September 2009

Charles Fogelman

nonfiction

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook, Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance

There is, as of press time, no museum in North Carolina devoted to Merge Records, the 20-year-old independent record label. Founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk, Merge has released some of the most remarkable music of the last two decades. Until that museum is built, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records will ably suffice. Compiled by Gawker.com editor John Cook, along with McCaughan and Ballance (both of whom earn an author credit), Our Noise takes no controversial positions, assails nearly no real or imagined enemies and breaks no new ground. But who wants any of that? What the book does accomplish is to provide a scrapbook of Merge arcana new and old, as well as impressive access and interviews with a handful of musicians who have made some of Merge's most memorable albums.

From Merge's beginnings in 1989 until 1993, the fledgling label proceeded essentially according to indie label script. They released a few 7"s, pasted together the sleeves themselves and managed to make a few bucks. I was born in 1980: the first four chapters of this book provide robust proof of 12-year-old me's theory that the older kids really were doing awesome things in 1992. The creation myth of Merge is much the same as any hip spot: the Chapel Hill scene developed organically and excitingly, with house parties, mediocre bands full of raw energy and a few devoted nerds who followed it excitedly and one day decided "Hey, we can do that." That's oversimplified, obviously, and while the story of Superchunk and Merge's birth resembles hundreds of others, it is an interesting one to read when told by Cook's copious interviews and assorted pictures, posters and assorted other goodies from the era (did they ever throw anything out?). That Superchunk became a mighty and influential band has less to do with their label or their birthplace than the fact that they were and are a truly awesome band. In the revisionist history told by the players in that scene, Seam and Polvo and Butterglory become much more than they were; maybe any one of them could have been great, but they never made it to greatness on their records. Just as Seattleites have tried to make a great band out of Mother Love Bone or Green River, or Daytonians have done the same with Brainiac or Swearing at Motorists, the records just don't hold up to Nirvana or The Breeders, who made it big because, like Superchunk, they were awesome.

In the course of the band making it indie-big, things began to change for the label and for independent music in general. 1993 was the year everything began to shift: Gerard Cosloy's Matador records sold 49% of itself to Atlantic, while releasing Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, along with On the Mouth, the last Superchunk release that would not be issued by Merge. Merge, for its part, didn't stop at Superchunk, releasing records by Lambchop, Rocket from the Crypt and Stephin Merritt (as The 6ths) that same year. Also in 1993, erratically released Chicago zine The Baffler published Steve Albini's now legendary essay called "The Problem with Music," which showed a convincing hypothetical situation in which a band signed with a major label, sold a quarter of a million records and, in the end, "the band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month." The essay's closing sentence is the name by which the article is now commonly known: "Some of your friends are probably already this fucked."

Some of Merge's friends were indeed already this fucked. The specter of evil that hovers over this entire book is the world of major labels. Not so much because they mean "selling out" but because they are, as is intimated throughout, where good bands go to die. The pages are littered with cautionary tales, none more convincing than that of Spoon, whose most recent album -- on Merge, natch -- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200. Spoon was an unremarkable but promising band in 1996 when they released Telephono on Matador. But their signing to Elektra, and subsequent A Series of Sneaks, nearly killed the band when Elektra did little in the way of promotion of a very good album. The album, predictably, went nowhere. Spoon was as good as broken up until their redemption came by way of Merge, which has released a series of four good-to-great Spoon albums since 2001.

Merge, through three distinct ideals, has been able to consistently release at least a couple of remarkable albums every year since 1994. First, they release what they like, without A&R people and without traditional "let's make this huge" histrionics. Then, they give those bands a chance to develop. Unlike a major label, which is likely to drop a band whose debut sold 8,000 units, Merge will stick with their acts as long as they can and their limited expenses will keep even a marginal selling band in the black. Finally, they pay. In contrast to Albini's cautionary tale (which never listed a happy alternative to the major label extortion) Merge's plans were simple: 30% of profits on a release went to Chicago's Touch & Go, their distributor until 2005; when they joined a Warner-owned alliance, 49% went to the bands and 21% went back to Merge.

And there is what the book barely explores at all: was Merge's success as an indie precisely because they stayed small? Even a masterpiece like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has only sold some 200,000 copies in its 11 years of release. Cook documents the saga of reprinting around 69 Love Songs that kept it off the shelves and effectively unpurchasable when it should have been selling thousands of units a day. And this was before the Arcade Fire came and blew all of Merge's old expectations and beliefs out of the water: Our Noise demonstrates that it was directly due to the success of Funeral that their relationship with Touch & Go was ended and Merge's foray into relationships with major labels began. Whether or not this is the beginning of the future is an open question, but it seems fair to ask the question. Now that Merge has bona fide bankable superstars on the label, do they need to go to Warner?

While Cook's book does little to reveal what we can expect from the next 20 years of Merge, it serves as an entertaining series of footnotes and vignettes to some of the most loved bands and records of the last 20. Lengthy interviews with virtually every member of Superchunk, The Arcade Fire, Spoon, The Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel (save, of course, for Jeff Mangum, the one member from whom everyone wants to hear), together with the pictures and paraphernalia alongside, only cement the legacies of their great albums. Sometimes it's enough just to celebrate a great record; Our Noise is a worthy companion piece.

 

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook, Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565126246
320 Pages

Buy this book>>>