Steve Feigenbaum Talks About Cuneiform Records, His Four-Plus Decades Selling Fringe Music, And Why He Thinks The Vinyl Revival Is Mostly Hype

Steve Feigenbaum started Cuneiform Records in 1984, as a natural extension of his mail order record store, Wayside Music. He specializes in boundary-pushing, genre smashing, outsider music—or what he calls, “funny” music—and he managed to stay in business, pay his artists, and turn a profit. He also managed to survive major upheavals in the market, including the transition from vinyl to CDs, the piracy of the Napster-era, and the rise of digital sales via platforms like iTunes. But then came streaming, and for the funny music he sells, streaming was a bridge too far. 

“You can make some money streaming,” Feigenbaum says. “But if you’re a fringe artist, there are only so many people interested. Whether you give it away or sell it, it doesn’t matter, there are only a few thousand or a few hundred people who are interested. There aren’t more than that. Of course, bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin make a lot of money streaming. But they are the Who, they are Led Zeppelin. That’s not what I do. It’s not what I aspire to, and it’s not what I am interested in, despite the fact that I like the Who—I like Led Zeppelin, too—but I don’t aspire to that.”

Feigenbaum closed Cuneiform Records for 2018 to regroup, and reopened the next year as a more limited service. He’s got a lot to say, and his perspective is informed by decades in the trenches. I talked with him about starting Cuneiform Records, navigating the major changes that seem to happen about once every 10 years, the unique problems streaming presents to niche music genres, and why vinyl records only make money when the artists sell them from the bandstand. 

How did you get started doing this? 

I was a player once upon a time, but that was a very long time ago, and I don’t play anymore. I am very interested in—for lack of a better term—funny music. Not “funny,” as in, haha, but “funny,” as in odd. “Funny” is a terrible term, but it is also a great term, because it is so broad. That’s what I’ve always been attracted to, and at a certain point, I realized that I might have the chops to do a better job of supporting the music, not as a player, but as a business person.

What instrument do you play?

I played guitar. Right out of high school—and after high school for about five years, from 1976 though 1981 or 1982—I as involved in a local collective called Random Radar, which put out 11 albums and one 45, back when it wasn’t so easy to do that. There wasn’t an internet back then to tell you, “Don’t forget to put the name of the record on the spine,” and that kind of stuff. I was the treasurer of the collective for a while, I also did some other things, and I learned a little bit about the record business. I also learned a lot about collectives, and that collectives are very hard and often don’t work—because they are collectives [laughs].

How was the collective set up?

It was a group of musicians that I worked with and we released our own records. There were people who had contributed money to form the collective and who were a part of it. The problem is that giving $110 doesn’t necessarily mean that a year-and-a-half later you’re still doing the work, but you still have a vote. I learned a lot. That’s the positive spin I can put on it. We released some interesting stuff, and that’s how I got into this. 

When did you start Cuneiform?

While I was still at Random Radar, in 1980, I started a mail order store, which still exists to this day, called Wayside Music, and that was my business. It went pretty well, and after three or four years of it going pretty well, the next step, I guess, was to become a record label. Our first artist was R. Stevie Moore [What’s The Point, released in 1984].

What is Wayside Music?

It’s all mail order, direct to people. I was in my early twenties. I was going to college. I was interested in this funny music, and I had a part time job at a record store. I was smart enough to realize that it probably wasn’t a great idea to open a record store that only sold funny music, but I could have a mail order store. I could mail people catalogs of these things that we had, and I could reach everyone.

How did you advertise? 

It was two things. I mentioned Random Radar. Random Radar’s biggest band was the Muffins—who I later did some things with—and I “borrowed” the Muffins mailing list to start Wayside Music. It was not necessarily my most shining moment, but I did it. I also advertised in Trouser Press. At the time, I was doing a lot of rock-in-opposition-type stuff, and jazz rock-type stuff, and there weren’t very many people doing that. I started with the borrowed mailing list, I advertised, and I think people who were interested told other people.

At that point, you only sold vinyl and cassettes?

Yes, vinyl and cassettes, but cassettes were a very small. It was mainly vinyl. In 1980, CDs didn’t exist. I think CDs were introduced in 1984. They were only made in Japan, and they were very expensive. Cuneiform put out its first album in 1984, and our first CD was in 1988 or ’89. 

And the transition was seamless?

No, it was horrible. I was suddenly stuck with all these records I had released—the records didn’t sell anyway—but suddenly, in addition to the fact that nobody wanted them because they were these stupid records that I liked and had released, they now didn’t want them because they were the wrong format. If I held on to them for 30 years, they’d be cool again. But I didn’t know that.

