Words & Music with author Matthew Kohut

In this interview, Matthew Kohut shares his insights on various topics, including the struggle of professional musicians with social media, the appeal of music from times gone by and the importance of strength and warmth in musicianship. 

As a writer, teacher, and musician with over thirty years of experience, Kohut has a unique perspective on these issues. He hosted more than 50 episodes of the Sounds Out of Time podcast, interviewing prominent musicians such as Madeleine Peyroux and Andrew Weiss. 

His writing touches on a range of interesting topics, including as the co-author of two nonfiction books The Smart Mission (lessons learnt from how NASA manage knowledge, people & projects) and Compelling People (“The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential”).

You’ll find the full interview below, but here are some key takeaways:

  • Turn off notifications! Social media can be a double-edged sword for musicians. While it’s important to build a following and promote your work, it can also pull focus away from being present in your music. Consider ways to better manage your time and attention.
  • To build a successful career as an independent musician, you need to master two sides: the technical (ie playing) and the relational (connecting with people). Is your plan for the latter as strong as the former?
  • Consistency is key when it comes to building an audience (and pretty much anything else). Keep communicating with your fans and followers, but don’t just focus on promotion. Share content to give fans reasons to keep coming back.

Thanks again to Matthew for taking part!

You’ve written about meditation and the idea of being present in life. Do you have any insight on the struggle many professional musicians share of feeling the need to be active on social media, whilst not necessarily enjoying it?

The pros and cons of social media for musicians are pretty clear at this point.

Everyone is expected to be their own publicist and build a following, and this can pull focus away from being present. One way to manage this is to schedule social media check-in times and avoid it otherwise.

Turn off notifications.

You hosted 50 episodes of an interview podcast which featured the tagline “If your ear is thirsty for something new, try something old”. Did you notice any shared traits between musicians who manage to build a modern audience performing music that was written more than half a century ago?

My motivations in hosting a podcast that featured older music were twofold: talk to great musicians about their influences, and help introduce modern audiences to music from the past that they might not otherwise discover.

Every great player I know has a relationship to their musical tradition. That doesn’t mean that they focus exclusively on performing music from the past, but they know and respect the path.

In your opinion, is the appeal of music that “sounds out of time” related to nostalgia, or is there something intrinsic in the music described like this that appeals to certain people?

The appeal of music that “sounds out of time” is not nostalgia for a certain period. It’s discovering what’s timeless about a piece of music.

You wrote a book called The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons. Do you think independent musicians who each have their own bands and projects are missing creative ways to work together to build a bigger audience?

Musicians will always figure out ways to collaborate on projects that matter to them.

There are always collectives and networks of bands that lift each other up and work together. Those things seem to work best when they emerge organically.

At the other end of the spectrum, festivals are projects that require a lot of coordination but can ultimately benefit smaller acts if they are well-planned.

In your book ‘Compelling People’ you wrote about influence being connected to strength (the root of respect) and warmth (the root of affection). If you were an independent jazz musician just embarking on a career, how would that concept influence your strategy?

Strength and warmth definitely shape musicianship. Strength is about competence. Can you play? Have you mastered your instrument? Warmth is about understanding and connecting with others. Can you listen? Can you make conversation with other musicians?  You have to be able to do both.

Can you identify anything which is a ‘given’ in your work running a communications agency that might change the way the average musician thinks about building an audience?

Where building an audience is concerned, a big key is consistency on social media. You have to keep communicating, and it can’t all be about dates and ticket sales.

Share clips, thank people, and give the audience things that will keep them coming back. Consistency also extends to your voice.

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Ethan Iverson have completely different voices, and they each do an outstanding job of connecting with their audiences.

How do you discover and digest new music?

I try to stay plugged into lots of different channels that will expose me to new music.

I read reviews on mainstream and offbeat sites. Aquarium Drunkard is tuned to my frequency. I listen to podcasts like Alt.Latino, which consistently surprises me. As much as social media can be a sinkhole, I find things I’d never otherwise discover through it. And I ask people, especially people who are younger than me, what they’re listening to.

About Matthew Kohut

Matthew Kohut, co-founder of KNP Communications, has worked as a writer, teacher, and musician for over thirty years. From 2018 to 2022 he hosted the podcast Sounds Out of Time and interviewed musicians such as singer Madeleine Peyroux, Grammy-winning producer Andrew Weiss, and guitarist Scott Metzger.

For the past two decades his work has focused on helping people communicate more effectively in high-stakes settings.

He is the co-author of two books of nonfiction, The Smart Mission and Compelling People.

Connect with him via Twitter, Substack, Linktree

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