Every great story begins with a great passion. When you meet Michelle Edgar you can instantly feel that she is incredibly passionate about everything she does, but especially when it includes the love of her life: Music.
Michelle started pursuing music at a very young age, and her career path has had quite an interesting trajectory. Being a professional pianist, she initially chose a journalistic path, but eventually discovered her calling to make a difference in children’s lives around the United States through music.
Continuing to bring music education to inner-city kids through her brainchild, “Music Unites”, Michelle Edgar was recently brought on to lead business development in North America at the creative agency FRUKT.
We met up with Michelle in LA’s mecca of creativity and art – Venice Beach, to chat about her background, passion for music, challenges and blessings of running a non-profit.
ArtsurferMag: For people who don’t know what Music Unites is, can you introduce them to the core idea behind it?
Michelle Edgar: Music Unites is a non-profit that empowers at-risk youth through music by funding after school programs. We educate our students about the music business through MusicVersity educational workshops providing them access and hands-on experience through industry leaders and artists.
Tell us about your background. Did your upbringing instill a passion for music?
I was born in London (my dad is British, my mother is Polish) and we moved to New Jersey when I was 5. My father actually played the violin as a young boy and attended the Royal Academy of Music, so I think I got the bug from him.
I was 5 when I started showing interest in piano. My mother would just catch me sitting there, playing for hours. I was also really interested in ballet. I realized that I wanted to be a ballerina, and the music is what attracted me. It was a real discipline, an outlet for me to express myself and a way to communicate. I went to public school and Manhattan School of Music for 13 years before college. Later I decided I wanted to go to Northwestern University because I wanted a more well-rounded education, but I also wanted a place that was very concentrated, almost conservatory-like. So I began as a classical concert pianist.
I was always drawn to Vanity Fair and their music issue and had always wanted to be a part of putting together that iconic special issue. I told myself: “I want to work there one day!” That’s when I decided journalism was my fallback. It’s interesting because after university I chose that route and worked in the field until my late 20’s and over the last years transitioned to the music business.
Michelle Edgar by Polina Rabtseva
Your idea about Vanity Fair eventually became reality and set you on a more journalistic route. What was the catalyst?
I was born in England and thought it would be interesting to spend summer in the States working for some magazine, so I applied for Vanity Fair internship and I kept being persistent. An amazing woman, who was their publisher, she saw something in me which led to my first job out of university. I then started working as an editor at Womens’ Wear Daily (WWD).
What sparked your interest in philanthropy?
I joined the board of Neighborhood Coalition of Shelter with a friend soon after I graduated. After we put together our first fundraiser, they approached me to join the board and I realized that with my passion for giving back along with the relationships I had, I could do make a significant difference and give back. It was an important cause but music is what my real passion is.
At WWD, I covered the beauty industry and worked for a big mentor of mine- Peter Born. He opened my eyes and really allowed me to grow in so many different areas. He was such a key influence. He saw my strength and ability and pushed me.
Beauty was a main focus for stories, but in the evenings when I got my work done I was allowed to cover different events, and that’s where I got exposed to charity. That was a foreign concept, because my parents didn’t tell me much about being philanthropic. It opened my eyes. It was at that point when I realized that music was missing from my life. I was very withdrawn from music; I wasn’t playing at the time but I realized my passion was to share and give the same gift of music that my parents gave me. I was drawn to doing something to give back and inspire others. I was grateful the gifts that my parents and mentors, that I’ve been very fortunate to find along my journey, gave me and I wanted to do the same and empower others to help them achieve their goals and make their dreams a reality.
Instead of simply making donations or getting involved with any of existing organization you decided to start your own. What made you think of starting a non-profit organization?
I actually looked at many other non-profits. I wanted to give something, as simple as $1,000 dollars, when I was in my early 20’s to one of these organizations, but I really wanted to see and feel where that money would go. That was a lot of money for me. I wanted to have hands-on experience, to see how I changed that one child’s life. And none of them really spoke to me. Our generation and next generation- they really want to see and feel: these young kids doing their birthday parties for a cause, there is social enterprise, Warby Parker, Toms- I think it’s a really exciting time to do good and a lot of people are influenced to purchase items and get involved based on positive messaging.
We started with children’s choirs, and then brought in beats production, then jazz ensemble and orchestra most recently, here in Compton. In the Bronx, NY one of our original choirs has students from all five boroughs of New York City together.
