NASHVILLE HAS a reputation as a place where rarely is heard a discouraging word, but the Music Row Industry Summit kicked off last week with hours of blunt talk.The three-day seminar began Friday with a brief address by Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen. After a slide show on the city’s place in music history, two panels of industryites took off the gloves about the state of country music. A panel featuring the heads of most of Nashville’s major label divisions focused on the impact of the SoundScan point of sale chart system, which has been widely credited with country’s recent rise. Tim DuBois, Arista’s Nashville chief, pointed out that it was easy for inventories to be fudged or hidden prior to SoundScan. The downside to the new reality: retailers often return product quicker, before all of the singles are played out on radio. “You have to pre-plan and hit hard early in an album,” DuBois said. “Retailers knew reality way before SoundScan,” added Mercury/Nashville topper Luke Lewis. “(But) they were happy to be playing the games because we were giving them free records. The benefit to SoundScan is that it saved us the money we used hyping ourselves.” Panelists agreed that country may have recently peaked in popularity, and DuBois cited figures showing a slight drop. “We’re going to come out of this better than we were three or four years ago,” he said. “Even if the buyers go away, they know that country music has changed and that it’s not just for hicks and inbreds.” The subject of radio’s dominance of the industry drew lengthy discussion, with DuBois admitting that every label is seeking ways to break artists by circumventing radio. And while it was agreed that country is becoming more like pop, particularly because of its younger, more fickle demographic, there are still differences. “We’re the only format that thinks it has to be in front of the public constantly,” DuBois said. “Pop people go for a long time without releasing new albums or singles. It would be healthy if we would relax the system.” A Friday morning artists panel featured some blunt but witty talk, with sparks generated by Raul Malo, frontman for Miami-based the Mavericks. Malo told of a recently released song of his featuring the phrase “junkies and whores” that didn’t get video airplay. “There you have that whole ostrich syndrome, which is a big thing in country music,” Malo said. “There’s no AIDS, homelessness, racism or prejudice. There’s none of that happening. The record labels are scared. Here you have this Cuban kid from Miami singing about repression. Surely he’s a communist.” AS AN ALTERNATIVE to the grunge of Seattle, Arizona’s “desert rock” music scene has been considered a comer for a while now, first with the success of A&M’s Gin Blossoms and now with Restless recording artists Giant Sand. Asprolific an ensemble as can be imagined, Giant Sand has been recording numerous EPs and albums since the early ’80s. The group is, for the most part, the brainchild of Howie Gelb, a Pennsylvania emigre who relocated to Tucson in the ’80s with his new-wavish act Giant Sandworm. “Center of the Universe,” Giant Sand’s third release for Restless (the first, “Swerve,” was a reissue from the band’s own Amazing Black Sand Label; the second was “Ramp,” which featured a duet with country legend Pappy Allen), set for release Tuesday, carries on in the great tradition of Arizona legends Green On Red as well as the obvious Lou Reed/Neil Young references. Guests on the album include former Bangle Vicki Petersen and Susan Cowsill, trashy keyboard whiz Chris Cacavas, ex-Go-Go (and Gelb’s ex-wife) Paula Jean Brown on electric bass, and Gelb’s bandmates Joe Burns and John Convertino. Offbeat and rambling, yet rife with the kind of hooks that have kept Gelb in the realm of cult hero, “Center” is the kind of American indie mess one either loves or hates. “We’ve had trouble with labels in the past,” Gelb admitted, and it’s easy to see why. Giant Sand is as sprawling as the Southwest — open and cranky, like a sonic version of “Unforgiven.” To give an example of Gelb’s vision, the title track is a swipe at the Epcot Center as the bane of all human evil. Giant Sand will be touring the small clubs of the U.S. this spring, and likely will visit Europe in the summer. A loose ensemble featuring Gelb, MCA artist Julianna Hatfield, Lemonhead Evan Dando and others, calling itself Fruit Child Large, will possible do the European leg, bringing a little more of the limelight on the artist. L.A. SEEN: Imagine five young men in matching sharkskin suits, playing lounge-type music heavy on the bossa nova beat, crooning in smooth ’60s easy-listening harmonies, whose lyrics are tempered with a ’70s “TV baby” sensibility. That’s the formula for Love Jones, which just released its debut single –“I Like Young Girls” b/w “Li’l Black Book”– on Minty Fresh Records, which was created by Zoo Entertainment exec Jim Powers with input from Zoo-mate Lee Hammond. The atmosphere at the band’s release party last Wednesday at Cafe Largo was pure kitsch. The band’s trademark cocktail, the “Awesome Thomas” (apparently a mixture of gin and Dr. Pepper) was a happy hour special at the bar. Spotted grooving to the suave sounds were members of the Trash Can Sinatras, Slash artists Grant Lee Buffalo, and Carnival Art’s Michael Petak, who later performed an acoustic set. THE HIGH-POWERED Los Angeles law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which represents Guns N’ Roses, Cher and Barbra Streisand, plans to open a Nashville office in August. Ken Kraus, an attorney who works with Contemporary Christian artists Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, will lead the charge and spend one week a month in L.A. More attorneys will be added as the practice grows. The office will concentrate on entertainment, but there are also plans to work in health care and banking.
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