I don't know anyone who works at Merge Records, and I don't feel any urge to make this an ass-patting affair about who did what and how everyone involved deserves thanks. I can't address these things because that wasn't my experience with Merge Records or its bands. Rather, my background is that of an emerging fan, a Pittsburgh, Pa., teenager eager to discover new music as quickly as he could consume it. Merge had my number, big-time.
When I was about 15 years old, I discovered that Superchunk—this great North Carolina band I'd hunted down—owned a record label that was about two dozen releases deep. Thanks to University of Pittsburgh's 19-watt WPTS and Carnegie Mellon's WRCT, I was able to put sounds to the names, and I gradually realized I could trust this band, and moreover, their little label. Every time they got it right, my faith in the whole enterprise grew. Thing is, they were almost always right.
Merge Records was far from the first label dedicated to what we know collectively as indie rock. When Merge humbly opened for business in 1989 with a few cassettes and 7"s, the intent was—as with many other fledgling imprints at the time—to release the music its owners wanted to put into the world. Whatever marketing plans now guide the label weren't on anyone's mind, but, indeed, everything must start somewhere. And in the case of Merge, the ace in the hole—or the deep well, if you must—was the fertile Triangle rock scene of the late '80s and early '90s.
The successes of Merge Records speak largely to the fellowship of friends and acquaintances that grew from Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance and their bands—namely, Superchunk. To wit, the first 20 or so releases on Merge are almost exclusively North Carolina or Virginia acts. In those early years, Superchunk singles (until 1993, the band released its LPs on Matador Records to increasingly enthusiastic response), the solo projects of McCaughan and locals like Erectus Monotone, Finger, Polvo, Angels of Epistemology and Pure comprised the label's roster. These were the bands Superchunk shared bills with, met socially and heard around town. Even Merge's releases and promotional materials came in small, handmade batches done by friends and local craftspeople like those at Barefoot Press and Bill Mooney and Barbara Herring from Raleigh's Tannis Root. Merge is now a major business with international ties, but, first, they looked local.
That doesn't mean the music stayed local. Four years before alternative rock became a major force in American culture, Merge was but one of many imprints releasing records to be bought in stores and at live shows, played on college radio stations and written about in fanzines. The spirit of participation carried with it a responsibility to pay attention. In the asynchronous orbit of how we kept in touch in those antediluvian offline times, Merge did its part to keep the conversation going, and that's how they found me.
Their cautious, spare-time, conservative release slate was somewhat dictated by the difficult distribution climate, but the releases steadily trickled out. Cassettes of McCaughan's projects Bricks and Wwax occupy the first two Merge catalog numbers. Seven-inch vinyl singles by Metal Pitcher, a lumbering punk precursor to Superchunk featuring both McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance, followed, with the Chunk EP, released before legal stipulations turned the quartet Super, grabbing the four-spot.
Metal Pitcher's drummer, Jeb Bishop, was also the driving force behind the Angels of Epistemology, a Raleigh band that released the first record on Merge containing no members of Superchunk. Their brand of charming, bent folk music highlights Merge's desire to distribute the sounds around it, as well as to take a chance on something not entirely in step with its own mix of pop and punk. The label liked the music and the people, so it became MRG006.
The records sold, and McCaughan and Ballance met their sliver of public attention with a pair of best-foot-forward Superchunk singles—1990's anti-employment anthem "Slack Motherfucker" and the reckless, two-chord basher "Fishing" the following year. The tunes caught the attention of another new indie label—New York City's Matador Records, which pooled all of its resources to make Superchunk one of its first signings.
Merge didn't yet have the tools to release a full-length album on its own, so this arrangement made it possible for McCaughan and Ballance to get the band out on the road, observe how Matador handled them as artists and establish future relationships—all things that immediately benefited Merge. By the end of 1991, Merge had over 15 releases under its belt, a distribution deal with Touch and Go Records and enough of an idea of what to do (and more important, what not to do) to release LPs. Those would be Superchunk's first singles collection, Tossing Seeds, and Polvo's debut album, Cor-Crane Secret, both of which sold respectful amounts and netted their makers acclaim from the mainstream press in 1992. After the band finally left Matador and released an LP of its own through Merge with 1994's Foolish, a stream of full-lengths followed. So, as Superchunk went, so went Merge.
