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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?

MS: I like networking in person, such as during Grammy weekend at various events, through interviews, and online since I do not have a publicist or a radio promoter. Along with this lovely interview with you, I recently discussed and premiered different sections of "First Light" on the Maggie Linton Show on Sirius XM radio, interviewed with Keanna Faircloth on WPFW 89.3 FM, and premiered another five-minute section of "First Light" on Trish Hennessey's hybrid jazz radio show. You can hear the Maggie Linton interview on my SoundCloud link (included below this interview).

AAJ: Matthew, what do you feel are the main challenges jazz musicians face right now?

MS: A huge challenge is keeping the music relevant to the younger age groups. Connecting with the youth is vital if we want jazz to live on into future generations. Most people associate jazz with being elite or exclusive, but jazz at its heart is the music of the people. To stay relevant, jazz needs to be featured in films as it has done so magnificently in the last few years. Additionally, jazz really needs to find ways to connect with how young people consume music today. For instance, most kids consume their music in video form. They watch videos on YouTube, Vimeo, VEVO, MTV Live, and other formats and platforms. Young people enjoy live performances with vivid backdrops of visual imagery instead of just seeing their artists sing and play instruments, which I agree is very compelling and entertaining. So to present jazz music in a way that is simply audio doesn't connect with the majority of youthful music consumers. This is why for every release of mine there is some sort of visual accompaniment that I share on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, VEVO and anywhere that people find and enjoy their music. The one site that is still somewhat old-fashioned is SoundCloud, but I've seen great success there, as well. I've also seen success for me and my contemporaries on other audio-only formats such as Sirius XM and Pandora. So not to completely contradict myself, but these audio-only formats show that there is still a market for people who enjoy simply listening to music. For instance, while I exercise or drive to work I listen to jazz on these platforms. I also enjoy jazz music playing softly in the background while I work and eat, so I see this as a potential place where jazz in its instrumental forms can stay relevant and impact culture.

AAJ: I agree that attempting to share today's jazz music with young people will help to keep the genre alive for generations to come. Does social media, like YouTube, help you to reach the public with your music?

MS: To showcase how powerful YouTube is, more than 90% of my yearly album sales (digital and physical CDs) come from two music videos that I have on YouTube. The first video is "Genesis" in collaboration with Arun Shenoy as shared by Steven Slate on his YouTube channel in promotion of my album Victorious. The second video is my jazz cover version of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" (featuring Kenny Wesley) from the album Freedom, a collaborative album project that I did with jazz flautist Trey Eley. These two music videos contribute to the majority of my digital sales and physical CD sales due to their growing success on YouTube. But more importantly, clients often reference these videos as to why they wanted to work with me as a producer, engineer, and mixer.

AAJ: What keeps you, as a jazz musician, creating new music? What provides the driving force behind your work, Matthew?

MS: I feel that true art touches the spirit and elevates the mind to find the hidden potential within one's own soul. When I create music, I am very purposeful. I hope to change the way people think and feel about their own life by expanding the possibilities of what music can make you feel (without the need for drugs). I want listeners to feel something deep. It's only worthwhile if repeat listens reveal fresh perspectives and ignite untouched emotions. Most of today's music leaves the listener entertained but oftentimes very empty. It's time to shake things up. My song, "First Light," is the next step in my attempt to make art with substance, depth, and sincerity as inspired by God's power to free the soul. I want the listener to escape from the prison of whatever is holding us all back from reaching our full potential here on earth.

AAJ: Anything else that you would like to add in order to help our readers maneuver successfully through today's music business?

MS: Don't seek fame. Seek wisdom. Fame equals the loss of control. Wisdom equals discovering the importance of family, friendship, time to contemplate, health, spiritual balance, and wealth (in multiple ways). If your readers have any additional questions, they are welcome to write to me.
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