Some small labels asked fans not to tape their records to listen to in the car, but to buy a separate cassette. Did you think that was a problem? 

Well, first of all, if you own the album and you record it—this is a very slippery slope, because nobody pays attention to one thing vs the other—but, if you buy a record, a CD, or whatever format you buy, you legally have a license to use that one recording, as you like, for your personal use. Legally, you’re allowed to tape it for your car for your use – you are not supposed to tape it for someone else to use in their car. If you bought one of my records and you taped it onto a cassette so you could play it in your car—but you bought my record in the first place—I was totally fine with that. But we’re not there now, by the way. 

In terms of sales, for you, when was the golden age?

It was very hard until the late 1990s. We were a pipsqueak, and we weren’t very cool, and we weren’t very hip. Cuneiform may be cool and hip now, but in 1994, I don’t think we were. The good years started in 1995 or 1996, but really, for me, the golden age was from about 1998 through 2007 or 2008.

Napster didn’t crush your business?

No. It may have impacted it—I don’t know—but it didn’t crush it. In 1998, I got my first, real, decent distributer. That was opposed to all the people I dealt with on a non-exclusive basis, who their fondest dream was that I would have a big record, they would buy a whole bunch, and I would drop dead. That way they wouldn’t have to pay me, and I wouldn’t annoy them about paying me. That was what I dealt with throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. But in the late ‘90s, I hooked up with a real distributer who was my official and exclusive distributer and, son of a bitch, they actually paid me every month.

Who was that?

It was a company called Big Daddy. They’re long gone, but they were great. They treated me well.  They totally didn’t understand what I was doing at all, but they had faith in me. They knew that I knew what I was doing. That was still the days of Tower Records. Tower Records was interested in what we did, because, for all their faults, Tower Records was interested in music. They were interested in the fact that they were the store who had the little guys—that you could go in and find the obscure. I remember having a conversation once with Big Daddy, where they said—this wasn’t directed at me, it was a general statement—but they said, “We only want to deal with labels that sell X thousand copies of everything.” I said, “What does that mean for me?” They said, “Steve, we’re not talking about you. We go into Tower and their buyer there is all excited about your stuff. We sell a few copies of your stuff to them and a whole bunch of other stuff we distribute, too, because most of the people at Tower like what you do.” That was because the Tower people were music people. They maybe didn’t buy a lot of copies of my release, but they were excited about it, and it allowed Big Daddy to sell them a whole bunch of other things.

Tower Records wanted cool music?

They wanted everything. They wanted the things that sold a lot of copies, but there was also room, and a market for, the other stuff as well. That’s the biggest difference between then and now. It’s always been hard. But before, if you were smart and you knew what you were doing, you could make a living and actually pay the artists based on sales of esoteric music. And esoteric music can mean a lot of things. Esoteric music can mean bluegrass, or blues, or modern classical, or jazz, or a guy like me who tries to not pay attention to the boundaries and tries to push the boundaries. But you could sell enough, because if people were interested in your fringe music, they either had to buy it or steal it, and they knew they were stealing it. In the 1980s, “stealing it” was a cassette. In the early 2000s, “stealing it” was Napster. But you had to accept that you were stealing, and many people didn’t want to steal it. Whereas now, it’s all free. They don’t have to steal it. It’s just there, and in insane quantities that no one person can possibly deal with.

And that’s regardless of whether it’s a free service or a subscription service?

Everything. Don’t forget, Spotify is a free service, too, if you’re willing to listen to an ad. Same with YouTube, if you’re willing to listen to an ad. The only thing you get for your $10 on Spotify or YouTube is no ads. But the content providers—i.e. me, except that I don’t opt into it, and my stuff is very specifically not available on the streaming services—they get nothing.

Nothing or a fraction of a penny?

There are many, many fractions of pennies. If you dive into that, you can have the pleasure of trying to figure out how to split three quarters of a cent between you and the artist.

But your music is available on Bandcamp. 

Yes. Bandcamp works great. I would say Bandcamp is the brightest spot of the last 10 years. You can stream on Bandcamp, but that’s a choice the artist or the label makes. You can stream one song. You can stream zero songs. But everything is controlled by the artist or the label. Nothing is controlled by the 800 pound gorilla who tells you what to do. 

You took a year off in 2018, what happened?

