I worked as a promoter and publicist for much of the last decade, mostly dealing with unsigned artists and bands on the tiniest of independent labels. If I had a dollar for every time I experienced some variant of the following conversation, I would be the richest man in independent music.
UNSIGNED BAND: So, uh, can you help us find a label?
ME: [Sighs.] Well, that's not really what we do.
UNSIGNED BAND: But you have to have some connections, right?
ME: Sure, sure. Who would you liked to get signed to?
UNSIGNED BAND: You know, Matador, Merge.
ME: [Sighs.] You and everybody else.
While it was releasing its second batch of 100 records, Merge Records became MERGE. That is, it transcended its status as a cool, mostly 7" label run by the nice people in Superchunk and became an indie rock powerhouse, joining—and often surpassing— similar concerns like Touch and Go, Drag City, Matador, Thrill Jockey and Sub Pop. These 100 records are where Merge traded up its amateur status and became, in many ways, pro.
Well, perhaps pro-am. Though the label operations increased in size, Merge retained its unpretentious, good-natured Southern charm, in contrast to, say, the irony addicts at New York-based Matador Records, who once made a phony infomercial celebrating one of their anniversaries while releasing kitschy acts like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Pizzicato Five. Rather, Merge's public face has always been serene, laid-back, unerringly pleasant. Removed from the fashionable gimmickry of New York, the arty aloofness of Chicago or the industry posturing of Los Angeles, North Carolina's Merge is the sort of label you want to drink beer with on your front porch.
Indie rock's Two M's—Matador and Merge—entered into nearly every conversation I had about picking a label, for very different reasons. Matador was much bigger, with heavy hitters like Pavement and Guided By Voices and Liz Phair. Merge in the late '90s was probably the smallest of the "big indies," which goes to show the kind of respect afforded them by musicians. Merge had its share of big-timers, sure, but, the label just seemed like nice folks in a good band: loyal, friendly, not-too-big fellow artists.
They were just like you and me.
And it was in this late-'90s period that Merge became one of the premier two or three places your unsigned band mailed its unsolicited demo. If they took a chance on a nasal-voiced, psych-rock home-recording weirdo like Jeff Mangum, then surely Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance would flip over your newest cassette of bedroom caterwauling, right?
Stopping here would undercut Merge's actual music, though, and this is truly the era in which Merge went canonical. If there exists an Indie Rock Canon (or hall of fame, down in the basement of some guy named Roger who "rents" from his grandmother), then Merge gets more than its fair share of members for this second chunk of records. Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs and Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea wrap their legs around most every best-ever list, and Merge jump-started the careers of future major-label casualties like Southern riff-rockers Verbena and (Pitchfork 10.0 recipients) ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Those bands should have known better, too. The suits dangled the big bucks in front of Merge's label bosses during the heyday of Superchunk (as tuneful a presence as has ever existed on the Merge roster, bar none), but Superchunk avoided those entanglements. Its legacy remains untarnished, in large part, because of that decision. Meanwhile, there's no better punch line in rock 'n' roll than Trail of Dead.
Superchunk continued to be viable during this stretch, even as the band slowly moved beyond the brash power pop of its youth. Portastatic's stellar releases also showcased McCaughan's broadening interests as a songwriter. Merge veterans, like the sleepy Nashville country orchestra Lambchop and the jittery British pop choppers Pram, stuck around and raked in critical kudos, even if they're largely forgotten in today's ever-churning OMG world of music-blog mouthbreathers. Merge remained loyal to local interests as well, recruiting bands like Shark Quest and Ashley Stove. Admittedly, Merge's greater national (and international) reach and its focus on full-lengths made it a bit more selective with its releases, but outgrowing its region never seemed like a strategy.
Merge didn't sit still, either. The label's A&R machine—essentially, the combined tastes of McCaughan, Ballance and a trusted group of employees—had nigh unimpeachable taste. During this pro-am period, the label selectively broadened its sound as it moved from 7"s to 12"s.
It's important to note that Merge isn't an experimental label. Its core approach—find the good songs and release them—has remained constant. Sure, there is some weirdness among these second hundred releases, with oddities like Third Eye Foundation's I PooPoo On Your Juju or The Music Tapes' First Imaginary Symphony for Nomad. For being such a consensus fave a decade later, Neutral Milk Hotel's two Merge albums remain relatively strange, too, resting on a bed of crusty recording and marked by often shocking pitch issues. Those things add charm, sure, but it's not hard to imagine the current Internet commentariat dragging NMH over the coals in these Auto-tuned, white-boy-harmonizing times. ("That dude can't sing," says Brooklyn Vegan commenter "Anonymous" 4:31 PM.)
