Interview with Steve Feigenbaum
by Dr. Gary Gomes
Steve Feigenbaum has been involved in the world of independent and unorthodox music for the past forty years. Feigenbaum has earned a sterling reputation as a reclaimer of abandoned materials through Wayside Music, but his crowning achievement is often considered Cuneiform records, a label with outstanding releases all the way from archival materials from groups like Soft Machine and British jazz to various Rock in Opposition groups like Univers Zero to new sound rock groups and the "new" jazz community. Cuneiform was respected for its quality, but more significantly, for its consistency in paying its artists. Cuneiform releases were reviewed and recently one won an award in DownBeat, the longest-lived and most respected jazz periodical.
Sadly, market realities forced Steve to cease Cuneiform new product releases; it was significant news that even made the national press. Perfect Sound Forever was fortunate to gain an interview to discuss Cuneiform and the realities of running a label that does not handle mainstream music.
Special thanks to Kevin Cowl for his help with the questioning.
PSF: I have followed your career on and off since around 1976-1977. I actually had the Random Radar Records Sampler around. I actually liked your contribution to the record (Steve had contributed a musical piece). I wonder why you ended up devoting your time to promoting other artists rather than continuing with your music?
SF: Well, it's kind of a long answer, but I was involved with Random Radar and it was a collective of people putting out their own music and I was interested in promoting my own music and interested in being a musician. At a certain point, I realized that I didn't think I had what it took, and it also became apparent to me that I could probably support music that I liked better from a support side rather than from being a musician side. That's a reasonable and hopefully not too long explanation. I did play for a while after I started Wayside and after I started the label, but it gradually petered out.
Honestly, I think I was very correct. I was able to do more good on the administrative side, even if you did like my contribution, which is nice to hear.
PSF: Was there an organic transfer from Random Radar Records to Cuneiform or was there a transition period?
SF: Well, Random Radar Records was a collective, a collective among friends and my common answer is that I learned what to do and what not to do. The Random Radar folks were and still are among my dear friends. All decisions are made by the collective. The sequence of events was Random Radar, then non Random Radar, then Wayside, then Random side projects, then Wayside alone for a couple of years, then Cuneiform. So there was not a smooth succession from one to the other, with one folding into the other. I was able to help people who did not have a label, because with Random Radar I had a certain amount of administrative experience. The difference between Random Radar was that the the structure was different; Random Radar was a collective and with Cuneiform, I was the boss, as opposed to part of the collective. I took some things I learned and did them again a different way.
PSF: I wanted to ask you something about Maryland and the malls in the suburbs around Washington...
SF: (Laughing)You're quoting from the Random Radar Records sampler!
PSF: Yes... but I found that it was true. One of the reasons I got to know about you folks was that I visited my brother who worked for the Defense Department in Washington, DC, I found the RRR sampler in a mall near where he lived. I can recall visiting him from the early 1970's to the mid 1980's. As early as 1971-1972 and on those trips I could find recordings, even contemporary classical records, I could not find even in Boston or Cambridge.
SF: Well, 1971-1972 was before my time; But you're in a Boston suburb, right?
PSF: Closer to a Providence suburb.
SF: Oh, well I used to spend a bit of time around Central Falls, RI. That was a long time
PSF: You used Central Falls for a picture on an album?
SF: That was a for a Univers Zero album. It was James Park.
PSF: Central Falls was in the 1980's was considered to be the drug capital of Rhode Island..
SF: Well, I didn't know about that. The idea behind that photo was that the band had sent didn't have any photos!
PSF: Central Falls had a reputation as an organized crime center and being the most depressed city in Rhode Island. Getting back to Maryland, I was kind of an Anglophile in starting with Cream into Soft Machine to King Crimson to Genesis and Canterbury and I was a free jazz nut, too. Xenakis, Messiaen, I could find there.
SF: That's interesting. I went from the Beatles to Cream and that's how I started, too.
PSF: But I could find things in Maryland I couldn't find anywhere else, even in Boston.
SF: That's interesting. '71-'72 was earlier than us. Well, Washington now is a relatively wealthy city--certainly the suburbs around Washington at that time were very well off then. Washington, the city itself, used to very impoverished in certain parts of the city.
