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SPIN, U.S. Army Team For Week-Long Austin Takeover

Photo Credit: Will Chappell

SPIN and the U.S. Army came together last week as part of the annual South by Southwest conference for four days worth of electrifying performances and enlightening on-stage conversations at 800 Congress in the heart of Austin, Texas.

The festivities got underway March 11 with a set from As You Were, a band comprised of Army members SFC Jessica Gatlin, SSG Kenny Goss, SGT Art Avila III and SSG Abiud Flores. The group gave a nod to its own moniker by covering Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” and kicked up the hard rock vibes with versions of Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Local rapper Kydd Jones kept the energy high with songs from his recent releases, including the new single “Paranoid,” while Austin-by-way-of-Uganda singer/songwriter Jon Muq previewed songs such as “One You Love” from his upcoming album Flying Away, due May 31 on Black Keys member Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label.

Muq recalled struggling to convince his family that his dream of becoming a professional musician was worth pursuing, and for a period of time, they didn’t know where he was until he turned up in the United States. Austin gave him his first taste of American culture, but he admitted with a smile that he was still learning how to properly pronounce the letter “R” like a local.

On March 12, the evening began with a performance from Six String Soldiers, a component unit of the United States Army Field Band which rattled off bluegrass renditions of classic rock favorites such as the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” Pink Floyd’s “Time” and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

They were followed by a rousing set from Revivalists frontman David Shaw, who offered up the live debuts of numerous new songs, including the uptempo, melodious “Disrepair” and “Alabama,” written recently in support of reproductive rights (“this is a real song about some real shit,” he said of the latter. “It’s also about how beautiful Alabama is”). Shaw jumped down from the stage to belt out the piano-driven soul stomper “Something to This Feeling,” and joined with his seven-piece band for the righteous acapella ending of “Arms of the River.”

Several fans camped out hours in advance of country up-and-comer Alexandra Kay’s headlining set on March 13, and she did not disappoint with acoustic versions of personal, relatable songs such as “How Do We Go,” “She Stayed” and “Everleave” from her 2023 album All I’ve Ever Known. On that project, Kay didn’t shy away from addressing the impact of her divorce on her mental health, and that openness should continue to resonate with listeners when she heads out on her biggest tour yet this summer with fellow country upstart Jelly Roll.

The final evening of programming on March 14 began with the debut Austin performance by young pop trio Hollo. Frontman Jake Cunningham brought forth one earworm melody after another, be it on opener “Hostile,” the new acoustic song “Balcony” or the 2023 single “Bold,” which was so well received that Hollo played it both during the set and as an unplanned encore.

Urban Heat performing (Credit: Sarvey Rector)

Austin goth rock gods Urban Heat closed out the night with flashes of the city’s punk heritage, where genres clash and trying something new is the ultimate goal. Songs such as “Living Well” filtered huge guitar crashes through slowed-down R&B, while new material from the upcoming album The Tower such as “Right Time of Night” and “Living Well” showcased frontman Jonathan Horstmann’s total command of mood and melody. 

Beyond the performances, a host of artists and music industry veterans shared their insights on such subjects as artistic expression, the art of publicity and the inevitable ups and downs of working in the music business. On March 11, Hanson’s Taylor Hanson recalled how early attempts to engage with fans online led to the band’s website becoming one of the most trafficked of the late ‘90s. The reason? “Back then, there was no comments section. There was no social media,” he said. “The biggest change that every creator, and frankly every brand, has experienced is we’re now having a two-way conversation with the consumer.”

The March 12 pre-show panel featured a conversation featuring veteran publicists Ken Weinstein of Big Hassle Media, Doug Hall of Big Feat PR and Heather Wagner Reed of Juice Consulting. Weinstein discussed the unusual predicament of keeping the media interested after a band has scored a seemingly random hit, recalling that when he worked Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” in 2003, “I didn’t know it was going to be at weddings and bar mitzvahs 40 years later. Our job is to go, actually folks, there’s so much more depth to this band. A one-hit wonder is a fun ride, though. It’s a blast for a publicist to be on that rocket ship.”

Similarly, Hall talked about working U.K. vocalist Yola’s 2021 sophomore album Stand for Myself, which followed her rapturously received 2019 debut Walk Through Fire. “I thought the second campaign would be easy because of the acclaim for the first one, but at first the response was muted,” he said. “Yola wanted to talk about serious subjects, and we were eventually able to achieve what she wanted, which was to communicate her vision.”

Stressing that “PR is about community,” Wagner Reed discussed her work helping disco legend Gloria Gaynor receive belated recognition for her contributions to music by “looking at the holistic picture.” This meant cultivating relationships with other aspects of the business, including the Recording Academy, which oversees the Grammys. The goal? “Get involved in the industry in a way where everyone is embracing your legacy.” The plan clearly worked, as Gaynor won her first Grammy in 40 years in 2020 for her gospel-leaning album Testimony.

Bootsys Collins interview panel (Credit: Will Chappell)

On March 13, funk superstar Bootsy Collins was joined by his wife Patti and musical collaborator Fantaazma to discuss his prolific career with James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic and as a solo artist. The Collins’ also talked about their Funk Not Fight initiative, which raises funds toward efforts dedicated to helping turn the tide of violence and unrest in underprivileged communities.

Some of the biggest laughs of the week came when Bootsy shared tales about working with Brown, a legendarily demanding boss who didn’t like his musicians listening to anything other than his own music, and Parliament/Funkadelic’s George Clinton, who would occasionally disappear moments before showtime. The artist’s latest single, “The Influencers,” features none other than Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and former Eurythmics member Dave Stewart.

The final panel of the week was perhaps the most newsworthy. SPIN CEO Jimmy Hutcheson and creative director Danny Klein joined former American Idol judge Randy Jackson and his partner at Greater Than Distribution, Paula Moore, to announce the launch of SPIN Records, which will be distributed by Virgin Music Group. The goal is to cultivate a sustainable environment for artists, focusing on mental health, longevity and multi-genre representation.

In an age of TikTok flashes in the pan, “the only way to discover new talent is to find it first, develop it and nurture it,” Jackson said. “If you’re next, we want it. That’s what this is about.” Added Hutcheson, “Randy and Paula’s heart is really artist-first. It’s a really unique way of thinking about how we identify artists.”

Throughout the week at 800 Congress, attendees were also treated to between-set DJ performances by Nimz, Jörgen, Cameron Adams and Robot Sunrise. During the day, the Army held panel discussions on an array of subjects, including BattleBots, winning research and development grants from the U.S government and defending authenticity in the digital world.