Merge Records: Driveway to Driveway

When the idea first surfaced about starting North Bend Records I was given a very thoughtful present from my partner, something to help encourage me and inspire me to get started. It was the book “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records” by John Cook, with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance.

With the tagline “The indie label that got big and stayed small”, the pages document the origins of Merge Records, accompanied by images of personal and professional photographs, fliers, record covers, office buildings, bands, artists, gigs, press, and correspondence. It is an archive of their first near 20 years.

Formed in 1989 by by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Merge Records came to fruition as a means to help put out the material of their band, then called Chunk (they went on to be Superchunk), and their friend’s bands in the local music scene. A genuine do it yourself label due to the resources available to them, the book describes how boxes of t-shirts and records were stored in their bedrooms until they got their own premises, and Laura made the homemade invoices on her typewriter. They encouraged the bands they signed to also be creative in the production and art work of their records. Matt Suggs from Butterglory describes signing with Merge as feeling part of a “community”.

Superchunk as a band started to grow, touring outside of the US and gracing music press covers, including the New Musical Express. The label also started to grow, establishing a significant relationship with the manufacturing and distribution arm of Touch and Go Records. Near the end of the book, published in 2009, Laura discusses the disillusionment of some artists signed with major labels who were now approaching Merge, believing more in their ethos of running a label. Mac describes how they were adapting to the changing landscape of music, in relation to MP3s and digital music and the importance of not making this feel like a “distant” product.

Merge have continued to successfully navigate the many sea changes in the industry since 1989, firmly establishing themselves as one of the top independent labels in the world.

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Christina Rentz from Merge Records kindly gave her time to answer a few questions about Merge Records today;

NBR: “Our Noise” highlights Mac spoke in 2007 at the Future of Music Coalition annual summit where concern had been raised in general regarding declining record sales and the change in how people were/are consuming music. In December 2016, in the UK, vinyl had started to outsell digital downloads for the first time. Is this a trend Merge have noticed in regards to a swing back to people wanting the physical?

CR: Streaming is definitely where things are heading, but the resurgence of vinyl has been nice for those of us who enjoy collecting the physical product.

NBR: There have been, and continue to be, some extremely ground breaking records and artists that have been signed to Merge and put out highly acclaimed records, for example The Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst, Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, amongst many others. Has there been a record which has particularly, or surprisingly, exceeded all expectations in terms or reach, acclaim or interest?

CR: We love our records and hope for them all to receive the acclaim and reach that they deserve, but there is no predicting what will happen!

NBR: A selfish question! I love the Wild Flag record. Are there any plans for more releases from them?

CR: No, Wild Flag are no longer a band, but we expect new Ex Hex music soon.

NBR: Merge has always been very DIY. Have technological advances helped or hindered this ethos (or indeed both helped and hindered)? As a follow up question; is it hard to remain a viable Independent record label in the current climate?

CR:  Of course it is hard, but worth it to work with the great bands we represent. It is always exciting to expand our roster, too, and work with young artists like Sneaks and A Giant Dog as well as artists who haven’t broken into the US market yet like Ibibio Sound Machine.

NBR: Please can you highlight any future releases we should all look out for?

CR: Ibibio Sound Machine’s Uyai will be out March 3. We can’t wait to see them live in the US for the first time! At the end of March, Sneaks & Coco Hames have new albums. We have lots of surprises coming up, too! Best way to keep up to date is to follow us on socials and sign up for our newsletter.

Many Thanks to Christina and Merge Records!

Merge Records Website

“Merge Records: Driveway to Driveway” is part two of an irregular series celebrating independent record labels.

 

(February 2017)

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