I can't comment on a lot of different cities in that area, but I was aware of what was going on in a couple of cities and there were some interesting bands in those cities that weren't copycat bands, and I don't know what the cause of that was. I know in 1974, 1975 and 1976, there was a radio station that was a unifying force, WGBD, that played garage bands, jazz, all kinds of music, and that I think was an influence.
PSF: So, Giorgo Gomelsky probably contacted them to bring Henry Cow and others to the United States?
SF: Not to my knowledge... He came down to the Muffins once and he also got involved in New York. I didn't work at the radio station, so I don't know.
PSF: What motivated you to form Cuneiform?
SF: Wayside was doing well, and I was distributing these kinds of unusual music, and I had the experience, so I figured it was time to start producing on a record label myself. I just had this idea--it seemed a good idea--and I did it.
PSF: So there was no expectation you were going to get rich...
PSF: There are so many subgenres of progressive music, how did you decide which who to record?
SF: First of all, I don't consider that I ever had a progressive rock label.The idea was and still is, that I would have the most interesting label I could have and not lose a shitload of money while doing it for awhile. I have always had eclectic tastes. I wanted to put out what I thought was really good work, even if I didn't absolutely love it. I wanted to make it the most interesting record label it could be. Part of it was taste, part of it was a leap into the unknown. That's as interesting an answer as I can render and I am not sure I can answer it as broadly as you asked it. I guess, as far as my roots go, they are progressive rock roots, but also from a very young age, I had jazz roots, and I am not sure how much I shows but I was also interested n minimalism. I was interested in Glass and Riley.
PSF: Oh, yes. I noticed the Mother Mallard recordings.
SF: Yes, but you know, I think I can hear if something is interesting, even if it doesn't knock my socks off personally and I was not afraid to do that. I was never, like, worrying, oh no, what if the people who liked the first four don't like the next four? That never bothered me. Being unpredictable. I think if everything sounds like a Cuneiform records release, that would be shitty, and I deliberately jumped out of the paths. It was preconceived that somebody who loves free jazz and loves some of my releases would hate some of my other releases. And I love that somebody who loves Canterbury-style progressive, and loves the fact that I release some National Health and Gilgamesh would hate some of my releases. I love that. That appeals to me greatly.
As a matter of fact, I had a crisis in around 2002-2004 when I felt like I be receiving demos from people who seemed to have been listening only to Cuneiform records their entire life. I didn't like that and I wanted to step completely out of that. And that's when I decide to make a hard turn on some of the rock I was signing, and I signed Alec K. Redfern and the Eyesores, signing Time of Orchids, signing Upsilon Acrux. It's nice if you listen to my earlier records, but I already did those.
PSF: Expose them to something new.
SF: Well, I don't want to be rooted in the past, I mean I am proud of the work, but there are people, who, if it doesn't have a Mellotron, they don't like it. I think that's kind of sad. You don't have to have a Hammond organ. In 1973, a Hammond organ and a mellotron were new technology. Now, it's just like a totem. There's nothing wrong about it, but there's nothing special about it.
PSF: I understand what you're saying. And it's very expensive to get the real thing nowadays, so it gets a little elitist.
SF: I understand what you're saying, but now you can buy a ninety-nine dollar piece of software and get a decent Mellotron sound and it won't go out of key.
PSF: But at the same time, I have heard people say, if it's not a real Mellotron, it's not going to sound as good. And I have been to the recent round of King Crimson concerts and Robert Fripp has been using Mellotron samples on a Korg keyboard.
SF: I think if there is a band in 2018 who is hauling around a Mellotron with them, they are probably too crazy to sign!
PSF: So essentially, you would be looking for new bands or musicians who would be a new listening experience for your audience, as long as it was good.
SF: I don't know if 'new' would motivate me, but nostalgia doesn't motivate me. I have run away from what is expected of me and I have run away from nostalgia that is being done for no other reason than nostalgia. If something is new and is interesting in and of itself, that interests me.
