Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance couldn’t have known what the state of the music industry would be when their label, Merge Records, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Had the two musicians-turned-label-heads known, they may have packed up their dreams and moved on to more promising ventures.
But little Merge has survived – and thrived – in an industry where many giants have fallen at the hands of digital downloads, a medium that has cut the jugular of traditional music sales and has made illegal downloads easy for anyone who has the technical expertise to log on to a computer.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cooke with McCaughan and Ballance (both members of the seminal indie band Superchunk), traces the history of the record label, from slinging 7-inch singles from an bedroom in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to releasing The Arcade Fire’s critically acclaimed Neon Bible from that same Southern college town. The story is told by the characters themselves, delivered in anecdotes by the musicians, friends, and industry peers. Along with a rich photographic history, the book celebrates Merge as one of the good guys, releasing music and representing bands that they actually like. This has clearly defined Merge, making it one of the elite DYI record labels still around with a roster that includes Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Shout Out Louds, Crooked Fingers, She & Him, The Magnetic Fields, Polvo, Lou Barlow and many, many others.
Despite the challenges that the band faced over the years, the book is sunny and understated, making it difficult to understand what struggle really felt like for Balance and McCaughan. This is disappointing, since Our Noise offers direct access to the players. Nevertheless, this is rich release documenting a lable that has succeeded expectations in the middle of stormy industry struggling to adapt to change.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small is out now by Algonquin Paperbacks.