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The voice and oud of Turkish artist Udi Hrant waft through the Silver Spring headquarters of Wayside Music, a mail-order retailer of avant-garde recordings. Company founder and owner Steve Feigenbaum sits at a cluttered wooden desk at one end of a smallish warehouse decorated with Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart posters—and a gleaming galvanized trash can. Demo discs and tapes litter the carpet.
“We pick everything up off the floor and vacuum every four months,” he says, only half joking.
Among the many labels that Wayside distributes is Feigenbaum’s own, Cuneiform. Its catalog, a reflection of Feigenbaum’s eclectic tastes, encompasses innumerable genres: the New York City downtown sound; the angular, often political music typified by Henry Cow and other members of the late-’70s Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement; minimalism; progressive sounds inspired by Hatfield and the North and other Canterbury bands; classical; electronic; the seamless blend of ethnic music, electronics, and samples that has come to be known as Fourth World; and several schools of sound that have yet to be categorized.
Feigenbaum became interested in avant-garde music as a Wheaton High School student in the ’70s. A friend loaned him a copy of the Mothers of Invention’s Uncle Meat, with instructions not to go out that night until he’d listened to it. Feigenbaum stayed inside, but says, “A window opened for me. I didn’t imagine this type of music existed. I played it over and over.”
To this day, Feigenbaum venerates Zappa. “Frank single-handedly invented this genre of intellectual rock,” he declares.
Shortly after his Zappa-inspired epiphany, he became one of 10 investors—at $200 each—in a cooperative label called Random Radar Records. A shoestring operation, Random Radar released 10 records before collapsing under the weight of financial and personnel problems. Nonetheless, Feigenbaum values the experience. “I learned what not to do and I learned not to be in a collective,” he says today. “Somebody has to take responsibility.”
When Feigenbaum started Wayside Music in January 1980, he kept the company’s entire stock in his parents’ TV room. Several years later, he moved into his own quarters in Silver Spring. The manager of New Jersey-based twisted-pop performer R. Stevie Moore convinced Feigenbaum to start Cuneiform—with his client’s album the label’s first release—in June 1984. (Feigenbaum shows me a copy of the Moore LP and points out that even then, he knew how to take care of the details. “You’d be surprised how many new labels don’t get the words on the spine,” he laughs.)
Cuneiform got its moniker because Feigenbaum liked the look of the ancient wedge-shaped picture writing—and the fact that it was a primitive form of communication. But he doesn’t hold the name dear. So many people mangle the pronunciation that Feigenbaum vows, “If I had it to do all over again, I’d call it something like “Joe’s Records.’ ”
What do Cuneiform artists have in common? “They’re pushing boundaries,” says Feigenbaum, “and are generally interested in composition. Their music is hard to play, and you have to think about it—and I like them.” Among the artists on the Cuneiform roster are Doctor Nerve, an avant-metal-fusion outfit that burns through a set of astonishing complexity on its latest release, Skin; Boston’s Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, which once billed itself as “the world’s hardest-rocking chamber music quartet”; and David Borden, founder of what Feigenbaum swears was the world’s first all-synthesizer group, Mother Mallard, whose 12-part cycle, “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint,” has been called “the “Goldberg Variations’ of minimalism” by Audio magazine.
Cuneiform has released some 75 titles to date, and puts out a dozen new ones each year. Typical offerings sell about 1,000 copies each, although the label’s most popular artist, the Belgian RIO group Univers Zero, has several discs inching toward the 5,000 mark. (To achieve even these modest figures, Feigenbaum, who holds world rights to most Cuneiform releases, relies on overseas distribution, which accounts for one-third to one-half of his sales.) Among his worst-selling releases are those by French electronic rock group Heldon and its leader, Richard Pinhas, which sell little despite the high demand for the original LPs on the collectors’ market. The label has nevertheless remained faithful, reissuing the entire Pinhas/Heldon catalog on 13 discs, several of which include bonus live tracks.
Feigenbaum is happy to provide an outlet for such artists—even if it costs him. Consistently in the red, Cuneiform is subsidized by profits from Wayside Music. “I’ve been losing money for so long that I’m used to it,” Feigenbaum admits cheerfully. “I’m resigned to it. These artists are doing important work. I can afford to release them, so I should. If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen.”
To receive a Wayside Music catalog, write P.O. Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8427, or fax (301) 589-1819. The 24-hour new-release hot line is (301) 589-1803.