Merge Records

By: Laura Rogers, Nathan Toth, Kelly Townsend, Katie Word

The History

'The Chunk'In 1989 singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan, bassist Laura Ballance, drummer Chuck Garrison, and guitarist Jack McCook form The Chunk (later renamed “Superchunk” due to legal issues and/or confusion with a NYC Jazz outfit also known as “the Chunk”) in the college town of Chapel Hill, NC. [1]

That same year, Merge Records was founded by Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. It was designed as a vehicle for Superchunk releases, as well as other local college favorites like Polvo. A part-time venture, they primarily released limited-run 7” vinyl and cassettes over the next few years on borrowed money from parents and friends.

Superchunk’s first single “What I Do” found local notoriety and helped to establish Merge as a legitimate indie label. Their 1990 follow-up single “Slack Motherfucker” – penned about a local Kinko’s employee, who caught Mac’s ire and frustration – became a national and international sensation, garnering praise and attention from the media and labels alike. It’s timing and style led to Superchunk being heralded as the next in line to carry the torch as many industry insiders were looking for the next big Grunge movement outside of Seattle. Superchunk signed with Matador Records and released their eponymous first full-length later that year. They would go on to record two more records with Matador: “No Pocky for Kitty” – recorded with Steve Albini and released in 1991 – and their 1993 release “On the Mouth”.

With the growing success of Superchunk, Mac and Laura’s focus on Merge waned, as their attention was wholly focused on the band’s success. For the most part, Merge was shelved until 1993, when Matador formed a strange alliance with Atlantic Records. This alliance would give Atlantic a very strong hand in the company, with the more successful, upper-tiered artists being dually released and lower-tiered artists left on Matador with Atlantic taking 50% of the kitty. [2] This added influence soured Superchunk toward working with Matador, who always felt that a major label (and budget) didn’t do much for their style of music, and looked to the lackluster success and treatment by major labels of certain idols like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü as proof. Superchunk decided to opt out of their contract and try and go it alone. This was a good decision on their part, because the Matador/Atlantic agreement would disastrously fall apart three years later.

With the Superchunk DIY aesthetic and network, and the three-year experience with Matador under their belts, Mac and Laura decided to dust off the Merge moniker and make it their full-time label. One of Merge’s first deals wouldn’t be to sign a band (they already had one themselves)- it would be signing a production and distribution deal with Chicago’s Touch and Go Records- one of the bigger indie labels in America at the time, and who’s relationship and mentoring would really keep the fledgling label afloat and focused. “Touch and Go basically allowed Merge to exist as something other than a singles label… Superchunk 'Tossing Seeds'We did our first full-length (the Superchunk “Tossing Seeds” comp) in 1992 because Corey [Rusk] agreed to take on Merge as a label under the Touch and Go umbrella.” [3]

Merge’s first full-length release would be the Superchunk Singles collection “Tossing Seeds” 1992. Later that year, they would release Polvo’s first full-length “Cor-Crane Secret.” Neither was a large success, but these releases helped them figure out the mechanics of the business and to shift their focus to the larger picture of full-length releases- not the short run 7” singles they were accustomed to.

Now with a better footing and a sense of the direction, the label began to grow. “Merge started branching out to bands that were not from North Carolina when Superchunk started touring a lot, and we’d meet people and see bands live, and ever since then [our A&R methodology] kind of happened all different ways,” said McCaughan. “It’s really a matter of whether we like the music or not. We’re not looking at the commercial potential or the bottom line. We don’t try and narrow it down to one thing that we’re looking for. We appreciate experimental bands and in some ways… it’s a gut feeling about the music.” [4]

Polvo's 'Today's Active Lifestyles'1993 would see the release of Polvo’s “Today’s Active Lifestyles” – while not largely successful, it was a critically acclaimed album. [5] Its difficulty was in the blend of “mathrock” and dissonant pop output. It was too angular for the now-popular “grunge” movement, but not conceptual enough for some of the more fringe art-rock styles. This would be Polvo’s last full-length release on Merge, opting to release future output through Touch and Go.

