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Matthew Shell: Making Art with Substance

Matthew Shell: Making Art with Substance
Kathy Sanborn By

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Matthew Shell is a Washington, D.C.-based music producer and engineer. Founder and CEO of publishing house and record label MTS Music, Shell writes and produces music for his own solo releases as well as for bands and other solo artists.

Currently working on an hour-long jazz opus, "First Light," Shell shares his upbeat philosophy of life and music success tips with our readers.

All About Jazz: In this changing world of the music business, how do you manage to flourish?

Matthew Shell: For the last three years I have been a music business teacher (adjunct faculty at Omega Studios in Rockville, Maryland), so my job is to stay current on the music industry. When my students raise questions on subjects I don't automatically know from experience, I research the best answers and get back to them. For instance, in a recent class of mine, a few students had questions regarding touring as a live act. Since touring is not in my realm of experience as a music producer, I researched and realized I needed to ask an associate of mine who had worked as a tour manager with a lot of major label artists. My friend came into the class and shared in detail how the industry is changing and what is vital for today's touring artists or bands. He discussed the various sizes of tours, starting with a small-scale college tour and building up to everything needed for a large-scale world tour. The students gave tremendous feedback on the knowledge that my associate provided, and I learned a lot, too. This example shows that there is no one way to always get the right answer, but researching every possible angle on relevant questions asked by my students keeps me current. Other ways that I stay current include listening to music reviews by Anthony Fantano, and listening to music on YouTube, Pandora, SoundCloud and Sirius XM radio.

AAJ: As a music business expert, do you think that gigging is an important factor for career success?

MS: It depends on how you define success. For me, performing live is not as critical to my success, as I identify more as a producer, engineer, and mixer in the world of jazz music rather than as a gigging musician. Still, I practice my guitar playing often to keep my chops ready for any gig that comes up. However, for all of the artists that I produce, I would consider gigging more vital to their success. I make my money from the music I produce and engineer, but they make their money from the live gigs at which they perform, so I'd say for their success, performing live is more important than ever since CD sales have drastically diminished. Gigging is also important for all artists to feel alive and to connect with the outside world in a powerful way.

AAJ: How often are you out there performing?

MS: I recently performed at three different events in the span of five months after not performing for four years. My crazy busy schedule as a music producer, teacher, TV show producer (for "The O") and financial systems analyst at my day job prevents me from performing on a consistent basis. Still, I recently made performing live more of a priority and I'm very happy with the feedback. So I will continue on this path as I feel audiences need to see an artist live to truly experience and feel the music in its most emotionally powerful form.

AAJ: Please tell us how you decided to record your latest song, "First Light."

MS: I'm currently working on an hour-long song created completely with live instrumentation in a jazz style titled "First Light." I only work when I am inspired, and the creation of this song is no exception. My wife had been very stressed at a job where she had little to no work-life balance for the last four years. The day she finally left that job and transitioned to a new job with better work-life balance, I saw how happy she was. Seeing that joy in her spirit, I was inspired, and I composed my song, "First Light," in one sitting. I mapped out all of the chord changes, 17 key changes, 20 tempo changes, and the entire arrangement in one tremendously focused twelve-hour session at The Sweet Spot Studio. It was definitely an inspired session. From there I enlisted pianist Vahagn Stepanyan to lay down the piano and upright bass parts over the course of a week, and then vocalist Kenny Wesley to add some beautiful harmonies and lead vocal parts in another intense six-hour session. From there I've been working on my guitar parts when I can get my wife in the studio with me, as well as various other parts with a plethora of musicians. Bit by bit, this song is building into something epic.

AAJ: "First Light" does indeed sound like it will be an epic production. How are you promoting it?

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