The Story of Merge Records
The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small
By John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
Algonquin Books, 189 pp. $18.95
confess, I am one of the people mentioned in the book that would dryly and
uninterestingly confess to the band, label owners and true believers involved
that I was never really all that into Superchunk. I had friends for whom
Superchunk was the be all-end all band, the true indie band that didn't screw
it all up with politics and delusions. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance formed
Superchunk and in 1989, the label that would bear them aloft, Merge Records.
Records, I did and do care a lot about. They were one of the few labels that
could always be counted on to suss out the good stuff, to extract the
meaningful music from the merely hopeful and present these fragile orchids in
the right mix of light and shadow so that they may thrive. If you care about
off-the-radar rock at all, you owe some thanks to Merge records. But does it make
a good story?
yes. If Our Noise just chronicled the
slow buildup of Superchunk and the label, eh, maybe not. But what comes with
rise is a story about belief and action. If indie rock has a soul message, an
undercurrent philosophical tenet, it is that believing something should exist
is enough to justify the work it takes to make it exist, even when the players
involved make that existence difficult.
chapters here are about the unlikely Merge "success" stories. The label decided
to embrace the terrible business decision of releasing 69 Love Songs by then cult band Magnetic Fields as an encyclopedic
boxed set because it maintained the integrity of the work, and it paid off, put
the band in the bigger spotlight, got the label some better office space.
Stephin Merritt, the dour genius behind Magnetic Fields approached the deal
with the incalcitrant blasé that makes his songs so goddamn true, at one point
threatening to halt the deal because he didn't like the cheap DIY-looking logo the
label used. But ultimately, he relented, and 69 Love Songs allowed Magnetic Fields and Merritt the springboard
to move on to bigger and better things.
of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the cathartic conception and birth of
their landmark record In the Aeroplane
Over the Sea is an inspiring story of
belief. The musicians involved are presented as Lost Boys, crafting fragile
magic in the hidden pockets of redneck America. Mac and Laura are seen as
missionaries for putting out this difficult record. Even other member of
Superchunk thought it was a terrible idea, but history proved this record would
be bigger and more important than anyone anticipated. So much so that Magnum
has retreated into relative hiding ever since.
Mac and Laura posit themselves as humble heroes in
this book, exhibiting a sly smugness about maintaining their integrity in the
face of business. It's a standard indie rock posture to act like you don't care
about the thing you care most about. The reason I put "successes" in quotes is
because in this game, success means something different than it does in other
parts of the business world, even in the music business world. Success is a
matter of making an unlikely thing and then making that unlikely thing work and
making your life one where you can repeat itwithout becoming yourself
unmade. Spoon and Arcade Fire are two of those successes
that transcended the obscurity barrier, Lambchop and, in some ways, Superchunk stand
as successes that await the world's recognition, but they and your next
favorite band all benefit from the ongoing faith of the people profiled in this
lovely and unexpectedly inspiring book.
Photo of Laura Ballance and photgrapher Christian Lantry from the Superchunk website.