Thinking small, going big
Indie rock has become the old guard. Forged in the early ‘80s, at a time when musicians looked to small labels to release music that would otherwise never find a home, its network of small labels, innovative artists, hand-made fanzines and passionate fans unleashed a creative counterrevolution.
But what is the role of an independent label in 2009, a time when every bedroom musician can record tunes on a laptop and distribute them on the Web for far less money than it costs to record and press a few dozen 7-inch singles? Such is the conundrum that confronts Chapel Hill-based Merge Records as it celebrates its 20th year as one of the most successful American indie labels. As one begins to wend through the gleeful, let’s-put-on-an-all-ages-show narrative of “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small” (Algonquin Books: 294 pp., $18.95 paper), a new oral history that traces the 20-year history of Merge, the almost quaint nature of first-wave indie rock begins to feel like a distant epoch.
Founded in 1989 by Mac McCaughan, Merge began as a vehicle to release local acts, including McCaughan’s own band, Superchunk. Since then, Merge has released albums from artists that are obscure (Butterglory), important (Neutral Milk Hotel, Magnetic Fields) and vastly popular (Arcade Fire, Spoon). Along with Matador, the label has released more great records than just about any other independent label. McCaughan, along with business partner and ex-girlfriend Laura Ballance, have negotiated the enormous changes within the music business with grace, integrity and a solid bottom line. It’s no small feat when you consider the fact that Touch and Go, a prominent Chicago indie label that has worked with Merge as a distribution partner since its early days, has stopped releasing new music and shut down its distribution division this year.
If anything, “Our Noise” is a primer for anyone who cares enough about music to not only make records, but also remain relevant and solvent.
“The main thing about Merge is that they achieved what they were trying not to achieve,” says longtime Merge fan John Cook, a reporter for Gawker.com who put together “Our Noise” with help from McCaughan and Ballance. “They were trying to do something small that satisfied them. It wasn’t about the lifestyle, or a 401(k). That limited focus enabled them to create a sustainable business.”
It all started innocently enough. In 1988, Columbia University student McCaughan took his junior year off to play in a couple of bands in Raleigh, N.C., including a punk trio called Wwax. When it came time to think about pressing a single of the band, McCaughan took it one stop further: how about a singles box set of five bands? That notion was as silly as it was audacious, but the resulting package, which was called “evil I do not to nod I live” (a palindrome, natch), attracted the attention of local musicians and fans, who realized that a thriving Raleigh music scene was coalescing.
From there, McCaughan, who around this time met his future girlfriend Ballance at Pepper’s Pizza where they both worked, formed Merge in order to release more music by local bands. The label’s first full-length release was as no-budget as it gets: a cassette called Winterspring by the Bricks. From the start, Merge’s ethic was D.I.Y. out of necessity: singles-stuffing parties with friends, handmade posters, the Bricks’ junker touring van that literally exploded one day. But this wasn’t anything new in 1989, as countless indie label entrepreneurs tried to make a mark by doing the exact same thing in their towns. Merge was different because it was ambitious and sober-minded. McCaughan and Ballance were fans but also pragmatists. By keeping their costs low and carefully curating their roster to suit their tastes, they created a sustainable business model almost despite themselves.
“Mac and Laura don’t demand anything of their artists,” Cook says. “They don’t badger them for records like other labels do. If one of their artists has something to release, they release it. [The Magnetic Fields’] Stephin Merritt didn’t want to tour and they didn’t make him do so. It just gave them more resources for other things.”
Merge has recorded its share of eccentrics (what else is indie rock for, if not to harbor the more harebrained among us?) and “Our Noise” devotes chapters to some of its more incorrigible mavericks. There was Matt Suggs, a central California native who sent Merge a cassette recorded in his bedroom under the name Butterglory, and who then had to scrape together a band when McCaughan agreed to put out a record. Merge wound up making seven records with Suggs over 15 years. Perhaps more than all of the bands it has nurtured, Merge is in many ways the story of McCaughan and Ballance. When McCaughan formed Superchunk in 1988, he recruited Ballance to play bass, even though she didn’t know how. When the couple split up in 1993, Ballance soldiered on with the band, though she was gravitating more toward running the day-to-day operations at Merge. The soap operatic nature of the pair’s relationship gives “Our Noise” its Fleetwood Mac-esque frisson.
“At first, it was hard for me to see the drama in the Merge story unless you were a big fan,” says Ballance, speaking by phone from Merge’s offices. “Unlike some rock books, there’s no violent arc to the story -- no one dies of a drug overdose or loses a lot of money.”
Emotional entanglements long behind them, McCaughan and Ballance (both of whom have families of their own) have grown Merge to the point where the label is an arbiter of a slightly left-of-mainstream taste. Its two biggest acts, Arcade Fire and Spoon, have brought commercial success that would have been unfathomable two decades ago. Both bands have gone on to be wildly successful: Arcade Fire’s last album, “Neon Bible,” entered the Billboard chart at No. 2.
The landscape has certainly changed since the days when Merge would peddle 500 hand-printed singles to local record shops. At a time when the Web can handle production, distribution and publicity, independent has been redefined. The old path of pressing physical records, touring and college radio play is no longer a viable model. Or is it?
“I don’t think we’re prepared to go the all-digital route,” McCaughan says. “That would mean abandoning people that are a crucial demographic for a label like ours. It might be a niche, but it’s kind of a big niche -- people who enjoy artwork, who like physical albums, and who aren’t satisfied with all of their music being on mp3s. . . . I can remember where I bought every record in my house, but I can’t tell you when I downloaded my music.”