Andrew Ousley is not an artist or a musician: he’s, in truth, a businessman. His firm, Unison Media, represents classical musicians for marketing and promotion. But he has another organization, Death of Classical, through which he has become an impresario, presenting concerts in two of the most beguiling locations in New York City; the crypt under the Church of the Intercession (The Crypt Sessions), and the catacombs in Green-Wood Cemetery (The Angel’s Share).
A cool location is one thing, the concert experience another. What Ousley puts in front of the audiences is mostly new music, including the world premiere of David Hertzberg’s opera The Rose Elf, directed by R.B. Schlather, in the catacombs, and the Attacca Quartet playing the string quartet music of Caroline Shaw in the crypt (their Nonesuch recording, Caroline Shaw: Orange, won the 2020 Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance). And the audiences he gets represent the kind of broad spectrum of age and cultural demographic that most classical music institutions are obsessed with drawing into their own venues. In January, we sat down near his office in Long Island City to talk about how he makes this work.
Rail: If you had a job title, what would it be?
Andrew Ousley: Undertaker! It's a bit of everything in the sense that I produce, present, but I am also an artistic administrator, and running the back-end now as well expanding what we do structurally. Given up until a few months ago, this was essentially a one-person operation. So, I guess, CEO?
Rail: This is different than Unison Media?
Ousley: Yes. Death of Classical kind of grew out of Unison in that we put on concerts for some of our clients, Conrad Tao, Lawrence Brownlee, because one had a recording to promote, the other had a story to tell. So it grew out of the PR need, but those first two concerts were just amazingly fun, and great experiences.
Rail: Getting into the Crypt space was more accidental than anything else?
Ousley: Hugely accidental, I was literally just looking for interesting spaces to do concerts in for these clients and a friend of mine mentioned this crypt where he has seen Feist, for a private event. He's on the pop side, and he just said it was cool. So I went up and investigated it, and that was it. The church was really only using it for rentals, they had a little jazz series, so I just proposed to them the series. They were a little hesitant about it, but I said, “You’ll get all the proceeds and I will do all the technical production.” Technically it's a door split, but we absorb all of our costs, so we at best break even, if we're really lucky, and we give their half to them.
Rail: That's unexpected. Here you are running a business promoting classical music, and you start creating and programming and promoting your own concerts, but not to make money—you're willing to lose money on that.
Ousley: Yeah. It was the kind of thing where it was just cool enough, and I felt like it was very impactful in terms of the core of my personal mission, which is the same for Unison. The way I approach publicity is because I thought these artists and classical music as a whole wasn't telling a great story about itself. It wasn't engaging very well with anybody other than that extremely core converted audience. Everybody else—including me because I'm not a classical musician, I'm not in the fold, so to speak—there have been times when even though I work in the industry I've felt alienated or unwelcome in certain ways.
My approach to publicity is the same way, not to talk about it directly to the converted but to talk about it in a more broadly applicable, interesting way. And this was essentially a concert version of that, where I could control exactly how it's messaged, how it's presented, how it's curated, and the flow of how the evening unfolds. After doing these initial two, I realized it was a very powerful destination in that broader mission. And it was just really fun!
Rail: Do you have a musical background? What is classical music to you?
Ousley: I grew up playing in rock bands, sort of blues. I grew up in midtown, my father was a minister at the [Episcopal] Church of the Incarnation, which has an amazing music program. So I grew up hearing church music at a high level.
My mother was an amateur opera singer, so she introduced me to Callas, Jessye Norman, I really fell in love with Callas. Then I went to Brown and I took a course in classical music, on Mozart, as an elective. The teacher was my adviser, and I just fell in love with it, I fell in love with his way of talking about it, which was in that more broadly approachable terminology. I just went from there and did a fellowship in classical music for a year after I graduated. I fell in love with the repertoire. What I felt and continue to feel is it's just the purity of intent. Compared to the pop side, most of the people who do it, do it for what I feel are the right reasons. In other words, not purely to make money, which you really can't do!
