Merge Records in Depth – “Adapt To Survive…”

Founded in 1989 by members of Superchunk as a vehicle to release their own records, Merge has flourished. Huw Baines marks their anniversary.

Superchunk Merge Records

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between has been misused and retrofitted a thousand times, yet it serves an evocative purpose – as we look over our shoulders at the Polaroid hue of our youths, things get fuzzy at the edges.

But for those who came up in the indie-rock boom of the early 90s, amid major-label bidding wars for out-of-the-way, Nirvana-adjacent punk bands, the sentiment might not go far enough.

“In a lot of ways, it feels like a different world,” Laura Ballance says over the phone from her office at Merge Records’ HQ in Durham, North Carolina. In a few months, the label will celebrate 30 years of music –including canonical releases by Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, Spoon and Neutral Milk Hotel – with a bash featuring stars past and present, including Ballance and co-founder Mac McCaughan’s band, Superchunk.

Like all the best adventures, Merge’s began with people in one spot trying to get to another. In the summer of 1989, Ballance and McCaughan set out from Durham to drop some college friends home on the West Coast. Their van died a fiery death on a roadside in New Mexico, leaving them in a rental car with their sights trained on Seattle. Once there, they visited Sub Pop’s offices, picked up a Mudhoney single, and saw the label’s Lamefest showcase at the Moore Theatre.

On the return leg, the duo dreamed up a label of their own. They had music that no-one else wanted to put out – Mac Merge Recordscouldn’t stop starting bands – and they’d had a brush with the process after helping release a collaborative 7″ boxset in 1988. They also had residual Sub Pop fire in their bellies and plenty of time to think. It’s a long way from Seattle to Durham, give or take some small change – we’re talking 3,000 miles. That’s a lot of road signs. Merge is a common one on the highway.

“I think of that time as mail-ordering the first Mudhoney single, and cassettes from K, or records from Teen Beat,” McCaughan says. “We were just creating our own version of stuff that we were into, as opposed to knowing about the ins and outs of how the business worked.”

When you begin a new endeavour, it’s wise to start small and build from there, and that’s precisely what Ballance and McCaughan did with Merge. Over time, the label became an indie heavyweight responsible for releases that don’t look silly with the word ‘iconic’ attached to them, but on day one they were a fringe concern documenting a febrile local scene in Chapel Hill, a college town a few miles from Durham.

Even now, looking back at hits such as Funeral, 69 Love Songs, Girls Can Tell and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, what defines Merge is the way they have maintained the independent ethos established with their first steps. Not for them a major-label buy-out in the mid-90s, nor a pivot to nu-metal.

The Magnetic Fields
Merge separated itself in the public eye’: The Magnetic Fields

“We didn’t over the course of time become different people or start thinking about music in a different way,” McCaughan says. “Coming out of punk-rock in the late 80s, if you grew up in that era you had a developed sense of when something started to seem fake or gross. I don’t know if you are growing up now if that’s as obvious, or maybe people accept it because so much is fake and gross.”

The earliest Merge releases, from Mac’s Bricks and Wwax, plus groups like Angels Of Epistemology and Erectus Monotone, held a mirror up to their surroundings. Several of these bands flamed out before their music emerged as a physical product, but others were given touring fuel and a sense of legitimacy through a vinyl single.

They were sold through mail-order and in local record stores, including Schoolkids in Chapel Hill and Poindexter in Durham, where McCaughan worked. Through those jobs, he came into contact with distributors, who were soon handling Merge inventory. The label’s first office, meanwhile, was in Ballance’s bedroom, where she ran things from a desk beneath a loft bed. Eventually, they’d graduate to the spare room at her apartment, cramming it with boxes of singles and merch.

Initially, McCaughan was still at Columbia University, leaving Ballance to oversee the label, plus her own studies and day job, largely solo. She developed their relationships with distributors and posted finished copies to Mac, who’d then try to sling them at record stores in New York and New Jersey. “It was DIY, we were stuffing all the records by hand,” McCaughan says. “We dubbed the first two tapes at home. It was very low budget.”

Neutral Milk Hotel
‘In the late 90’s…’: Neutral Milk Hotel

An early flyer advertising Merge wares featured the words “when they’re gone, they’re gone”. The runs were small, often 300 to 500 copies, and financed by friends and family, who’d then be paid back. And they were, because the records were selling. Any small profits went into the label, and the bands often walked away with payment in singles to sell on the road.

Running parallel to Merge’s opening gambits were the poppy thrashings of Ballance and McCaughan’s new band, Chunk. Their first 7″ was the label’s fourth release, and the start of something special on both sides of the equation. Chunk’s second missive was a single called Slack Motherfucker, which sold out its 1,000-copy pressing in double-quick time.

By the time they changed their name to Superchunk, to avoid confusion with another group, they’d signed a three-album deal with Matador, with an agreement that they could still put out singles with Merge. Their self-titled debut landed in September 1990.

