An Interview with
Steve Feigenbaum

By Beppe Colli
Apr. 21, 2006

Doing Big Business in the complex, volatile, ever-changing world of today is a difficult job. Doing Tiny Business in that very same world ain't no fun and games, either. In fact, it must be hard enough to give one a splitting headache per day. But what, exactly, does it entail - right now?

As soon as I got this question in my mind, I thought about: first, the USA; then, Cuneiform. USA, because, obviously, when these things are taken into consideration, it's the place where the action is. Cuneiform because, to me, they are a label not so marginal as to be practically invisible, but not so mainstream as to have an easy life.

Cuneiform's catalogue is rich with diversity, from "UK Classic Groups" such as Soft Machine and Matching Mole to Fred Frith/Henry Kaiser re-releases, from the Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith Yo Miles! project to old and new European groups such as Univers Zero, Von Zamla and Blast, from contemporary US groups such as Curlew and Doctor Nerve to the "UK Jazz" of Brotherhood Of Breath and Mujician to one-of-a-kind personalities like R. Stevie Moore and Gary Windo (and let's not forget Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind, the homage to Captain Beefheart CD by Fast 'N' Bulbous).

So I got in touch with label boss Steve Feigenbaum. Since a couple of years ago there had been a few interviews whose main focus had been Cuneiform's 20th anniversary, I made it clear that it was my intention to follow a different path. Steve Feigenbaum was a good sport, said yes and a few days later I had my answers.

I'd really like you to start from the very beginning (well, sort of, anyway): Would you mind describing the process that brought you to establish Cuneiform Records? You started as a fan of music, a musician, and then...

Indeed, I started as a fan of music (I think everyone in the music industry once was a fan of music, even if the work of being in the "industry" squeezes some of that love aside...). I discovered jazz when I was fairly young (15) (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and especially Charles Mingus). So, I was fairly ready when I heard The Mothers Of Invention, whose music changed my life radically. Shortly after, I discovered the local bands The Muffins and Grits, as well as discovering the Canterbury sound (Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North). So... the stage was set.

I also played music. At the time I thought I was very serious about it, but in hindsight, I realize that I lacked the commitment to practice to really be a "player" (I also think I lacked the raw talent, but that's another story).

Along with the people from The Muffins and some other friends, we founded a record label which released The Muffins' albums, as well as some other records.

Anyway, towards the end of the 70s, I was interested in "odd" music and I had no real direction for my future. I started a very small mail-order record company to sell "odd" music to people (this was before the internet made everything easily available to everyone!). I still do this, but it is online now:

After four years of a little bit of success, I decided that the "next step" was to start a label to release some of this music myself and to help "contribute" to the scene. I was a very young man and I had no idea of how long it would take to be established; that's the nice thing about being young - you look at a mountain and you say "that shouldn't be SO hard to climb...".

Establishing and nurturing a record company is, in a way, a cultural experiment. Did you ever consider Cuneiform as being "In Opposition"? And, if so, in opposition to what?

No, I am not personally interested in "THE FIGHT" put into those terms. It is a cultural experiment, I suppose - although I never thought of it that way until now - but it's really more about trying to find the balance between presenting music that I think is very interesting and being able to have other people also be interested enough in what I am releasing that they are willing to spend money to support it. That's the difficult and somewhat sad part of the work. It's sad because I have to say "no" to a lot of worthy projects because I don't believe that there is a market for this project (or at least I don't think I can reach that market).

Have you ever had the feeling that the music you like, and that sounds "perfectly normal" to your ears, gets regarded as being "avant-garde" because the concept of what is "normal" becomes more and more one-dimensional and narrow with every passing day? Or are things improving?

Your questions are interesting because, while they make perfect sense to me, they are not things that I have spent time thinking about. This is probably because sales are so small that I don't want to think about it! I don't know that the music I listen to sounds perfectly normal. I am able to tell the difference between "popular music" and the music we release, of course. Is what Cuneiform releases "avant-garde"? A fan of "real" avant-garde music might not think so. So, we just do what we do, try to release things that fit somehow into being interesting/great/fun and also are sellable. I also try very hard to shake things up a bit with what we release and not to just keep releasing the exact same types of things (although our critics might disagree!).

I'd like you to describe your relationship with the press and the distributors back in the 80s - I remember seeing your LPs being mentioned in the old N.M.D.S. catalogues - as compared to now.

Well, it is much much better for the press now, partially because we have done it for a long time and also because the internet has opened up more (MANY more) avenues for us and because I have two good employees whose work it is to get press for us.

It's also much better for us with distributors now. I actually get paid for the CDs I sell now, and that wasn't true back in the 80s, not even with N.M.D.S....

The first time I saw your records being sold in a public place (I bought a few) was at the M.I.M.I Festival in St. Remy, France, in 1987. How do you see the difference between Europe and the US when it comes to Festivals and concerts being funded with public money, donations etc.?

There is a big difference, because there is almost NO funding of arts with public money in the USA. Certainly not for "rock music".

And very little funding for festivals. Everything must "stand on its own two feet" here. I wish there was a little bit of support for the arts and culture, but there simply isn't.

You release new stuff and also archival stuff, both re-releases of historical recordings and things that are released for the first time. There are people who say that the current availability of so many "masterpieces from the past" makes it very difficult for new recordings to receive the proper space and attention in the press. Your opinion?

I think the problem is that people want to hear things that they already know or things by artists that they already know.

There are lots of people who buy our Soft Machine or National Health CDs, because those bands were on larger labels in the past and people remember them and there was more promotional budgets because they were on larger labels than Cuneiform, so they buy these CDs, but they don't buy CDs by other bands that they would probably like just as much, but don't because they don't know, or they are not so adventurous or some other reason.

At least that is what I think...

It's been said that the increasingly short attention spans of those who are used to the "fast languages" of today (say, the ones typical of TV and videogames) make it increasingly difficult for people to pay undivided attention to complex stuff, be it music, novels or films. What's your opinion about this?

I think that there is a lot of competition for people's "free time". But I don't think it has anything to do with "fast pace" that makes people less interested in complex materials...

To talk about music, we can only use language. In your opinion, can the phenomenon called "poor literacy" - or, as some would prefer to call it, "aliteracy" - be regarded as the culprit when it comes to the increasingly short and superficial reviews and interviews that one can see in much of today's press (well, my impression, anyway), or there are other forces in motion?

I have no idea; I think people (at least in the USA) are very pressed for time, and that may have something to do with it (jobs that take more and more hours, family, children, jobs, parents, etc.).

But I don't know.

The downloading issue. When it comes to the type(s) of music that you release, do you regard this phenomenon to be of any importance? If so, more in the direction of "decreasing sales" or of "increased chances of publicity"? And do you see today's abundance of stimuli as being a good or bad omen for the future of the music you like?

I see it as a two-edged sword. I know for certain that we are now able to present what we do to much larger numbers of potentially interested people than was ever before possible at a very low cost. I also know for certain that there are people who steal our recordings.

If you would ask me to guess, I would guess that the internet has been more of a good thing than a bad thing, but I must say that I really resent having materials taken from us without being paid.

© Beppe Colli 2006 | Apr. 21, 2006