The independent record label Merge Records was founded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the late ’80s, primarily as an outlet for 7-inch singles by the indie-rock band Superchunk. While the music business as a whole is at the lowest ebb it’s seen since the advent of mechanical reproduction, Merge has thrived, largely because it’s maintained modest, realistic expectations. If Merge is working with a band with a miniscule fan base, the label tries to keep the budgets low enough that everyone makes at least a little money. And when one of its acts breaks big—as has been the case for bands like Spoon, The Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Magnetic Fields—the label’s overhead has remained low enough and its accounting straightforward enough that the musicians get to keep more of the profit. Merge’s story is a case study in how a small business can expand without losing its ideals.
The oral history Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big And Stayed Small—well-assembled and strung together by critic/reporter John Cook—tracks Merge’s organic evolution from the early-’90s indie-rock boom through the subsequent bust. The book isn’t just the story of David outmaneuvering Goliath. Although Cook collects plenty of horror stories from the heady post-Nirvana era—when major labels threw money and promises at anyone in a flannel shirt—he doesn’t over-romanticize the indie model, either. Our Noise shows how big sales can crush a small operation just as easily as no sales. If a 10,000-copy pressing sells out, does a label press 10,000 more? How many potential sales might they lose if they don’t? How much inventory will they be stuck with if they do?
Those honest questions (and the actual numbers attached to them) are part of what makes Our Noise more than just another trip down punk-rock memory lane. Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan and his bandmate/business partner Laura Ballance are very upfront about the bands on the label that don’t sell as well as they’d like, and they speak bluntly about the mistakes they’ve made as a band and a label (and as exes). Mostly, McCaughan and Ballance seem to have made a go of Merge because they know their limitations. Major label or no, Superchunk was unlikely ever to sell more than the mid-five-figures. If a band does that on a major, it gets dropped. If it does that on its own label, it can make enough money to buy a house and put out modest-selling records by its members’ favorite bands. Our Noise makes McCaughan and Ballance’s choice seem not just noble, but sound.