Any existing programs that inspired you?
I watched “60 minutes” and discovered El Sistema that started in Venezuela by Jose Abreu and I wanted to bring the same music educational programs to our country to underserved schools and communities. Here is something that started with one orchestra and spread to over a hundred orchestras and José Abreu is a real role model and inspiration to me. I’ve always wanted to go there to visit that program, since it is at the heart of all that I do — an incredible social movement that has impacted thousands of lives. What they created really made me think a lot. I wanted to bring the same opportunities to kids who don’t have access to music because I wanted to have a regular outlet for them to go and to learn and to work together, I think it teaches great leadership skills, but more importantly I wanted also to show them the path.
I feel like I was very fortunate to go to Manhattan School and Northwestern, but as a concert pianist there weren’t very many outlets. No one told you that you could be an engineer, a producer, a songwriter, music executive, marketing executive, and music journalist. I didn’t know all those different things existed. I wanted to create an experience where kids got to go on these regular field trips to learn about the music business, to turn them on to mentors, to turn them on to artists who care. To learn the craft and art of music and to have really good teachers and have really unique performance opportunities. Our kids have performed everywhere from Lincoln Center, the United Nations and Saks Fifth Avenue to the Tribeca Film Festival, Carnegie Hall and the premiere of Annie in New York! Giving them that experience builds confidence in them.
Prior to starting Music Unites you worked at Red Light Management and Warner Brothers Records. Tell us some of the things you learned while there, that you’ve applied to building Music Unites?
I was at WWD, then I went to OK Magazine to run their beauty department and at that point I started doing a lot more on the marketing side at OK!, leveraging a lot of music relationships that I had tied to the Grammys and I really saw my passion evolve on the marketing front. I saw this as a really interesting space- branding musicians and helping them build out their businesses, so that’s when I decided to transition careers going to music business.
I went to Warner Brothers and it was an incredible experience. I worked with some amazing musicians from The Black Keys to Gary Clark Jr., Theophilus London. I’m very blessed and fortunate that I’ve been able to have a very diverse trajectory, which is more unconventional, but as I said I’m very entrepreneurial. I build Music Unites off of pure passion and a vision by transforming students lives through music. After Warner Brothers, I moved to LA to work in management, I was at Red Light and also worked for a very talented producer Alex da Kid and his label KIDinaKORNER with his roster of artists including Imagine Dragons, Skylar Grey, X Ambassadors and Jamie N Commons. Most recently I was brought on to work on business development at FRUKT, an agency that creates strategic partnerships between businesses and entertainment brands. It takes people’s passion for music and entertainment to create, develop and deliver smart, strategic entertainment partnerships that make a genuine, measurable difference to brands.
You have built relationships with a lot of musicians who serve as ambassadors (Swizz Beatz ,John Forte, Dj Skee and many more). How important have these partnerships been?
I realized I wanted not only to empower kids, but also to provide a support to musicians on all levels – up and coming as well as the established artists, and be that go-to artist organization where musicians can come and say; “I want to be a part of Music Unites” and build their personalized programs under our organization.
We’ve been blessed with some of the artists that I reached out to and they wanted to be involved: Swizz Beatz (he’s been an ambassador), Sting, Jonathan Batiste on the jazz front, Dj Skee, Danja, John Forte, Melanie Fiona. Swizz has brought kids in the studio for workshop, Jonathan did it in New York and here in LA he took kids to Grammy Museum. One of our boys played with him and with his entire band! John came on board very early on, so did D.A Wallach from Chester French. So John, D.A Wallach and Melanie Fiona were really at the forefront. I look for people who are artists and also really pushing beyond in our business (Those are people like D.A and his role at Spotify, DJ Skee who is now doing his own radio).
As far as raising funds for Music Unites, what is the concept of your events?
I always liked the salon concept, which goes back to kings and queens and how they used to enjoy classical music in a private residence. That has been sort of the DNA of how I started my fundraisers. I wanted to create a different experience, so I approached this arts club called Norwood in New York and we did an intimate event in partnership with Universal Motown, a band called Tamarama and The Blue October performed stripped down for a hundred people in this intimate space and that’s how I wanted to present it and I wanted people to appreciate it in a different light, so I’ve taken that same formula and tried to create different musical experience. We also always highlight our kids, whether it’s a fundraiser, or whether it’s a MusicVersity- our kids are always performing. So that’s really key to what we do.
