Saturday, November 13, 2010

Their Noise

Even serious music fans rarely pay much attention to the labels that release their favorite music, so its easy to overlook the fact that a significant percentage of the indie rock canon has been released by little, Durham, North Carolina-based Merge Records. Founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk, Merge has become a home for the off-beat musicians in bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields, M. Ward, She & Him, Camera Obscura, Destroyer, and, of course, Superchunk itself. Merge Records Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, an exhaustive oral history, tells the story of the label's fifteen-year rise to prominence.

Merge succeeded due to a variety of factors. McCaughan and Ballance possessed a rare combination of attributes: good taste in music, generosity, and ability to form long-term relationships with sometimes difficult, egotistical musicians. As musicians, McCaughan and Ballance were liked by critics, loved by other musicians, and followed by a small-but-dedicated community of students and big-city hipsters. They continued to work day jobs (at restaurants and at Kinko's) well after they founded Merge, and that income, in addition to what they earned through Superchunk, gave them the ability to create a unique profit-sharing structure, in which bands received 50% of the profits from their record sales, instead of the 10% or so that bands on major labels received. Merge valued good musicianship over marketability, and, over the years, developed such a good critical reputation that DJs and record store clerks began to play their new releases simply because they trusted Merge's judgment. Merge bands would tour by van instead of bus, or bus instead of airplane, and would often crash at fans' apartments instead of hotels, to save money.

Merge was conservative with its money - giving small advances so that more of their albums would "earn out," but willing to double-down on albums it believed in, allowing for elaborate artwork and occasionally self-indulgent records, such as when The Magnetic Fields released the sprawling 69 Love Songs, a triple-album that went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, despite the fact that, at a major label, it would never have seen the light of day.

Still, for all of their critical success, Merge was small-time, working out of its founders' homes for almost a decade. Their first break-through commercial success was Spoon, which came to them only after being dropped by Elektra after the commercial failure of A Series of Sneaks, which Elektra had foolishly marketed to a mainstream audience, instead of Spoon's traditional indie rock demographic. The oral history format serves the book well here, quoting a member of Spoon as saying that, for hm, the lowest point came when he was forced to take a day job as an executive assistant, and, while wearing a suit, ran into Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss on his lunch hour. His embarassment at being seen at his office job by an indie rock heroine motivated him to get back in touch with his bandmates and find a new label on which to record, and Merge was an obvious choice. Spoon went on to release four excellent albums on Merge. The appeal of indie labels increased as bands like Spoon cracked the charts against the backdrop of an across-the-board decline in major-label CD sales, and, eventually, singers like M. Ward and Win Butler, both big fans of the previous generation of Merge bands, signed up with them instead of any number of major-label suitors.

The oral history format serves the book well - there are a lot of telling anecdotes that would likely not have found their way into print otherwise, and it is fascinating to see how people can remember a single historical event so differently. The other side of the coin is that, in parts, it seems as if every member of the Merge universe gets to weigh in on every turn of events, and obscure bands like Polvo, Butterglory, and Seam get a hagiographic treatment that they don't entirely deserve. Its a good book, but one that probably only serious indie rock fans need to invest their time in reading.

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