Indie Rock’s Vital Imprint
Triangle-bred Merge Records celebrates a 30-year legacy.
by Bryan C. Reed / Photo by Jeremy Lange
Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, respectively the singer/guitarist and bassist of Superchunk, founded Merge Records in 1989 as an outlet for documenting their own band, as well as others in the nascent Chapel Hill scene.
Rock ‘n roll is not a business—or a lifestyle—often associated with longevity. The music’s impulsive, youth-driven intensity is more often paired with a live-fast, die-young hedonism that has left a lot of untimely casualties. So it’s noteworthy that the Chapel Hill–born, now Durham-based, Merge Records has survived for 30 years—let alone remained on the vanguard of independent rock and pop, and managed to maintain a fiercely independent ethos throughout.
This July, Merge will celebrate its third decade with a series of concerts at the Carolina Theatre and Motorco Music Hall in Durham and at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Acts, culled from Merge’s massive catalog, include Hiss Golden Messenger, The Mountain Goats, The Rock*A*Teens, Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Lambchop, Superchunk, A Giant Dog, Titus Andronicus, Destroyer, Ibibio Sound Machine, and Waxahatchee. Most of the tickets sold out months in advance.
But as sprawling as the four-day festival—dubbed MRG30—is in both sound and scope, Merge’s origins were much more humble.
Inspired by indie labels like Washington, D.C.’s Dischord and Seattle’s Sub Pop, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, respectively the singer/guitarist and bassist of Superchunk, founded Merge Records in 1989 as an outlet for documenting their own band, as well as others in the nascent Chapel Hill scene. Since then, the label has grown into a stalwart and iconic imprint with milestone releases from The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, and others in its catalog. But it’s always been an underdog story.
Recalling the label’s humble beginnings in the 2009 book, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, co-founder Mac McCaughan said, “People ask the question a lot: ‘Why did you decide to put out your own records?’ But it’s not like there was anyone else asking to put them out.”
To this day, Merge remains true to its underdog ethos. Through the years, the label has offered a home to acts like East River Pipe, Butterglory, and Richard Buckner, who might attract cult followings but aren’t likely to crack the Billboard charts. “I love putting out good records,” Ballance said in Our Noise. “And I don’t care if it sells 500 copies or 250,000.”
Though its early catalog is filled to the brim with anxious and earnest guitar-driven rock music, today Merge artists are as likely to play hooky punk-rooted rock (a la Redd Kross or Superchunk), as narrative folk music (The Mountain Goats or H.C. McEntire, for instance), or bouncy electronic dance pop Ibibio Sound Machine or Sneaks).
Likewise, the sound and ethos of indie rock has evolved to the point that the terms feel almost useless. The music industry has been in flux, adapting to new digital technologies and business models. Merge, meanwhile, soldiered on with more modest expectations and investments than the major labels that spent the ’90s and ’00s chasing “the next big thing,” even as record sales dwindled.
“We’re in the record business, but we’re in a different record business than what people think of as ‘the record business,’” McCaughan said in Our Noise. “When we read stories about labels taking people to court for having some MP3s on their computer, or complaining that the industry is going down the tubes because of file-sharing, we don’t really relate.”
As the label approaches 700 releases in its catalog, it continues to release vital, compelling music. Merge releases are, on the whole, often critically acclaimed, occasionally successful beyond the indie niche, and always interesting.
For a quick survey, one need look no further than even a partial list of this year’s releases. Ibibio Sound Machine’s Doko Mien finds the UK/Nigerian ensemble driving funky riffs into modern R&B grooves, with glowing electronic embellishments. The Mountain Goats’ In League With Dragons found the band further adding layers to the sounds surrounding frontman John Darnielle’s detailed songwriting. Imperial Teen fused warm new-wave-leaning synth-pop with elegant pop-rock on How We Say Goodbye, while veteran rockers Redd Kross give alt-rock a stadium-ready boost on Beyond The Door.
As much as has changed, in music and its industry, Merge has operated more or less the same. Even though it’s a bit bigger, with a legacy to uphold, the choices in what records bear the Merge stamp still come from the tastes of its co-founders, rather than internet buzz or sales projections. That degree of passion never goes out of style.