In 1993, Merge also signs Nashville favorites Lambchop, who would be one of Merge’s more prolific and stable acts throughout the coming decade.

In 1994, Merge signs singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist du-jour Stephen Merritt who releases material under the moniker Magnetic Fields. This sometimes group collaborative becomes one of the Merge mainstay artists. Both “Holiday” and “The Charm of the Highway Strip” are released to high reviews. Lambchop’s “I Hope You’re Sitting Down [AKA Jack’s Tulips]” is released in 1994, as well. Featuring the dark but funny “Soaky in the Pooper” – a song about a suicidal toilet drowning- it garnered the band instant notoriety and helped to establish Merge’s reputation as a home for quirky, talented music.

Portastatic – the acclaimed side project of Mac McCaughn’s comes to Merge after being brought to life in 1992 by a friend asking about old 4-track material that didn’t quite fit with the Superchunk sound. [4]

Merge signs quirky songwriter Jeff Mangum, part of the Elephant 6 collective that produced The Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control, 1996. Magnum, writing self-proclaimed “fuzz folk” music, goes by the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel, and releases “On Avery Island”. [6]

1997 – Lambchop releases “Thriller”. Brooklyn artists Ladybug Transistor are signed to Merge, releasing “Beverly Atonale.”

Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is released. It’s quirky charm and bizarre, catchy songs garner great reviews and high praise throughout the snobbish indie community. Through word of mouth, it becomes Merge’s best-selling record to date.

1999 was a very large year for Merge. Merge added “…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead” to the roster– a successful band out of Austin, TX whose previous label went under the year before. They are known for their wild, raucous style, and even wilder live performances. [7] Their release, “Madonna,” becomes a calling card for the band, brandishing a series of brash, vulgar, angsty and powerfully catchy songs that barely contain their unbridled sound. Their growing national success and the success of “Madonna” procures a major label deal with Interscope Records shortly after. The Interscope-released “Source Tags and Codes” would be the band’s most critically acclaimed and most commercially successful record, leaving a slightly sour, though not unexpected, taste in the mouths of Merge.

The Magnetic Fields '69 Lovesongs' In 1999, the Magnetic Fields release their highly ambitious magnum opus “69 Lovesongs”- a whopping 3 disc collection of quirky pop focused around the joys and heartaches of sex, love and desire. This massive concept record was well regarded upon its release and is the band’s most notorious (and probably most well-loved) material.
The Ladybug Transistor would also release one if its classic albums in 1999. Arguably their finest album, “The Abemarle Sound” has a throwback sound reminiscent of the late 60’s pop, owing as much to the Beatles and the Beach Boys as they do ELO.
1999 would also mark the 10-year anniversary of Merge. And with Mac and Laura being the artistically and musically minded people they are, they decided that the best way to mark the occasion was to put on a big show in celebration. Hosted at Cat’s Cradle, the night contained sets from the entire Merge roster, including The Magnetic Fields, Lambchop, Portastatic, and Superchunk. [8]

Lambchop releases “Nixon” in 2000 to large critical acclaim and success. It is considered to be one of the band’s best record’s to date. Spoon, after releasing one record on Elektra before being dropped, signed with Merge and released their “Love Ways” EP in 2000. Spoon would go on to be one of the biggest successes on Merge.

In 2002, Destroyer (predominantly the solo project of Vancouver’s Dan Bejar, it has a constantly changing lineup) signs to Merge and releases “This Night”.

2003 sees the release of Camera Obscura’s (a Scottish “twee” band) “Underachievers Please Try Harder.” M. Ward signs with Merge.