PSF: So, let me shift gears here. Cuneiform was recently recognized by DownBeat magazine which is the biggest...
SF: The biggest jazz magazine in the world!
PSF: So is there a certain amount of pride, good feeling connected with that?
SF: You mean winning the Jazz Album of the Year Award? That's the most significant accolade I will ever achieve. When Wadada Leo Smith received a plaque I also received one and it is hanging on my wall. If I look a little bit up and a little bit to the left from my computer, where I am every hour of the day, I can see it right there. It is the proudest achievement of my life.
PSF: Are there any other achievements that you view with pride?
SF: There are quite a few of them. I am proud of the archival work Cuneiform has done and the jazz series (I don't know if I can call it a series, but we have done quite a few jazz records) but the DownBeat award is recognition from an internationally recognized authority. So this is recognition at the highest level in the field. I mean, if I won a Grammy, I would be proud of that, but I have the DownBeat award and I am very happy with that.
PSF: Well, I would argue that DownBeat would mean more than the Grammy Award musically.
SF: Well, I would agree, but, I am proud of all of them. DownBeat has always been supportive of us, as much as they could be, through the years. Even when we were less of a jazz-oriented label in the past, they were supportive, even before we made the deliberate decision to be more jazz-oriented in the last ten years. They have always been kind to us.
But I am proud of them all. What's not to be proud of? I paid issued records for 35 years, and I paid everyone every year. I would be able to show them the order sheets and what was sold and I would pay them if the records sold and be able to show them the sheets if the records had not sold. I did that for 35 years and I am still doing it, and I am very proud of that.
What I am exceedingly proud of is that, for thirty years, I took a music--it's not even unpopular, it's so far under the radar it doesn't exist for most people, and I took it and made a business and made money, for both me and for the artist and paid everybody promptly. And I'm even more proud of that than the DownBeat award.
PSF: And I think you've done a great job of keeping people on the radar, people that would not normally be played. Everybody who knows you speaks highly of you. So people appreciate what you have done, Steve.
SF: Oh, I know they appreciate it. I was always honest with artists and artists always appreciate people being honest with them. The DownBeat plaque is great, I am proud of paying people on time and being able to show them why they were being paid what they were being paid.
PSF: You know, I recently heard that jazz was at its lowest popularity than at any point since the late 1960's. It apparently only accounts for one percent of all music sales.
SF: Really? Well, I made a conscious decision to move towards jazz. Rock sells better than jazz, but rock is broad and within rock, those three bands don't sell at all. Whereas, jazz may be only one percent, but my stuff in jazz is much more broadly popular that my stuff in rock is. Does that make sense?
PSF: And keep in mind, you're talking to an Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake fan.
SF: Of course, but keep in mind that 12-14 years ago I made a conscious choice to change from a rock label that included jazz to a jazz label that also released rock and I did that because in the mid-1990's jazz had become so boring and moribund.
PSF: Oh yes, the Wynton Marsalis brigade.
SF: It was boring as fuck; so I concentrated on rock. I mean, it was at some point in the late '90's that people like Wynton Marsalis had won the war. Well, he won the battle for the Lincoln Center, but he lost the war. The war was won by the new jazz guys and the younger players that were coming up. So, I saw there was more happening in jazz and thought it was exciting and went in that direction,
It also meant a little bit of a boost financially as well. I mean, you can't say that rock outsold jazz; in the world sense it is true, but the groups that were on Cuneiform constituted a very, very, very small part of the rock scene. People like Wadada Leo Smith are not a small part of the jazz world; they are big deals.
PSF: And these folks, like Leo Smith, have been big deals for a long time in jazz. The new spiritual school of jazz is a relief to me being a fan of free, more experimental jazz. Also, there seems to be some rebound of interest in more experimental rock, some of it nostalgic. For example, Tool is a mainstream band, but there is a bit going on there.
SF: They're (Tool) not favorites of mine but I certainly acknowledge and admire them for what they are doing. The thing is that jazz has a more devoted support system.
PSF: That's certainly true.
SF: Jazz hasn't really been popular since the forties. That's seventy years. People who like jazz don't expect it to become popular. But, within the rock world, these bands won't be discussed in Pitchfork or Spin is never going to talk about them.
