If you’ve ever publicly debated Polvo’s early Merge Records output versus its later albums for Touch & Go; if you already know that Neutral Milk Hotel will soon release its first song since issuing a live recording in 2001; if you can name more than five Merge Records artists, including the two already mentioned, then the next 831 words are not necessarily for you.
But if Merge Records is something you might or might not have heard in passing, or if it seems unlikely that 20 years of releases by weird bands with wonky names (What is an East River Pipe, anyway?) you’ve never heard of is worthy of such hullabaloo, then I ask one favor: Read the next 769 words. If Merge Records still doesn’t matter, this week’s interactive crossword puzzle is here.
More than perhaps any other private institution in the Triangle, which it has continued to call home since the beginning, Merge Records affords us a vibrant, desirable and unquestionable cultural capital that spends well on at least five continents. With more reach than a long-running rock club and more continuity than celebrity-gathering film or dance festivals, Merge works as both a beacon of and a magnet for its hometown. Every time someone has considered the label’s Chapel Hill post office box number (1235, if you’re addressing that demo) on any one of the millions of records it has now sold, or every time Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan has told a dingy club of sweaty kids in towns as near as Athens, Ga., or as far as Tokyo, Japan, “Hi, we’re Superchunk. We’re from Chapel Hill,” we’ve all grown just a little bit, well, cooler.
But it’s not about regional credibility as much as it is about local possibility: That Merge started, survived and succeeded here shouldn’t be overlooked, even if you hate every second of every song Merge has ever considered releasing. Superchunk could have signed to a major label 15 years ago. Merge could have landed big dollars and a Manhattan address. But they didn’t, so it didn’t. After 20 years, it’s still here.
In doing so, Merge has long provided to outsiders the impression that the Triangle bears a rich cultural market for art (which, like all things, moves in cycles). Like good universities (check), strong sports options (debatable) or a good singles scene (ditto), Merge serves both as an attraction and an anchor. Smart kids have moved here to work at Merge. Bands have moved here to be closer to Merge. Smart kids have stayed here because Merge didn’t need New York to succeed, so why did they? Labels began here because, in 1989, two college students, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, turned the same idea into an industry standard, so why can’t they?
But don’t take my word for it. Head to downtown Durham at midday and you’ll see Merge’s fresh, sizable staff eating lunch, every day. Listen to Bowerbirdssome combination of Michigan, Wisconisn and Iowa kidswho understood that Chapel Hill had an established independent bastion before they migrated south. Or just buy something from Chapel Hill’s Trekky Records, a young label run by undergraduates that thrives on much the same extended-family approach Merge espoused during its salad days.
It’s not impossible to find someone who has worked with McCaughan and Ballance to speak ill of them, but it is very difficult (and, believe me, I’ve asked). That’s because, as local guitarist and sculptor Laird Dixon said simply of the label five years ago, Merge means integrity. Where other independent labels have faltered on their self-reliant ideals, Merge has persevered. They’ve pursued crucial reissues that might not sell too well, fresh-faced fellows with great songs who have no guarantee of finding a break-even audience and the continued output of bands that have long called Merge home, even if they haven’t made it big. (To answer our earlier question, an East River Pipe is something that doesn’t sell lots of records but that Merge has stuck with for 15 years.)
Instead of pursuing the cold, quick cash-in of some hot new trend, Merge has consistently sought out the songs and bands its owners loved. And with sometimes marginally popular goods, they’ve not only held their own but profited, getting great bands paid (if not rich) and buying a beautiful building at the corner of Mangum and Chapel Hill streets that is a touchstone of downtown Durham’s much-ballyhooed revival.
On occasion, though, Merge’s passions have actually turned into the next big trend. Two of the label’s bands exerted a bigger influence on indie rock during this decade than perhaps any other two: Against most odds, Neutral Milk Hotel’s nasal, florid trinkets inspired a legion of sad-eyed, well-read romantics with guitars and whatever voice was born unto them. The Arcade Fire, the label’s best selling-band to date, ushered in an era of indie rock that’s anthemic and enormous. Both bands simply made music McCaughan and Ballance loved.
Each time Merge releases a new record (about 360 so far), it sends a new tendril of influence into the world. That the label will commemorate its 20th anniversary by bringing many of those tendrilsfrom as far away as New Zealand, London and Vancouverto the place it’s always called home is the sort of validation that can’t be bought and should never be discounted.