The rest of the releases from this period were almost exclusively 7"s from N.C. locals like Erectus Monotone, Finger, Pure and friends they'd met on tour. Taken together, they speak to a label interested in planting roots down where it could see the growth.
Merge gave these bands a place to evolve. Take Richmond's Breadwinner, for instance: When they broke up much too soon, the band's offshoots—Coral, Dynamic Truths and the reissue of Honor Role—all found a home at Merge. The label gave carte blanche to a select set of artists who then used the imprint as a canvas and conduit for whatever made sense. Merge extended similar benefits to Nashville's Lambchop, which has released 17 titles through Merge since 1994. And after Superchunk met John Reis on the road, he stepped behind the mixing console for the band's third album, On the Mouth. Singles from two of his own acts, Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt, soon appeared on Merge.
When Superchunk blasted through The Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies," another vital connection was made—this time with Stephin Merritt and his Magnetic Fields. For the next decade, Merge would show support for Merritt and his many side projects and reissues, paving the way for the 1999 Merge landmark, 69 Love Songs. The root of it all remained so simple and innocent, though: fandom and a connection with an artist McCaughan and Ballance appreciated.
To wit, Superchunk's Freed Seed EP featured three songs originally recorded by New England indie loose wire, Sebadoh. Freed Seed lifts these tracks from their humble, home-taped beginnings into bona fide indie rock classics. A decade later, for example, Merge reissued the early works of Dinosaur Jr, featuring Sebadoh's Lou Barlow on bass. Barlow is now a Merge solo artist with a new album due in October. These sorts of connections—music fans reaching out—would surface time and again throughout Merge's history.
As the years wore on and Merge got busier, releasing a whopping 50 titles in 1993 and 1994, none of these earlier threads was dropped. The label maintained its commitments to local music, with bands as diverse as Archers of Loaf and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Labradford's spaced-out drone, Bio Ritmo's sweaty salsa workouts and the guitar-pop assault of The Wedding Present all found a home, homogeneity be damned. And as their distributors, including Chicago's Ajax label, began to release the works of stunning New Zealand artists who were all but unheard in this country, Merge took an immediate interest, pressing up singles by the Renderers and Alf Danielson and albums by the 3D's, the Cakekitchen and Kiwi stalwarts The Clean. Merge supported a scene halfway around the world from Chapel Hill, simply because the music sounded good. Hey, why not?
Regional labels—or, more specifically, artist-run labels—work best when some distinct iconography defines the operation and when it's difficult to discern where the bands stop and the label begins. Washington, D.C.'s Dischord, for instance, was founded as a home for Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson's bands the Teen Idles and Minor Threat. Led by Fugazi's arresting noise and political activism, the imprint became an outlet for local musicians to release their music through people they knew, and under favorable terms. The Los Angeles-based SST label, founded to release records by hardcore titans Black Flag, soon began putting out records by the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and hundreds of artists who grew up on those earlier releases.
Merge's growth has followed a similar pattern. By fostering and keeping a fanbase the hard way—through making some sort of connection with everyone who bought their records—Merge was able to help steer indie rock in the '90s. What's more, Merge was willing to extend the cultural capital generated by its bands to build a network of friends and support that has bloomed. In the two decades since its inception, the label has reached Billboard's Top 10 with the Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, helped make Spoon famous (something a major label couldn't do) and given the world acknowledged classics by Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, Superchunk and all of its side projects.
Studying Merge's ascent makes a fine case for the importance of artistic vision, strong business sense and realistic expectations. Granted, not every label can be run by members of a popular band, but Merge's unique leverage made it possible for the most exploited members of the industry—the artists—to grow with dignity and respect by connecting them with people with whom they might identify, and vice versa.
In the process, they found folks like me.