Founded by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance in 1989, North Carolina's Merge Records quickly grew to become one of America's essential indie labels. From supporting their local indie rock scene to launching international stars, for over 25 years Merge has found success by staying true to their independent roots.
Five Minutes with Mac & Laura
How did Merge Records start?
LAURA: Mac and I had gotten together and started playing in bands together, and in 1989 we were on a cross-country road trip when we decided that maybe we should try starting a record label. We had been inspired by Dischord, Sub Pop, Homestead, and K Records and seeing what they were up to at that time. Also, there were tons of bands in the area where we live (the Triangle, aka Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham, NC), and they would be around for a while and then break up. It seemed like we could put out 7-inches or cassettes and give the bands a chance to be known outside of our small world. We started releasing full-length records in 1992 when Corey Rusk (of Touch and Go/Quarterstick/Necros) reached out and suggested that he would like to manufacture and distribute records of our choosing. If that had not happened, we might not be here today.
What were the biggest challenges?
LAURA: Everything was a challenge, really. We started with $500 that we borrowed from Mac’s dad. We would sell the tapes or records we made and eventually get paid for them, and then plow that money back into the business. It was very much a labor of love. We were both going to university full time and also working jobs on top of running the label.
At that time, getting the records distributed and getting paid was one of the biggest challenges. The whole thing was very underground and small scale. Occasionally, a distributor would go out of business without having paid us for $1,000 worth of 7-inches, and that was devastating. Also, the only means we really had to publicize the records we were putting out was word of mouth, fanzines, college radio, or record store clerks. That was about it. No internet. It was slow growing!
Can you pick out five pieces of music / albums that define the label?
LAURA: That is really hard. Superchunk has to be on that list, and I would suggest our new album What a Time to Be Alive as it is pretty well representative of the band. Superchunk was also our flagship when we started, along with Polvo. Also, two of our most important albums are Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. We also have had a very long relationship with Spoon which began with their album Girls Can Tell.
Unfortunately, most of these I have mentioned were licensed to other labels in the UK long before we got worldwide distribution. So, I should mention another we have for the world, and that is Ibibio Sound Machine’s Uyai. We have never stuck to just one style of music. We put out music that we like, and we like all kinds of music.
MAC: The Merge discography is defined by artists presenting great songs in their unique voices. I think a good place to start is Lambchop’s first album, I Hope You’re Sitting Down (aka Jack’s Tulips). On first listen, even to me back then, it was hard to get a handle on—quiet (despite there being 13 people in the band), rambling, discursive—but grew on us and everyone that heard it. Until now, those tracks are stuck in my head forever. Compare it to their latest, FLOTUS, and hear both how far they’ve come and how much they still sound like themselves. I love bands that both challenge and exceed expectations. The first Polvo album, Cor-Crane Secret, is another guitar-based “pop” record of memorable songs that twists familiar things into new shapes. Waxahatchee’s most recent album Out in the Storm is an updating of crashing ’90s guitar rock pairing Katie Crutchfield’s incredible voice with her epic songs. Sneaks pares things back often to just bass, voice, and drum machine, creating miniatures like “Hair Slick Back” that manage to compel with the simplest of tools. And sure, we started the label, so I’ll throw one of our records in there—and since Laura mentions the new one, I’ll say the first full-length we ever put out on Merge, Tossing Seeds (a singles comp), kind of defined our aesthetic (good tunes, loud guitars).
Did things change after winning a Grammy for Arcade Fire?
LAURA: Arcade Fire’s Funeral really changed things for us first. That record took off in a way that surprised us. We had to get more staff on board to handle all of the demands of representing a band on that scale. When when they won the Grammy for The Suburbs, it felt like a great feather in our cap and theirs, but we were already operating on a whole different plane by the time that happened.
MAC: I think it put the Arcade Fire on the radar of some people who were unaware of the band before, but luckily for us, the album is still an Arcade Fire album—i.e., not made for radio, sprawling (no pun intended), and sweeping. I don’t think it changed things radically for us, but it was great to see The Suburbs get recognized as the great album it is.
Being artists yourselves, how does that shape how you run the label? And how does it shape who you sign?
MAC: We sign bands for the same reasons we signed them when we first started reaching out beyond our group of friends: We are moved by the music. There are lots of great bands and great artists out there—plenty to go around, and we have to remind ourselves we can’t put out every record we like. Hopefully, being artists ourselves facilitates the communication and the relationship between Merge and those we work with; we have been in many of the same situations they find themselves in whether it’s making a record or being on tour, or trying to balance your life as an artist. Even something as simple as what a sticker or an album sleeve should look like…we have thought about all of those things many times from both sides.
LAURA: Being artists has very much informed how we do business. We are known for having the most artist-friendly deals around. We have always accounted to the bands very regularly and honestly. I also feel that our having made a lot of records and toured extensively gives us a much better understanding of what bands go through than the average label executive can have. We know the record business from many angles, and that informs how we do things. Sometimes I think we might be too nice.
How has the industry changed since starting the label / starting out as a band?
LAURA: Hah. Well, the biggest factor in the change of the music industry has to stem from the formation (is that a good word for it?) of the World Wide Web. In a lot of ways, it was great for communication (emails, what?) and discovery of music. Selling downloads was pretty much the golden age of the music industry as far as our history is concerned. What could be better than selling something that you don’t have to manufacture? Obviously, making and promoting the music was not free, but beyond that, it was kind of free money. Clearly this was a disaster for physical retail and led to a lot of record stores going out of business. Now with streaming taking over as one of the main ways that people listen to music, that golden age has ended. It’s a lot harder to break even on a project with fewer people buying physical records and streaming being the norm.
But I have always said that the music industry has never been a steady thing. It is always evolving and changing. The “album” is a construct that some music industry folks came up with, and some of us now act like that is the way music was meant to be enjoyed. It wasn’t always that way. Used to be you bought sheet music and had to play what you wanted to hear yourself. The technology keeps changing. We shall see what comes next.