How large is your team of volunteers?
About 10. Most of my team is based in NY right now. It’s not just me, it’s a team of passionate people who want to make a difference and work just as hard. It’s grown over so much time, 7 years of doing it, 7 days a week. It shows what can be created when you set out to do something. We are very fortunate in this age with all the access on the internet and information. I remember the first night that I stayed up all night with one of my friends, she was working at Elle, we snuck in to the Hearst offices and sat there until we figured out how to start a 501(c)3 and the different options. We were looking for 101 in starting a non-profit and I actually just recently wrote an article about that for Fast Company.
According to various research projects, many at-risk students in inner-city schools who considered dropping out said that they remained in school because they liked the arts or music. What’s your personal experience?
It’s a mix, half of them want to be in music, others are looking for an outlet. Their involvement in Art programs definitely increases studying, giving them a sense of community and really strong network- an outlet to express themselves, a safe place to go.
What we are trying to do is create ambassadorship, so it becomes this really prestigious thing that you are part of, this group “Music Unites”. A lot of these kids they don’t even get to leave their neighborhoods and we took our kids to Google here in Venice to talk about different opportunities in music and a lot of kids haven’t even been to the beach. It allows you to see a bigger picture. Not every kid will want to be in music, but we have kids that were in our first program that are now pursuing careers in music and they volunteer within Music Unites. I think whether you want to continue to be a professional in the business or musical artist, I think the skill set is key. People see the impact that music has on attendance rates.
How do you pick schools for the programs?
We pick our schools usually through word of mouth and relationships we have within school districts, hearing about different programs and what the needs are. For most of our programs we provide a choir, beats-making or orchestra. We are looking for schools that value the MusicVersity approach to really expose children to the range of careers within the music industry. Sometimes we put the teacher in the school, sometimes the school might have someone, but they just don’t have the funding and really want to have that instructor. So it’s two-fold. We like to work with the right schools that value and prioritize arts and music, which sees the value in taking kids on monthly MusicVersity journeys. Our Music Versity workshops have ranged from Paramount and Spotify to Converse Rubbertracks, Swizz Beatz studio, The Voice, Google and NYU.
You named Sylvia Rhone (President of Sony Music’s Epic Records) and Julie Greenwald (Chairman/COO, Atlantic Records Group) as your inspirations in business. What strikes you most about these powerful women?
I really value what they stand for both professionally and personally. I had the real blessing in meeting Sylvia early on in my career when I was super young. And with her support is how it’s first started with that first event in Norwood. I always admired what she stands for and what she’s fought for in the business and how she is progressive and forward thinking. I’ve learned a lot from her over the years and had always looked up to her. Julie is another fabulous, powerful woman in the business. I didn’t get to work directly for her at Warner Brothers but at any time I could be in a meeting I would just be so excited to listen, see how she conducts and inspires her team. The culture, atmosphere and the leadership there was really inspiring. Both these women embody strong leadership and empower young people and provide them with guidance and opportunities to excel and tap into their true potential.
Since Music Unites is all about music, describe which songs/artists have you been listening to most recently?
I love Imagine Dragons, Phoenix, I love James Blake… Let’s see who I have! [Opening playlist]. Chris Malinchak, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Milky Chance, Tracy Chapman, Jake Bugg. Bon Iver, Pharrell. It’s pretty diverse.
If there were a perfect soundtrack for this year of your life, which song would it be?
In our ‘urban warrior” section we feature people like yourself- empowering, inspiring people who change the world. Please name one person that you consider a real “warrior”?
He is a real role model for me, he is up there with the badass women that I named too. I think what he’s taken I mean in terms of businesses he’s built, his philosophy and take on life, balance and wellness and meditation. More importantly he is so generous. What he does, what he’s built with his arts organization Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. I love their programs and getting art back in schools is imperative since art and music are always the first two to go. I think he is the best example of philanthropist, someone who’s really taken what he’s built and been extremely generous and a role model and really speaks to who he is and he is genuine about it. He is so giving and a true inspiration to me! I’d love to just spend a day and shadow him, and have him put me to work. It would be such an honor to learn from such a true visionary and mentor!