Despite the odd entry here and there and the preponderance of one-man-band and bedroom types, no one should ever confuse Merge with its artier cousins at Thrill Jockey or Drag City. Merge started as a rock label and remained largely just that.
That's not to say Merge didn't take its chances. Merge preferred hooks and traditional songcraft to Japanese drone and free jazz, though Portastatic did collaborate with saxophonist Ken Vandermark and McCaughan operated jazz label Wobbly Rail. But Merge regularly backed marginal indie rock. A stolid early supporter of the Elephant 6 scene, Merge stuck behind perennial B-teamers like East River Pipe, Guv'ner and the Rock*A*Teens, the kinds of acts that inspired small groups of rabid devotees (like this guy) while never arousing more than a head scratch from mainstream indiedom.
Considering these records, it's evident that the folks at Merge did mostly whatever they wanted. How else to explain the locals Shark Quest rubbing elbows with the national-aiming Trail of Dead? You don't release discs by Scottish post-rockers Ganger or New Zealand avant-pop act The Cakekitchen if fiduciary concerns are your top priority. Ashley Stove and Spaceheads probably didn't bring in the dough like The Magnetic Fields, but Merge welcomed them just the same.
There seems to be no master plan for domination here—no trend chasing, no contrivances, no obvious marketing ploys ("Oh, hey, we need a dance-punk band right now!") Instead, another clear modus operandi emerges from the discography: Put out records from artists you like. Stick behind said artists. Keep working.
One-and-done relationships between label and artist are de rigueur in the music biz. An artist releases one album, it doesn't do well, and the label says goodbye. But Merge released two Cakekitchen albums. They've released five East River Pipe LPs. I'm guessing I sold more charity candy bars in primary school than East River Pipe sold albums. But Merge didn't turn its back. Whatever Matt Suggs touched, whether it be his lighter, Kinks-sounding solo stuff, his indie pop duo Butterglory or the more grandiose rock of White Whale, Merge released. This is loyalty in a business that doesn't offer much.
Such constancy and comity lent Mege credibility. And for the artists, well, where else would you go? What label is going to treat you better? You left the Merge fold at your own peril. Ask Verbena. Their Merge album, Souls for Sale, was gritty and full of killer riffs. Capitol stepped in and polished their sound until there was nothing left, and the band limped its way into Album No. 3, collapsing under the weight of great expectations. On Merge, they were just asked to be a rock band. On Capitol Records, with Dave Grohl handling production duties, they were asked to be the next Nirvana. It killed them.
Every record has two sides, though. In 1998, Merge released yet another superb album by Lambchop, What Another Man Spills. The title describes one of the label's A&R achievements. For whatever reason, Merge became home to a number of lost and lonely music business souls. Merge is and was and likely will continue to be a final resting place for a lot of major-label (and indie) cast-offs.
But it's not because the acts are also-rans or sloppy seconds. Rather, the music industry is stupidly cruel, so that getting dropped has almost nothing to do with quality and lots to do with demographics and internal politics and smart-bombing tertiary markets. The music? It doesn't matter what the music sounds like.
It does to Merge, which looked out and saw a lot of great artists—many of them Superchunk contemporaries—in need of a home. This pattern rounds out MRG 100-199, with releases from Caroline casualties Versus, Sub Pop exiles The Spinanes and The Clean co-founder David Kilgour. Merge is not an instant guarantor of success, but it's a great place to start.
Witness Britt Daniel, whose band, Spoon, lived the supposed dream of one of those bands that asked me for help. Spoon started out on Matador, and then jumped to Elektra for a shot at those swollen 1990s major-label alt-rock coffers. Everybody was doing it, man. After one album, they were gone. With their tails between their legs but their pop minimalism in tow, Spoon found a home in Merge's familial embrace. The band's breakthrough, Girls Can Tell, took the tag MRG195, and it's been onward and upward since, all the way to Saturday Night Live in 2007.
I imagine the homecoming like so: On a cold, rainy night, Britt Daniel arrives at Mac's doorstep in Chapel Hill, downtrodden and lost, hair tousled (but still dapper, as always). Mac takes him inside, hangs up his wet coat and, with a gentle shoulder squeeze, leads him into the kitchen for some hot cocoa.
"It's gonna be OK," Mac likely says.
Well, he was right.
Lucas Jensen is a former publicist, writer for Gawker Media's Idolator.com, and gas station crawfish cook. He lives in Athens, Ga.