“In the early 90s, when we were on tour a lot, most of that time was dedicated to Superchunk,” Ballance says. “I think we put a lot less time into Merge back then. But being in the band and touring we were, like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, representing Merge, and making contacts – with other bands, with record stores, and distributors. We’d meet up with people as we travelled. It’s hard to separate them, it’s intertwined.”

‘What’s happening with streaming right now is tough, because it’s hard for artists to make a living’

In 1991, things changed. Superchunk’s second LP was released a month after Nirvana levelled the music industry with Nevermind. Major labels joined a feeding frenzy in Seattle and turned their eyes to Chapel Hill, eager to siphon off as many sweaty punk bands as they could. They wanted Superchunk, but they didn’t get them. Even as Tacoma’s Seaweed, their tourmates on their first US run, threw their lot in with Hollywood Records, they countenanced restraint.

Similarly, Merge began making moves towards sustainability outside of the machine, as Ballance and McCaughan found out first-hand how helpful friends in the right places could be. They had recorded No Pocky For Kitty with Steve Albini in Chicago, and he’d suggested asking Corey Rusk if his influential label, Touch And Go, would be interested in producing and distributing Merge releases. As it turned out, Rusk loved Superchunk and agreed to handle Tossing Seeds, a compilation of the band’s early singles. They pressed something like 10,000 copies,
a figure beyond the reach of Ballance and McCaughan at that stage.

A good way to test your ethics is to become successful’: Spoon

“Touch And Go allowed us to grow,” McCaughan says. “Until then, if we wanted to make a record or tape, we had to come up with the cash ourselves, or the band would invest. With Touch And Go, it was like having a staff of people we didn’t have to hire. They allowed us to put out full-lengths. We could grow our reach, because their distribution was good, without having to over-invest and hire people we couldn’t afford. It was a big deal.”

Touch And Go opened Merge up to a new sort of independence. Superchunk left Matador, following the release of 1993’s On The Mouth, and began releasing their music exclusively through their own label. Eventually, they became medium fish in their own pond as, during the following decade, the Merge roster filled out with bands who shifted serious units.

But Ballance and McCaughan stuck to their guns and kept the label’s feet on the ground. In ’93, Merge moved to a bricks and mortar office and hired a couple of employees to keep the home fires burning while Superchunk were on tour, but they stayed in North Carolina and continued releasing records by bands they cared about. They didn’t portion off segments of the business for outside investors. Even after Ballance and McCaughan’s romantic relationship ended, they kept Merge alive.

“In some ways, Merge separated itself in the public eye when we had big records by bands that weren’t Superchunk, Polvo and certainly The Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel in the late 90s,” McCaughan says. “So many people bought 69 Love Songs that a large percentage of them didn’t even know what Superchunk was. It had a different audience and reached a wider field of people.”

Arcade Fire
‘At the height of their powers’: Arcade Fire

A good way to test your ethics is to become wildly successful. In the mid-2000s, with Spoon and Arcade Fire, Merge faced this quandary. The former’s triumphs were slow burn, while the latter blew up overnight with the release of Funeral in 2004. Three years later, Neon Bible went to #2 on the Billboard chart, and their two subsequent LPs hit top spot. And Merge rolled on, releasing weird stuff by bands they liked.

Funeral took on a life of its own, but we weren’t like, ‘drop that, we’re working on Arcade Fire now’,” McCaughan says. “We were still putting out a lot of records that we knew were not going to be as big as Funeral, and still working in the same way with those bands.

“It was a watershed in the public eye, but I don’t think it radically changed what we were doing. It did teach us how to deal with bigger records, in terms of what you had to do, and from a production side there were growing pains in trying to keep up. On a retail side, having records like that meant thinking about things in a different way in terms of what was possible.”

During Merge’s 30 years, Ballance and McCaughan have moved from assembling 7″s on a bedroom floor to rolling up at the Grammys. These days, the label employs over 15 people. They have seen vinyl nearly die and rise again, CDs fall from an impenetrable position, and downloads emerge, only for streaming to stab them in the back.

Ex Hex
‘Good Times’: Ex Hex

They have had to adapt to survive. “While the way people consume music now is different for a mass audience, we’re still pressing vinyl and we’re still working with bands that tour in vans and play the same types of clubs we did back then,” McCaughan says.

“All the technology changes, in a weird way, keep it interesting,” Ballance adds. “It’s challenging and there are times when I gripe about it, but in music there’ve always been technologies that revolutionise things periodically. What’s happening with streaming right now is tough, because it’s hard for artists to make a living.

“I feel like things are going to have to correct themselves, otherwise artists that people depend on are not going to be able to afford to continue making music the way they have been. It’s only going to be giant artists who can afford to make records. Otherwise it’s going to be charity by the artist to give music to people.”

These days, labels like Merge appear as islands in a wide, confusing body of water. They can’t see what’s going on beyond the horizon, so they make sure that what’s happening in their little patch makes them happy. After three decades, they know what that means now more than ever.

Huw Baines