I had an office and I had a staff. I had two people who did nothing but promotion for the label, and by extension for the artists. When I hired them, promotion for the release—and/or the artist—worked for all parties. If we got a review of a record or a story about an artist, that meant that people bought the record. It was a very direct correlation between the two. But that wasn’t working any more. I was drowning in lack of sales and payroll expenses. I gave my staff 11 months notice and let them go. One of them had worked for me for 12 years, and one had worked for me for 25 years. That was a very terrible thing. I gave them as much notice as I could. We fulfilled all our obligations to the artists, and I didn’t tell anybody that I had decided to stop until we had released and worked every release that I had promised to release. Obviously, the office knew, but nobody outside the office knew. It was important that I had promised to release these things, and if I announced that I was laying everybody off and closing, then the story wouldn’t be about those releases, it would be about me, and that’s not fair. It was probably the hardest, saddest thing I have ever done. It was personally crushing.

But you reopened in 2019.

I am issuing music again in a much more limited form. I am basically only working with people I have already worked with, who understand what I can do, and as time goes by, more importantly, what I can no longer do for them.

Is Wayside Music still up and running?

Yes, and Cuneiform is running in a diminished form. My promo team was great, and the culmination of their work—I had already decided to shut the label—was that we got the Downbeat Jazz Record of the Year Award in 2017 [Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks]. That was a very big deal and I am incredibly proud of it. The plaque is on my wall. I am not the artist of course, I am just the label that released it, but that’s still a really big deal. But I can’t play that game anymore and I am not even going to try. 

I’ve read a lot about the vinyl revival, does vinyl sell?

I released a lot of vinyl and the only way it sells is if the band is playing a lot, and is selling it themselves from the merch table. The big legacy is going to be all these people with unsold vinyl albums and unsold CDs. I went very broke chasing the vinyl thang. If the artist sold it, it sold. If the artist didn’t sell it, it didn’t sell. That’s really it. And when I say the artist sold it, I mean they took it on tour with them.

What about these small, boutique vinyl stores? They seem to be selling records.

They may be doing great, but it’s not enough to pay for the huge amounts of money you have to spend to make a vinyl record. The amount you have to spend to make a vinyl record is huge compared to making a CD.

Are CDs still relatively cheap?

Yes. When I release something on CD, I can sell between 300 and 1,000 copies, even now. That’s what I am doing now. That’s what Cuneiform is doing now. I was selling a hell of a lot more than 1,000 of my better titles when I had a staff that I was paying. A great title was selling 10,000 copies. 

You don’t see much about CD sales.

They don’t talk about it because it isn’t perceived as interesting or hip by the media. Something that I can sell 1,000 copies of as a CD, if it comes out on vinyl, and the band doesn’t take any from me, maybe I can sell 75 or 100. That’s what I can sell. Now if the band takes the rest, it can work, but they have to take them. It is very nice when the band buys copies of the CDs from me, but I don’t require it to release a recording. But if the band says to me, “WE WANT VINYL.” I say, “Great, my minimum quantity is 250, and I want 30 of them. Are you going to take 220?” If they say, “Sure,” then we do it. If they say, “What the fuck are we going to do with 220 copies?” I say, “Well, what the fuck am I going to do with 250?”

Why does it work if the band sells vinyl?

Vinyl is great to sell off the bandstand. People want a souvenir. They want a shirt—they had an incredible time at the show—they want to talk to you after the show, and shake your hand, and tell you, “I had an incredible time.” Even if they don’t have a record player, a record is this nice big thing, and it’s a perfect thing for the band to autograph. It’s a way to show how much you loved the show you just saw, but it’s not necessarily the way people are listening to music. There are people who like vinyl and they do buy it either mail order or from stores, but it’s not enough. At Wayside Music, which buys other people’s releases from distributors and makes it available to people through mail order and online sales, we have a lot of vinyl customers. We sell a lot of vinyl, but it’s all one of this and one of that. It’s 1,000s of things, but one of this and one of that. A really big vinyl seller for Wayside Music is three or four copies. That’s great. And since I am buying them one at a time, that’s fine. But if they cost me a fortune, and my minimum quantity is 250, selling four copies kind of sucks. 

Is streaming a way to discover new music?

I think there’s so much music on streaming services that it’s a fallacy to think that people will discover you that way, because it is just overwhelming. When more music than you can even conceive of pours out of every electronic device in your pocket, then you’re going to play the things you know and like, or the thing the algorithm suggests. I think that’s the legacy of Napster. What Napster did was it devalued music so much, it’s now, “I hope we can get people to pay $10 a month for everything, since they could get it for nothing.” And that’s where we are. Nothing will change until everybody opts out, and then they’ll have to find something more fair. But as long as everybody thinks they have to be on Spotify, because everyone else is on Spotify—and I use “Spotify” as shorthand for all the streaming services, they all blow equally—but as long as everyone feels they have to be there, nothing will ever change. Why would they? There’s no reason. The streaming services have a great thing happening for themselves now.

Photos courtesy Steve Feigenbaum, first image is with Leonardo Pavkovic, MoonJune Records