Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small - John Cook, Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance

Merge Records is now a fairly well-oiled machine, but it wasn’t always so. It started off as a bedroom label working exclusively in the 7” format as a means for Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance to put out their and their Chapel Hill friends’ bands’ music because, as Mac put it, “it’s not like there was anyone else asking to put them out.” Slowly and by necessity, they learned the ropes, experienced growing pains and embarrassments along the way, and branched out, but have always done so with a good head on their shoulders (usually Laura’s), a big heart (usually Mac’s), and an honest approach.

Published in 2009 (I waited 8 months to get it from the library) in a slightly oversized paperback and printed in full color, the book is a big mix of photographs, ephemera, descriptive narrative, and direct quotes from the people who lived the story. The narrative serves mainly to set the scene, and then gets out of the way as the participants tell the tale. The presumed author of these parts, John Cook, adeptly blends the content to make it sound like all of the participants are in a room together, hashing out differences and piecing the story together at the same time. Mac and Laura are the most quoted, but at other times, you hear from Touch & Go owner Corey Rusk, Nirvana-manager and major label man Danny Goldberg, Merge band members, legendary engineer Steve Albini, assorted business partners, and unfamous friends. I’m a slow reader and I had its almost 300 pages read within 48 hours, so it’s a well-paced and engrossing book.

The book is arranged chronologically, and covers Superchunk’s career arc and all the steps in Merge’s development. Interspersed over the course of the main story, every other chapter is dedicated to the individual stories of other bands: Butterglory, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, Lambchop, Spoon, and The Arcade Fire. Little-known Butterglory frontman Matt Suggs could never catch a break (except from Merge, of course) and tells it like it is. The chapter on Neutral Milk Hotel really doesn’t do anything that the 33 1/3 book In the Aeroplane Over the Sea hasn’t already done in more depth, but still provides a strong feel for the times and personalities surrounding that classic record. Stephin Merritt gives you a sense for his cantankerousness, proudly expressing his views as the only real character here to disavow any sort of Romanticism for indie labels. Lambchop are a fun crew who inexplicably found success in Europe but not in the States. Spoon get fucked over and rise from the ashes to sell the most records of a Merge artist until The Arcade Fire, whose ambition and charisma as performers helped put them in the right place at the right time. Aside from Jeff Mangum, all of the artists agreed to be interviewed, and their direct participation gives the book a soul that is sometimes missing from music writing.

Part of the fun here was going back and listening to stuff I’ve loved before but which has been collecting dust on the shelves for awhile, as well as checking out stuff I didn’t know or stuff I’d heard of but never took the time to try. With music clamoring at our fingertips for attention, it’s never been easier. That fact might make this story one that won’t repeat again, but there isn’t a lot of time spent pondering whether Merge is more of a one-off or a model for upstart labels to base themselves on. If anything, the book is more of a celebration of Merge’s independence and level-headed business practices. They were open to growth, but allowed themselves to develop at a responsibly scaled pace that kept them out of too much risk and debt, and used an ethic which stressed the personal relationships between the bands and label, even as the label grew beyond its North Carolinian borders.

As a fan, it was disappointing that the only mention of the Clientele was an old photograph of the band; that Portastatic was only mentioned more or less a few times in passing even as Mac has delivered some of his best songwriting yet under that name since Superchunk has gone on hiatus; that Polvo didn’t get their own chapter. It also seemed like an oversimplified characterization was made of Raleigh and Chapel Hill, the former as hard-edged and working class, the latter as arty and ambitious. But, within the confines of the book, not everyone can be mentioned in detail and most of the bands they concentrated on deserved the ink spent on them.

So, instead of trying to make bold, eggheaded pronouncements about DIY culture and the future of the music industry, Our Noise modestly tells the story of Mac and Laura’s life together as a couple (and ex-couple) in a band, the rise of Superchunk, and the steady ascent of Merge. It shares the story with the people and bands they’ve gone into business and become friends with, and their experience of the constantly changing landscape of the music business. In particular, the early 90’s rise and mid-90’s fall of alternative rock in popular culture and in the music business receives an especially enlightening treatment from the viewpoint of artists courted by and competing with the major label money machine. If you’re a fan of even a few Merge bands or lived close to underground rock sometime over the last 20 years, you really can’t go wrong with this history. It’s been lovingly assembled, beautifully packaged, well-written, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Merge Records

Our Noise Website