This is also when Merge decides to start using contracts with artists. Up to this point, Merge had the ethos of letting their personal associations, high work ethic and quality output stand for themselves. They figured a contract would not be necessary if they were doing things right, and it allowed them to appear more artist-friendly – the artists would want to work with them due to their success and relationship, instead of having to force them through a contractual obligation. But after a few higher profile artists left Merge abruptly (Trail of Dead on bad terms, Magnetic Fields on good terms) and recognizing that the industry had shifted toward a more indie-focused output, they felt they needed a more secure and stable method of dealing with artists.

The Arcade Fire 'Funeral'The Arcade Fire sign to Merge Records in May of 2004, due in part to their successful roster and image. Win Butler, the lead singer of the Arcade Fire, is rumored to have been significantly swayed by the fact that Merge is home to both the Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel- two artists he adores. [5] The Arcade Fire announce their first album “Funeral” will be released nationwide that September.
The summer of 2004 saw another big celebration- the 15-year anniversary of Merge Records. In 15 years, Merge has grown from a bedroom affair to a business with a full-fledged office building in Durham, NC and a staff of 12. This time, instead of a single show to celebrate, the label held a five-day festival at various venues throughout the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. Again, it was a who’s who of the Merge roster- Spoon, Superchunk, Destroyer, Camera Obscura, the Arcade Fire, M. Ward, The Rosebuds, and Lambchop, among the notable acts.

Spoon releases “Gimme Fiction” in 2005. It debuts at #44 on the Billboard charts and sells more than 160,000 copies. The same year, M. Ward releases “Transistor Radio” and becomes a darling of the NPR crowd.

2006 would be another successful year for Merge. Camera Obscura’s “Let’s Get Out of This Country” is released to international critical acclaim and minor success. M. Ward’s release “Post War” again is well-received to the indie public, and his sales and notoriety continue to grow. Destroyer 2006 release “Destroyer’s Rubies”, is considered to be one of the year’s best releases by a variety of indie publications.

In 2007 Merge courts and signs Caribou (ie. Dan Snaith) and releases “Andorra” later in the year.

Spoon 2008 sees the collaboration of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel on a track for the film “The Go-Getter” (Deschanel was one of the stars). This unlikely collaboration would lead to a creative spark that would produce the group She and Him. Merge courts and signs Connor Oberst (also known as Bright Eyes).

In 2009, Merge Records are celebrating their 20th Anniversary with a specially culled, limited-edition box set entitled “SCORE! Merge Records: The First 20 Years”. It is a subscription series that can only be purchased online through their web store. For $199, the set includes 14 mix CDs compiled by celebrity fans and past artists, including David Byrne, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, Johnathan Lethem and Miranda July. [3] It also comes with a Merge covers album, a 350 page book featuring past album artwork, a comedy record, and a covers album- songs from the Merge catalog performed by a variety of indie powerhouses- Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, Ryan Adams, Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers and Bright Eyes, just to name a few. [10] It is all included in a specially designed case and contains a few other secretive goodies as well. They are also hosting the XX Merge Festival to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the label.


Current Popular Artists

M. Ward 'Hold Time'M. Ward – Known not only as an artist, but also a producer and engineer, M. Ward began his career with Merge in 2003 with his release “Transfiguration of Vincent.” The former member of Rodriguez from Portland, Oregon had a slow rise to fame in his hometown. After releasing two albums on separate labels, Ward signed with Merge and became a hit for many industry favorites. Not being a fan of the spotlight, Ward has played as somewhat of a sideman for Conor Oberst, Norah Jones, Jenny Lewis, Cat Power, Neko Case, and the White Stripes. His most recent release, “Hold Time,” released in February 2009, featuring collaborations with Jason Lytle, Lucinda Williams, Tom Hagerman off DeVotchka, and Zooey Deschanel, whom Ward duets with in the side project She & Him. [12] [13]

She&Him 'Volume One'She & Him – Originally recording a duet for a movie soundtrack, M. Ward met Zooey Deschanel in 2006. Deschanel had secretly been recording home demos of herself for years, but had never told anyone about them. Once Ward was finally given the demos to hear, these songs became the basis of She and Him’s first album, “Volume One.” Released on Merge in 2008, “Volume One” was written “as a love letter to the musicians who inspired it.” Ward and Deschanel continue their musical collaborations – Deschanel writing and singing songs, while Ward produces, arranges, and plays guitar – and are currently working on their next album “Volume Two.” [14]

