Orion sound Studios Nov. 19, the “rock day,” and Metro Gallery Nov. 20, the “jazz day.”
For more information visit cuneiformrecords.com.
In mid-2010, the lease for the office of Cuneiform Records and its mail-order arm, Wayside Music, came up for renewal. It had been nearly 30 years since Steve Feigenbaum had founded Wayside, and this was the edge. People had stopped buying records at a time when record sales were already, well, you know: money wasn’t coming in. It was the absolute rock bottom—after declining severely since 2008—of a business that had been Feigenbaum’s for most of his adult life, one that supported a small handful of employees, and one that claims a fan base as dedicated as any in music, independent or otherwise. He renewed.
A recent visit found the space, a large central room with several small satellite offices in a nondescript building at the edge of downtown Silver Spring, looking very much like an indie-label idyll: rows and rows of shrink-wrapped jewel cases waiting for online orders, a couple of interns and label staffers sitting around computers in a small side office, a turntable waiting to handle its next test-pressing. Some offices in Cuneiform’s building are currently vacant. A number of Cuneiform’s neighbors didn’t make it through the recession, Feigenbaum explains later.
The label owner, a friendly and enthusiastic presence with a dry wit, says things didn’t really improve at all until later in 2010. “It was very bad,” Feigenbaum explains over plates of Nepalese buffet a few blocks away. “People just weren’t buying music. Everyone was terrified of what was going on, and no one knew what was going on, how bad it would be. There is nothing out there more discretionary than music.”
It’s important to understand just how much affection Cuneiform draws from its fans. It’s not a label that follows trends or scenes or, especially, genres. If there’s a label comparison to be had for Cuneiform, you might look to the boundary-pushing, highly curatorial jazz label ECM—a poorer version, Feigenbaum adds. Indeed, Cuneiform pushes those boundaries even harder, specializing in the many outside-genre spaces in the general solar system of left-field jazz, avant-rock, electronic music, and beyond. Cuneiform releases a range from art-rock heavy Soft Machine to ’70s Maryland jazz-rock band the Muffins to post-jazz ensemble the Claudia Quintet. Maybe you can tell already just how hard most of this stuff is to categorize.
Those that care about Cuneiform really do. About 35 fans are travelling long-distance for this weekend’s first-ever Cuneifest in Baltimore—the label’s only held two prior showcases, both in New York City—several of them coming from overseas. Cuneifest’s reason for being is simple enough: The label had been invited to curate two weeks’ worth of shows at the Stone, avant legend John Zorn’s New York concert space. With bands coming in from all over the country for those shows—including Upsilon Acrux, the Claudia Quintet, Alec K Redfern and the Eyesores, Positive Catastrophe, and many more—it just made sense to get them all together in a festival in Cuneiform’s home base (or close to it, anyhow).
Feigenbaum formed Wayside in 1980 as a way to present and sell releases by some of the smaller, more interesting labels that were not getting large distribution. The label itself came in 1984 with a compilation of 12 songs (culled from about 250, he notes) by R. Stevie Moore, generally considered the grandfather of outsider or “lo-fi” rock. Feigenbaum was 26 at the time, and starting a label just seemed natural. Was it meant to be a career, a self-sustaining way of life for the next 27 years? He laughs and, with a sardonic twinge, says, “I had great hopes.”
The early ’80s were a different time for “out” music. It didn’t have the same kind of “hipster cachet” it might in the year 2011, Feigenbaum says: “Fairly or unfairly, what I was doing was lumped in as ‘prog.’ And that did not have hipster cachet. In some ways, it was kind of what it is now. A small number of people are really interested, and a great majority of people don’t care.”
More recently, Cuneiform has trained its sonic gaze on jazz, or focused on it more exclusively, in some part because the jazz community—the jazz press in particular—has an outlook rather more similar to Cuneiform’s. “A lot of music the label does goes beyond any single genre, pushes genres, [and/or] pushes boundaries,” says Joyce Feigenbaum, Steve’s wife, fellow lover of strange music, and the label’s promotions head. “It combines genres. That often confuses people that are used to seeing music that is ‘rock,’ that is ‘jazz’ or ‘electronic’ or ‘contemporary classical.’ It seems like some of the jazz people are more used to that.”
“[The jazz press] finally understands that [jazz] is a big thing,” Steve Feigenbaum adds. “And that they should cover the big thing, the whole spectrum. rather than, ‘We cover this cool hipster shit. Fuck you.’ Which I think there’s a little too much of in rock. I feel like I might have a slightly better chance with things if I can call them jazz.
“Now you go to a free-improv show and it’s all kids,” he continues. “That’s Thurston [Moore] and Lee [Ranaldo, of Sonic Youth]. Making it hip. So, yeah, it doesn’t phase some of these jazz guys if someone uses rock or punk or metal or goes ‘skronk.’ It’s like, Wow you went skronk, cool. They grew up with skronk.”
Feigenbaum remarks almost mournfully that there is just so much out there to release, and so much of it is so good. “Saying no to nice people with good projects is sad,” he says. “I’m just trying to run a really interesting label, as interesting as I [can]. And now I have to add ‘that the market will bear.’ The basic goal remains the same.”