Merge Records: 20 years of glorious noise

Thu Dec 24, 2009 4:18pm EST
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By Derek Caney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the summer of 1987, 19-year-old Mac McCaughan and his bandmates stumbled on an idea as old as rock 'n' roll itself.

Rather than sending demo tapes to major record companies, they followed in the do-it-yourself footsteps of punk-rock idols such as the Buzzcocks and Minor Threat and started their own label. But more than promote their own band, they wanted to document the local music in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

That label evolved into Merge Records, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Along the way, the label has garnered mainstream hits by Arcade Fire and Spoon, attracted critical praise for bands like Magnetic Fields, and enjoyed smaller successes with Lambchop and McCaughan's own band Superchunk.

Its history was been documented in "Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records" (Algonquin Books), which McCaughan wrote with Merge co-owner and Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance and scribe John Cook.

In an industry where success is measured in the millions of records sold -- or used to be, until sales starting slumping a decade ago -- Merge has thrived with sales figures in the thousands. The label's biggest seller, Arcade Fire's 2007 album "Neon Bible," sold 420,000 copies in the United States. Spoon's Merge label debut, "Girls Can Tell," sold more copies in six weeks than the band's previous album sold for a major label in a year.

Guided by McCaughan and Ballance's eclectic tastes and fiscal discipline, the label has succeeded where many others -- independent and major -- have failed.

"We operate in a conservative way," Ballance told Reuters from her office in Chapel Hill. "We were never in a position where we've had to say, 'We need a hit' or 'Oh crap, we have to sell some records really quick.'"

Consequently, they have managed to sign and retain their favorite acts even as major labels offered deals that seemed more generous.   Continued...