Spoon – Beginning in Austin, Texas in 1993, Spoon has always seemed to be the underdog (ironically enough, the title to one of their most popular songs) of the indie scene. Their first full-length album, “Telephono,” was release on Matador Records in 1996. Seeing potential in the little-known band, Elektra signed Spoon in 1998. The band’s major label debut, “A Series of Sneaks,” did not sell as well as Elektra had anticipated – the album was a big enough disappointment for the label that the band was dropped only four months after releasing the album.
Spoon 'Kill the Moonlight' Following their major label disappointment, Spoon signed with Merge and released their album “Girls Can Tell” in 2001, which outsold all of their previous recordings combined. This was followed by “Kill The Moonlight” in 2002, which surpassed their previous album sales. When a song from “Kill The Moonlight” was used on an episode of The O.C., mainstream popularity was thrust upon the band. With the excitement from the previous two albums and the popularity from The O.C., “Gimme Friction” was released in 2005 to an astounding number of sales for Spoon – over 160,000 copies – followed by the band’s latest release, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,” in 2007. Their most recent success put Spoon at #10 on the pop charts in 2007, and produced two charting singles – “The Underdog” (#26 in 2007) and “Don’t You Evah” (#33 in 2007). [15] [16]

Arcade Fire – Beginning in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2003, the seven-piece band Arcade Fire has turned into one of Merge’s most well known acts. Their first album, “Funeral,” was released on Merge in 2004 to a surprising amount of success – concert ticket sales increased for every Arcade Fire show to follow. In order to promote their new success, the band began to tour extensively. “Funeral” would go on to be a watershed album for the band, the label, and indie music as a whole, garnering high praise from indie zines and corporate publications alike. Along with its accolades, the album would be nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Alternative Music Album” category in 2005. “Funeral” expanded the Arcade Fire’s notoriety and cult following, which would lead to a major tour extension and land them prominent slots on major American festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. [9] The Arcade Fire 'Neon Bible'The Arcade Fire would become the first Merge artist to have an album hit #1 on the Billboard Chart, and be one of their largest successes (and largest challenges for promotion and distribution as well.)
The band eventually took time off in order to focus on writing their newest album. A church in a small town outside of Montreal was the site of their next recording – using influences from their surroundings in the newly made recording studio/church, “Neon Bible” featured new and interesting arrangements and instruments. The band uses their many different instrumental abilities and the excitement of their live show to develop their fame. [17]

Telekinesis – Merge’s newest act, consisting of Michael Benjamin Lerner (drums, guitar & vocals) with Chris Staples (guitar), David Broecker (electric, acoustic & bass guitar), and Jonie Broecker (bass guitar & keyboards) joining him on tour. The album was produced, engineered, and mixed by Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, Tegan & Sara). Walla and Lerner tracked and mixed each of its songs to analog tape in a single day before moving on to the next song, with the ambitious goal of never over-thinking or sabotaging the spontaneous enthusiasm of the music.

The Ethos

“The key to our longevity has been to not look too far ahead and to really concentrate on each release. We never think about where we’re going to be in five years.” [4] Many labels take a different approach to their business, but Merge tries to focus on the here and now of their label, not what it will eventually turn into.

“Our deal is a profit-split between Merge and the artists. We tend to do two-record deals, or sometimes just one record deal. Our thinking is that if we do a great job then the band won’t have a reason to want to leave.” [11]

“Our focus has always been on the art and not the medium.” [11] The Merge website allows fans to listen to complete songs, via Merge Radio, and also allows fans to view music videos through the main website. (As a way to keep the new generation of Merge employees involved, the music video for their newest group, Telekinesis, was directed by Merge intern, Dianna Potter.

