Merge is big business, but the label still helps power local music | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Merge is big business, but the label still helps power local music 

New to Durham, Mike Caulo is Merge's new publicity assistant.

Photo by Justin Cook

New to Durham, Mike Caulo is Merge's new publicity assistant.

Music scenes depend on the youth of new recruits, people like Marc Kuzio and David Smith.

Kuzio is a 19-year-old bandleader from Raleigh, and Smith, his friend, is a 21-year-old college DJ at N.C. State. One helps make local music; the other helps ensure it gets exposure.

But without Merge Records, the Durham label that's become an international beacon of independent music during the last quarter-century, the two might never have found the music scenes in their own backyard. Merge, as it's done for so many others, provided the impetus for their area epiphanies.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY JP TROSTLE
  • Illustration by JP Trostle

Smith's moment came in 2010, when he saw The Love Language play at The Soapbox in his hometown of Wilmington. The Raleigh band had just released its second album, and Smith was hooked by its, well, hooks. He went home and researched the band.

"I realized they were signed to a label called Merge after I looked at their Wikipedia page," he remembers. "That's when I connected the dots: 'Wait, Merge is the same label who put out In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and they're based in North Carolina?' That was the genesis of me knowing what Merge was as a cultural institution."

When Smith finished high school, he moved to Raleigh, enrolled at N.C. State and enlisted with the campus radio station, WKNC 88.1 FM. He surmises that he was hired in part because he was a kid on campus who actually knew Merge and some local music, too. Last year, Smith became the station's daytime music director, around the time he began an internship at Merge.

Kuzio, on the other hand, had no idea that music existed outside of the mainstream before his family arrived in Raleigh from Syracuse, N.Y., six years ago. But he too started listening to WKNC, hearing bands like The Arcade Fire and Spoon for the first time.

"It turned out that they were all on Merge. Figuring out that was located in Durham, 20 minutes from me, paved the way for me to find access to so many similar outlets," he says.

Kuzio now fronts the exciting and young Raleigh quartet Ghostt Bllonde, which signed to the local label Negative Fun late last year; starting a band was inevitable, he guesses, but Merge quickened the decision.

"They've shown other local labels around here that it's a good area, a good scene. It's able to flourish," he says. "While they may not directly have caused me to start playing music, they have for others that influenced me."

Beyond the albums it releases far past the Triangle, Merge Records has emerged as a gateway into the local music scene for the communities that surround it, wielding a Willy Wonka-like power to reveal new doors for fans and bands alike. The success of Merge is due in part to the community that supported it during the early years; a quarter-century later, Merge and Triangle music have become locked in a positive feedback loop. While Merge owes some of its vitality to neighbors who support its ventures, the Triangle is a vibrant and diverse music scene because Merge helped show some of those same people that yes, they could make music matter.

Heather McEntire leads one of the newest Merge acts, Chapel Hill/Durham group Mount Moriah. She epitomizes that exchange. McEntire moved to Chapel Hill in 2003 after graduating from UNC-Wilmington, where she'd learned about the label as a college DJ. She worked as WLOZ 89.1 FM's program director, meaning she had to sort through endless stacks of promos. She saw the label's spare, rectangular logo repeatedly and reckoned they mattered.

"As a college student cutting their teeth on what indie music was, I didn't really understand it all," she says. "But I knew there was something heavy and deep."

Around the same time, McEntire's friends and fellow former Wilmington residents Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard signed to Merge as The Rosebuds. Not long after McEntire arrived in Chapel Hill, she began working at the now-defunct Carrboro club Go! Studios and Schoolkids Records on Franklin Street. She began fronting her own band, too. From those vantages, she saw The Rosebuds rise to some national prominence under the aegis of Merge. It was a marvel of local teamwork.

McEntire occasionally sent in her own demos to Merge, including the masters to Mount Moriah, the self-titled debut of her country act with guitarist Jenks Miller. They elicited no response, so the pair released the album through their own label. But a few years later, she finally received a reply to a new set of demos—the songs that would become Miracle Temple, Mount Moriah's Merge debut.

"We were at a gas station on tour, filling up our van, and Jenks got the e-mail," McEntire remembers of the moment they learned they'd joined Merge. "He turned to me and said, 'We did it.' There was so much weight lifted off my shoulders."

For McEntire, Merge's dedication to remaining planted in the Triangle—in 25 years, their offices have moved only 12 miles—inspires her to stick around, too.

"Seeing them invest," she says, "makes you also want to invest."

Merge's area investment taught Will Hackney and Martin Anderson another invaluable lesson. When the pair launched Trekky Records in 2002, they were Chapel Hill high and middle school students, respectively. Merge had started more than a decade earlier in order to issue the music of its friends, a principle that Trekky pursued, too. It's paid off: Lost in the Trees, whose first few releases came from Trekky, signed an impressive deal with ANTI-, the label that Tom Waits calls home. And last year, Trekky released the first single from Sylvan Esso, helping catapult the Durham electro-pop duo to big-name tours and late-night television slots. Those relationships stemmed from wanting to put out the music of pals.

"If we didn't have Merge as that kind of umbrella influence, it would not have occurred to us to start a record label when we were so young or think that this was a viable job," Hackney says.

And Trekky knew to persevere through obstacles and apathy, Anderson admits, in large part because Merge had done the same thing. He was relieved, for instance, when he read that Merge wasn't very successful financially until almost its 14th year in business. That statistic boosted Trekky's confidence that doing right by its friends and signees trumped the almighty dollar.

"We took that influence," Hackney continues, "and made decisions for our label that were not financially wise, but were the right thing to do in that same way."

While most of these Merge-paved paths into local music have involved people already here, the label offered an entirely different indoctrination with Triangle music for Mike Caulo. The Vermont native lived in Boston for 11 years before taking a job as a publicist at the label in December.

"If you told me I was going to be living in Durham this time last year, it would not have registered," he says.

In Boston, he'd helped his friends book tours; for him, Durham represented little more than a stop between larger markets in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.—that is, until the Merge job came along. Since arriving, Caulo has learned that the area supports a vibrant scene, full of small acts that aren't necessarily looking to hit the road. Caulo's impressed and excited by the ease with which bands can flourish here.

While he likes local bands that call Merge home—Hiss Golden Messenger, Flesh Wounds, Spider Bags—he says his forays into small clubs and house shows have exposed him to groups such as Gross Ghost, Hammer No More the Fingers and Whatever Brains, acts that make him want to increase his involvement. He's contemplating booking bands and hoping to become more ingrained in the local music culture. Meanwhile, the label continues to inform his show-going pursuits.

"If Mac sends out an e-mail to everyone just being, like, 'Hey, this band's playing this show,' I'll definitely give it a fair listen," he says. "They haven't steered me wrong."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Indoor living."

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