At the end of July, Merge Records celebrated its 20th anniversary. That the label has been able to survive the tumultuous waters of the music industry for two decades is reason enough to celebrate. That Merge has emerged as one of the most successful independent labels, while continuously operating on its own terms, is even more impressive.
Of course, the label didn’t go from putting out Breadwinner 7-inches to gold Arcade Fire albums overnight. Merge was started by Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance, then a couple who would become one half of Superchunk, as a bedroom operation releasing cassettes and 7-inches of Mac’s initial recordings. With Superchunk’s increased popularity and a distribution deal with Touch and Go, the label was eventually able to expand, but such advancements were always treated with a sensible modesty. Likewise, Merge has always remained committed to putting out music they love, regardless of commercial viability.
Tracing the Chapel Hill label’s 20-year success story is Our Noise, a new tome written by reporter John Cook with Mac and Laura’s assistance and lavishly illustrated with photographs and mementos from Merge’s lengthy history. As such, this is the Merge story straight from the horses’ mouthes, with the book largely comprised of quotes from all the involved parties. But more than just a string of anecdotes, Our Noise quickly takes on a narrative arc. For the first decade, the story of Merge was largely the story of Superchunk, as the band’s success is tied directly to the label’s. The label’s first full-length (and 20th release) was Tossing Seeds, a compendium of Superchunk singles, and that record marked a seismic shift for the imprint as they brought on Touch and Go to help with the demand for the record.
Similarly, Merge’s history is spotted with particular records that came to symbolize growth spurts, and here those albums and bands are partially used to divide the book into chapters. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea may have not been a sales blockbuster out of the gate, but its massive critical success and strong word-of-mouth would generate strong sales for years to come. Of course, the story of Jeff Mangum, the band’s eccentric recluse, makes for a compelling plot as well.
Merge’s first big success was with the unlikely triple-album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields. Pressed as both a three-disc boxset and as three separate albums, neither Merge nor Touch and Go could predict that they would have quickly sold out of its initial run and go on to sell more than 150,000 copies. The always droll Stephin Merritt, the Magnetic Fields’ songwriter, provides some of the book’s best quotes. “I ridicule the ideology of the so-called indie-rock ethos,” he says. “I have nothing to do with that, and I’m sorry that Mac and Laura do. No doubt they are completely insincere about it and are just using it to sell records. And I am not joking.”
The label’s next wave of success was a classic underdog story. Austin’s Spoon was dropped by Elektra soon after its second album, A Series of Sneaks, was released. After hearing what would become Girls Can Tell, Mac signed the band. Girls Can Tell sold 20,000 copies in its first six weeks, and the band’s next album, Kill the Moonlight garnered 143,000 in sales after placement on The OC television show.
But even the success of Spoon could not prepare the label for what would happen with Arcade Fire. After a glowing review appeared on Pitchfork, Merge couldn’t keep the Canadian band’s full-length debut, Funeral in print. Suddenly they had a runaway hit, one that would eventually move 400,000 copies in the States alone.
But more than these success stories and the uncanny and unpredictable nature of popular taste, what Our Noise illustrates is how Mac and Laura, by following their instincts and continuing to put value on the music itself, have made Merge a success story, no matter what the sales figures might be. There is a chapter here devoted to Lambchop as well, a band that tours the great halls of Europe, but can’t seem to sell records in the U.S. That Merge is just as excited to put out their next record as the next Spoon album shows their devotion to viewing music, despite Mr. Merritt’s comments to the contrary, as art and not merchandise. In many ways, the chorus to Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker”—“I’m working, but I’m not working for you”— seems more apropos than ever, as the work they’ve put into Merge has always been for something greater than just a means to make a buck.