I find the richness and complexity and variety of the music betters my world. It's brought me to places and to emotions that I might not otherwise have come to.
Rail: You are presenting new music, music with new ideas, and you're packed. What are your feelings about what's happening in contemporary music, and how do you get people to come hear it?
Ousley: For the first part, I think it's an incredibly exciting time for classical music. There was a long stretch of difficulty with contemporary music when the music was difficult to approach unless you knew a lot or were willing to learn a lot about it.
Rail: The post-WWII period?
Ousley: Exactly. And that music, while extraordinary in many ways, once you understood what was going on, it was incredibly powerful. In certain circumstances and presentations it can continue to be incredibly impactful to someone who has no idea what is going on. But I feel that the traditional concert experience does not suite me very well. Music that is being made right now is incredibly vital, incredibly creative, the influence of other genres in the music now, the broader view of genre, is also very exciting to me, how it takes the rigorous and through-composed work of classical and explodes it across different boundaries. And the relevance of it, how this music is made not just to address timeless things but to address current themes in a very powerful way. I find all of that very exciting.
I think one of the problems in how it is presented and marketed is this delineation between a core repertoire and contemporary classical and new music. In what I do, I just don't bother with that at all. If it's Beethoven Op. 102 [Cello sonatas], or Messiaen Visions de l'Amen, or Caroline Shaw, it doesn't matter. What matters is what is the emotional impact of that music on people who are going to sit there for an hour. It's different for each of those, and all equally valid.
In how I present it, and how people come, I don't care if it's the Goldberg Variations or John Luther Adams, because I don't tell them when it was composed and everything around it, I tell them what are you going to get out of it. This is a journey, endless variations on this theme that reflects how our lives shift and change, yet we come back to home, but it's all changed, and it's so powerful. And with Adams it's this incredibly evocative sense of movement and shifting. So to me that's how I try and talk about it.
Rail: What you do is essentially what every classical music institution that seeks a new audience says they want to do. Yet you make it work, and they don't. Do you do it because you're not a classical musician, but a listener?
Ousley: That's definitley a part of it. I come from the outside and I also spend a lot more time trying to do it than talking about it. I'm not an institution, I don't have to form a committee to talk about it, I just do it.
Someone pointed this out to me, talking about diversity of performers and diversity of composers, and we were looking back at who we've presented, and we're far more diverse than the vast majority of these institutions.
Rail: And your audience is as well.
Ousley: That's probably a good thing, as we get into grant applications! But I don't think about that, I just think, these are the artists that I related to. I am in part that audience that they are trying to get rather than people who are part of the old crowd. So I think about what would get to me and my friends, most of whom don't give two damns about classical music unless I can convince them.
Rail: You are around the actual human beings that the institutions imagine they would like to attract, but they don't actually know any of those people.
Ousley: And it feels like they're talking down to, or talking past. And I've felt that, and it's just wildly unappealing.
Rail: And they can't alienate their long-time audience.
Ousley: And that's entirely understandable. One of my first jobs was in the record business, EMI Classics then Warner Classics, I started when Tower Records closed, and the whole industry was going into free-fall, and for years there was that problem of how do you shift to digital without alienating those people who still buy CDs, which were for a long time still the cash cow. And I think of that quite a lot in terms of what I do now, how do you adapt to that seismic change? The old institutions are vital and do important and amazing work, but limited, and it's not where the future is.
Rail: The title Death of Classical is meaningful, in how it connects to the Crypt Sessions and the Angel's Share, two places where dead bodies are buried. You're holding concerts in two cemeteries, and classical music is arguably dead, but you are doing it. There's not just irony there, but ambivalence.
