn Bowl. I love live music and have an appreciation for everything: Hip-hop meets classical meets rock. It’s important to expose yourself to music you wouldn’t usually be drawn to – such as classical – because it forces you to open your ears and interpret it in a different way. Look at popular artists like Phoenix: if you listen to it close enough you’ll hear the classical influence and all the amazing musical references – there’s a reason the first single was called “Lisztomania” from their Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix album.
You’ve built a remarkable network of people (Sting, Lang Lang…), companies (Epic, Ralph Lauren…), and nonprofits. How did you go about doing this?
Passion. I love what I do, it’s what I’m meant to be doing. I love and live music; all my days of last year, I went to every major music festival last year to scout talent. I live, eat, breathe, sleep and dream it… that’s what I do. I also can thank those who got behind Music Unites from day one — Universal Motown, who helped launch our first event back in April 2009 at Norwood with Blue October and Tamarama.
In the short and long term, what do you envision for Music Unites?
Currently we are launching a nationwide instrument drive funding instruments for the freshman class at Benito Juarez Community Academy, in Southside Chicago, and the plan is to create and reinvigorate the music curriculum and transform it into a performing arts academy. This month we purchased instruments for the high school and our goal is to fund for students at this academy during all four years of the students’ high school career. I hope to eventually have chapters around the world and across college campuses. The goal is to create the Music Unites Summer Festival and get the Music Unites Summer Camp up-and-running: an all-scholarship-based music camp for all children to come and learn not only how to be a better musician, but appreciate the music business. How to be a producer, songwriter, and careers you can have in the industry – because not everyone can be the artist. The entire music business is reinventing itself, which makes it an amazing time to be a part of this movement and properly educate students about all the different facets of the business.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I want Music Unites to be a network, a community of people who really love music and want to make a significant difference in their individual communities. We’re cultivating the future patrons of the arts. With our various initiatives, feel free to reach out to us with your ideas. We’re expanding very rapidly and we’d love people who share the same mission and want to see Music Unites take it to the next level.