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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame CEO Terry Stewart used last week's summer kickoff event to give an informal state-of-the-hall address. As guests noshed on catered picnic food, Stewart was fairly candid about the Rock Hall's attendance, financial shape, and future plans.

First, the good news. The hall reports taking in as much money as it is spending. "The Rock Hall is in good financial condition," Stewart said. "And it will only get better."

Also, relations between the boards in Cleveland and New York are apparently improving. Board co-chair Lee Howley praised Stewart's ability to improve the relationship between the two groups, who have not been known to join hands and sing repeated choruses of "Kumbaya."

Attendance is another matter. While officials are quick to point out that the Rock Hall drew more visitors last year than the Pro Football and Country Music halls of fame combined, attendance in 1998 was 37 percent lower than it was in 1996, the Rock Hall's first full year (550,400 versus 872,700). And this year's turnstiles are clicking at a slower rate than last year's (though the hall's best months are traditionally in the summer).

Stewart said this year's goal is to keep attendance above 500,000. He would like to see it run between 600,000 and 800,000. To boost attendance, the hall is targeting Cleveland and surrounding cities, because half of its visitors come from out of state. What's planned? You'll be hearing radio spots featuring two of the O'Jays. On Wednesday evenings from June 16 through August 4, there will be free concerts in the lobby. Also this summer, kids eight and under get in free with paying adults, and Fridays and Saturdays the hall stays open until 9 p.m.

One of the appealing things about Stewart, who has been on the job five months, is that when he speaks of opening up the hall to young people and reaching the Latino and African American communities, he doesn't sound as if he's quoting from the politically correct hymnal. He means it.

Stewart also seems to be a pretty straight shooter. He doesn't lay on the icing or speak in starry-eyed generalities. While he wants to excite young people about rock's history and future, he realizes "this is basically a building of dead people and old people."

One thing Stewart can't change--immediately, at least--is the structure itself. It looks pretty from a distance, but the Rock Hall's form-over-functionality design horribly limits its ambitions and ability to generate revenue. Stewart stressed the need to expand; his wish list includes an archive and library, a restaurant, performance space, room for temporary exhibits, more retail points, and additional storage.

Is that all? A list this big suggests the building became outdated the day it opened.

Bob Freese walked into his boss's office one day and said he'd had enough. He wanted out. He wanted to go home.

Freese, a native of Chagrin Falls, left his job as Epic Records' head of sales and marketing in August. Prior to that, he worked for Capitol in Nashville, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.

In December he returned to Chagrin and started an indie label, FreeFalls Entertainment. July 13, FreeFalls will release its first record, an instrumental album by Willie Nelson. "It's being em-braced very well," Freese says. "I think it's because it's a new hook for Willie."

Freese, who is 43, got burned out by the record industry. Corporate pressure mandated that the label always outperform itself financially. Five-year plans didn't exist, and artistic merit was an afterthought. It was all about hitting--and exceeding--the target at the end of the fiscal year. "I got caught up in that, too," he admits. "I wanted that big bonus."

Freese watched Epic gulp up a bunch of young bands, throw their records against the wall, and see which ones stuck. One year the label issued 142 records. It was Freese's job to stretch the marketing budget to cover all of them. "I didn't sleep at night," he says. "I was a fucking wreck."

So he resigned and moved his family back to Chagrin. His home is two miles from where he grew up.

FreeFalls will follow up the Willie record with a fall release from the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Singer Kim Wilson is writing material the band will record in July. Guitarist Jimmy Vaughan may guest on a few tracks. "What I've heard, it's back to the T-Birds," Freese says. "Just rocking."

Freese has also inked America-lovin' Lee Greenwood to a deal and wants to do an instrumental record with Glen Campbell, who was known as a fine session man before he became the Rhinestone Cowboy. "I'm looking to go after the artists the big labels have forgotten about or left behind," Freese says.

He and Nelson share a love for music and golf, and the two worked out an agreement that makes Willie more of a partner in the venture than hired help. The instrumental album, titled Night and Day, will have new and old material from Willie as well as a few covers. Freese hopes this isn't their last collaboration: "I can't tell you how much music he has in the vaults in Austin."

Indie Egg Records is licensing Hillbilly Idol's Town and Country disc, which should prime the distribution pump for the local country band. The album was re-released June 8.

Transmission frontman Tim Brennan has been in California to drum up interest in the band. A June 11 gig at the Euclid Tavern may be your last chance to see Transmission as a three-piece; they've been auditioning candidates to play lead guitar.

The May 31 issue of The New Yorker swooned over the Cleveland Orchestra after it performed at Carnegie Hall. "Cleveland is arguably the best orchestra in America and, unquestionably, one of the three or four best orchestras in the world," wrote Alex Ross. Later in the review, he added, "The placement of each instrument is so vivid and so precise that you almost see the sound."

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