When classic music tenor Lawrence Brownlee took the field at Metlife Stadium to sing the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers football game, he felt conflicted.
On the field, 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick was leading a league-wide protest against that very anthem. As a fellow African-American man, he was sympathetic to Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement, but as musician—and son of a war veteran—he felt the need to sing.
Brownlee decided to release a public statement on social media to express his dilemma and the outcome: He would “sing with the conflicting emotions that pull my heart.”
Helping Brownlee was Unison Media, a marketing and PR firm for classical musicians based out of New York City’s WeWork Irving Place. Unison is managing to break new ground by bringing their clients into the mainstream and changing the way classical musicians are portrayed in the very spaces in which their music is performed.
For Brownlee, that meant garnering media attention for the tenor and placing a classical musician at the heart of a hot-button political discussion.
Founded two years ago by Brown University alumni Andrew Ousley, Unison has quickly taken off as a premier marketing and public relations agency for young classical musicians in New York. Warner Music is now among their clients.
After graduating Brown with a degree in philosophy, Ousley traveled to France and Norway on an Arnold Fellowship to study classical music. That love of music was nurtured at an early age by his mother, an opera singer, and his early exposure to Beethoven and Mozart.
When he returned, a job had opened up in the classical division of music company EMI and he was hired. “I just kind of fell into it,” Ousley says.
From a business standpoint, Ousley found EMI’s approach to PR outdated.
“I spent 10 years watching the record industry self-destruct,” he says. During that time, he learned everything about the business from marketing and PR to website design and social media.
Ousley realized classical music needed a PR makeover. And with Unison, he has set out to reshape the way people view it.
“You don’t need a PhD to understand classical music,” he explains. “You just need to come without preconceptions or a fear of not getting it.”
This approach has attracted Unison’s clients—mostly young musicians. “They’re willing to see the potential of what can be, rather than what has changed,” he says. That explains why Unison has never had to solicit a client and has, in fact, turned quite a few away.
Once they do sign a client, Unison works closely with artists to curate their story, public image, and their sound.
For a recent concert series, Unison brought classical music out of the stuffy theater and into a new, intriguing environment. The Crypt Sessions launched in 2015 in Harlem’s Church of the Intercession.
Since then, the shows have been selling out in 10 minutes and boast waiting lists of 200 people. In the candlelit crypt, 50 seats wrap around the center-stage, where the musicians sit, performing against a backdrop of chambered ashes and the beauty of the church.
Ousley says many of the people that attend aren’t necessarily classical music fans—they just think it’s “cool and are open-minded.”
To keep attracting those open-minded folks, Unison stays on top of current trends in social media. Shortly after live streaming became available on Facebook, they worked with concert presenter DCINY to broadcast their performance of Christopher Tin’s music. He is the first composer to win a Grammy for music featured in a video game. This earned him a Guinness World Record, for essentially merging classical music with new age culture, much like Unison.
The live-stream performance, with a full choir and orchestra, went out to 10 million people who follow the Guinness World Record on social media. It also included a follow up interview.
The interviews are important, because for Unison, the artist’s “personality and their energy needs to be part of the package.”
Unison also recently coordinated a live stream with The New York Times for the Attacca Quartet, young musicians performing a contemporary composition by John Adams.
Unlike the Lincoln Center show, this was more intimate and informal; the stream stuck to close-ups on the performers.
In the coming year, Unison plans to expand more into management and digital marketing, continuing to generate media buzz around their clients and set up more concert series like the Crypt Sessions.
Meanwhile, Unison continues to rewrite the narrative on classic music, one public statement at a time.