PSF: They might get mentioned in Perfect Sound Forever by a follower, but I see what you mean.
SF: Any rock band, and they are all extremely important bands, but the rock world is worried about commercial success; about who will make money or be popular. But the jazz world doesn't worry about this. Obviously, there are jazz musicians who make more than than others; but in jazz, I think the concern is more about the music. Rock is really concerned with what sells. Jazz looks at that, but that is not all they look at.
PSF: Jazz listeners are used to being a minority music. If you have been a jazz listener for years, you don't expect people to know about the people you are interested in, and you don't care.
SF: Exactly. I agree.
PSF:Now comes the point at which we are discussing Cuneiform. You've already laid down the foundations in other forums for why you are ceasing production, but can you restate those reasons here?
SF: Well basically, I'm suspending production because for financial reasons, I am forced to lay off my staff. That's really it in a nutshell. I have two staff. One worked for me for twelve years. Another worked for me for twenty years. The were my promotion staff, They did terrific work. They're the reason I have a DownBeat plaque on my wall, you know, and I can't afford them any more. They make the bands very happy and they do nothing for sales of music because music sales are cratering. That's really all I need to say and really all I want to say. And like you said, that's laid out; I really don't need to say any more about that. And it's very painful.
PSF: I understand. You have spent many years with these people. Is there any chance you can bring it back?
SF: Well, no. I hope they can get other jobs. I have put off this decision for six years; This has been cratering for six years and I didn't want to let go these great people whose work I really admired. The thing I need is to get past that, and I really needed to stop diverting money.
PSF: I understand. So apparently, Wayside will be kept going?
SF: Not apparently. Wayside will keep going. Wayside is my job.
PSF: Is there any possibility that in the future, if someone came up with a produced album, and you sponsoring it?
SF: Look, anything's possible, but it won't be the way that it was. I don't have a support staff. Sure, I can release records. I am not sure what the point of releasing records is anymore. I did it for as long as I could, longer than I could, and I need to stop and I need to get past the past. After I get past the past, then I can figure out if there is some kind of a future. I don't know.
PSF: Did you see the online environment as directly affecting your product?
SF: What's the online environment?
PSF: Free downloads, Spotify, things like that?
SF: Oh absolutely. I blame streaming and piracy. But I blame streaming more because streaming is legit, it's okay! You pay nothing and you get Spotify with ads and you pay $50 and you get Spotify without ads. And there's no money in it. And it's a shitty deal for the musician and the small label. And people love streaming.
I cannot compete with free. I can't pay two employees wages and health insurance and compete against a product that people get for free or that they get as part of their cell phone service, or that they get as part of their Amazon Prime membership. I can't compete with that. It doesn't matter what I am offering; it doesn't matter how good it is. You can have the greatest bakery in the world, and if someone is sitting out front, handing out Wonder Bread, you won't sell, because the Wonder Bread is free.
PSF: What are your immediate plans?
SF: I am concentrating, as I am doing now on Wayside. I told the staff eleven months ago, I am doing this. And now the story has become about me, but it should be about the people who go into stores to buy records. I told the staff eleven months ago, I will take care of all the obligations for all the recordings we said we would release. We will do a full promotional push, and at the end of it all, I will have no additional releases, and at the end of it all, I have to lay you off. So I gave the folks ten months notice. I made the decision eleven months ago and made sure no one knew about it until the last month, because I had records that I promised I would release and I had to do the job.
PSF: I think we have covered just about everything. Do you have anything to add?
SF: I am pretty happy with everything I said. Nobody now has to pay for unlimited access to everything; and I don't think this is a good thing. I recall being with my wife and a friend on a subway and I was trying to explain to a friend how streaming was bad. We see this ad for a "happy" phone and it gives all the features and in small print, it lists unlimited music streaming, almost as an afterthought. It is so common that it could have been cut off the ad. I can't compete against that.
Gary Gomes, in addition to his other glorious assets, has a Doctoral degree in Education from Northeastern University.
Also see the Cuneiform Records website
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