Ousley: Well, it's tongue firmly in cheek! As a publicist, every two years there's always this cycle of "Oh my God classical music is dead," and hand-wringing articles and think pieces and focus groups. To me, classical music is never going to die. It's something that our industry puts so much time and energy and anxiety into, and that's not the problem. To me, the problem is that focus. Yes, parts of classical music that were in the past are changing and irrelevant and outdated, but that's true of literally everything in history, every artistic endeavor, commercial endeavor. Life is change, and to me classical music isn't dead but certain approaches to the promotion and presentation of it should die.
The art form is probably more vital than ever in terms of the impact it can have on people. To me, there is an aspirational quality to classical music that I feel has never had more potential than right now. In terms of people who don't normally go to classical music concerts, 20-30 years ago, even 10-15, they might have seen it as "I don't want to go, this is snobby." Now there's this sense of, "I want to go, I'm interested," in the same way that scotch became popular, or wine, fancy coffee. You want to understand what goes into those beans, and that's true of classical music, but only, again, if it is presented in a way that is welcoming, that funnels those people toward the best possible experience. And so to me classical music is...it's ironic in that we put concerts on surrounded by dead people, but it's just saying this art form is not dead. That's why we sell out every concert and get crazy media coverage. Because it is exciting when it is done right.
Rail: How did the Angel's Share come about?
Ousely: Green-Wood cemetery came to me! I get a lot of weird emails, and it was after the NY Times review of Conrad Tao's performance, and they said, "Hey, we have a catacomb!" And I went there on this beautiful winter day, and was just blown away by the beauty of the cemetery itself. And when we got to the catacombs, I had the same feeling I had as soon as I went into the crypt, this transformative visual and physical space, and this acoustic presence that was completely different than the crypt but just as extraordinary.
I see a lot of spaces and a lot of churches, but one of the reasons we don't expand too fast is that the space has to have that transformative power.
Rail: At the Angel's Share, you make the travel from the entrance to the cemetery to the catacombs and back out again part of the experience.
Ousley: Experience is the word. To me it's not just a concert as it is an entire experience. That's the same with the crypt, with the wine tasting and the descent down the stairs.
My generation, the idea of going to Carnegie Hall, maybe grabbing a crappy salmon sandwich for $25, wolfing it down and then running to your seat, then either falling asleep or having the people around you fall asleep and snore, for two hours of music in the dark with long program notes written by musicologists...that's not what I want out of an experience. I've likened it again to my experience in the record business, where it went from taking a CD and putting it into a stereo and listening, versus having this in your pocket [holds up smartphone] and listening through your earbuds while walking—the music is the same. But the expectations, the experience changes, and that's the curation and what you bring to that experience is different. So having food, having drink, having a social component, having a transitional component from introduction and reception to musical experience, and even how I write about the series on the website or in emails, to me it's all about taking the broadest possible group and then funneling that experience so that by the time you get to the musical part, you are open, you are happy, you are feeling excited for what's to come.
Then you sit, and there is no distraction, there is nothing else going on, it's an incredibly focussed, curated musical experience. And then you release from it. That is the goal, to make that hour of music more valuable and more emotionally resonant than three to four hours somewhere else.
Rail: Do you think the duration of your concerts has something to do with the CD listening experience?
Ousley: Definitely that. Those hour to 80-minute-long musical experiences that were concentrated on disc, yeah.
Rail: There's a subtle similarity between going to one of your concerts and sitting in your living room, listening to music.
Ousley: Yeah, and I grew up listening to CDs, having that discrete experience. My favorite classical concerts as a kid were the ones that were intimate and were focussed and were shorter. That intimacy is incredibly important to me too. When you're sitting 50 rows back at the Met, you don't understand what it takes to move air like that. Or to watch a string quartet strain and share and communicate in that way is so intimate and so viscerally moving.
I remember doing the Visions de l'Amen with the twins [pianists] Christina and Michelle Naughton. And I had one writer come up to me afterwards and say that they were a little uncomfortable, because there's this extraordinary mind meld, and that is a vital part to me. Big venues are not something I'm trying to do.