Ways of keeping fans involved:
1) “Make Your Own SCORE” Contest! – In light of Merge’s 20th anniversary year, the label is releasing a score box set with compilations from various merge artists from over the years. Fans were invited to make a list of their top 20 Merge songs, and post them to the website forums. The compilation that they believe is the best will be featured on the website and available for sale – the winner will receive a Merge t-shirt or tote bag.
2) XX Merge: July 22-26, 2009 – Merge will be hosting a five-day summer festival in Chapel Hill, NC to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the label. “Five days of music by Merge artists past and present in the summer heat of sunny North Carolina.” [18]
3) March 21 SXSW Showcase – Saturday, March 21 at The Parish (214 E. 6th St., Austin) – co-hosting a showcase with Barsuk Records.

“I think cautious sustainability is a pretty accurate description of our approach to the music business, and the reason that we’re still here. We’ve certainly grown over the years, but in an organic way… it’s true that you have to grow to accommodate success, but that success on that scale may not roll around every year, so you’ve got to be prepared for that somehow.” [11]

“There is no way to explain why certain things hit and others don’t,” said McCaughan. “It’s easier to explain why a band like Arcade Fire or Spoon becomes popular because they have great songs and they’re a great band. It’s harder to explain why other bands don’t become popular, because you feel like they’re just as great. We don’t sign a band if we don’t think they’re great, and don’t think that other people will love them as well.” [4]


Sources:

[1] http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:w9fqxqe5ld0e~TI
[2] http://musicians.about.com/od/indielabels/p/matadorrecords.htm
[3] http://blogs.newsobserver.com/category/tags/Mac-McCaughan
[4] http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/70277-its-a-gut-feeling-about-the-music-an-interview-with-mac-mccaughan/
[5] http://www.treblezine.com/features/179.html
[6] http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:hiftxq9hld6e~T1
[7] http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:0nfpxq8hldse~TI
[8] http://music.mync.com/2009/01/merge-announces-five-day-xx-merge-music-festival/
[9] http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:wbfpxqwald0e~T1
[10] http://www.popwreckoning.com
[11] http://www.adequacy.net/2008/02/interview-with-mac-mccaughan-merge-records-superchunk-portastatic/
[12]Royal Magnet. “M. Ward Records.” MWardMusic.com. 15 Mar. 2009 .
[13] Ryzik, Melena. “A Four-Track Guy in a Digital World.” The New York Times 15 Feb. 2009: 23. 15 Mar. 2009.
[14] “She & Him Biography.” SheandHim.com. 15 Mar. 2009. .
[15] Wenner, Jann S. “Spoon: Biography.” Rolling Stone 2009. 15 Mar. 2009 .
[16] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_(band)
[17] “Arcade Fire.” Last.fm. 15 Mar. 2009 http://www.last.fm/music/Arcade+Fire
[18] Lankford, Loren. “Merge Records Announces XX Festival for July 22-26.” 8 Jan 2009. Paste Magazine. 15 Mar. 2009 http://www.pastemagazine.com

Supplemental Sources:
• Lambchop – http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg &sql=11:gvftxq8gldfe~T1
• Magnetic Fields – http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg& sql=11:dxfwxqwgldhe~TI
• Polvo – http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:gpfwxqq5ld6e~T1
• Camera Obscura – http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:fxfyxqq0ldhe~T1
• M. Ward – http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:0nfyxqekld6e~T1
http://altmusic.about.com/od/recordlabels/a/merge.htm
http://prod1.cmj.com/articles/display_article.php?id=3047185
http://www.motherjones.com/riff/2007/10/senate-investigates-lack-radio-love-arcade-fire-really

Images taken from the Merge Website.
**Multiple portions of the Merge Records website were used – for any other information that may or may not have been included, visit http://www.mergerecords.com.

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This entry was posted in Arcade Fire, Lambchop, M.Ward, Magnetic Fields, Merge, Merge Records, Polvo, She and Him, Spoon, Superchunk. Bookmark the permalink.

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