If the weather is copacetic and the summer afternoon showers stay out of Carrboro, organizers of Merge Records’ 25th anniversary events estimate they might accommodate 3,000 people for Saturday’s finale in the Cat’s Cradle parking lot.
The indoor events sold out almost instantly, so the makeshift asphalt amphitheater represents the only chance most people will have to participate in Merge’s celebration of survival and, more and more, success.
Still, 3,000 isn’t much of a crowd: That tally is a third of what the Carolina Railhawks can hold in Cary, a fraction of what the Bulls can do in Durham. More people will likely go to Southpoint Mall by noon on Saturday than crowd in front of the Cradle for a lot of indie rock all afternoon. If you don’t have a ticket, then, why care?
But Merge’s story is a twofold testament to the power of dedication. The label started as a hobbyist project of two bandmates who wanted to put out some records, and it’s grown during the last 25 years to be one of the major outposts of independent music worldwide. Why it matters, though, is that Merge largely stayed that way, with the same people still working daily in an albeit upgraded office in downtown Durham, with many more resources at their disposal.
Consider that, before its last anniversary, Merge had just released new albums by two of indie rock’s mainstream flirtations. But during the last five yearsor the time they’ve spent putting out albums since their last massive anniversaryMerge hasn’t changed course, veered toward the obviously accessible or tempered its output.
Instead, this has been one of the most interesting periods of its existence. Sure, there’ve been some big records, like two from The Arcade Fire and She & Him, another from M. Ward. But Superchunk returned in earnest, too, putting out two of its best records ever and proving that the same spirit that led to the band and the label hadn’t faded, Grammys, Billboard charts and Saturday Night Live placements notwithstanding.
Merge has explored some incredible reissue territory and continued to provide a platform for veterans to refine and possibly peak late in their careers; Lambchop’s Mr. M, for instance, arrived after nearly two decades with Merge, while Richard Buckner has risen to the challenge of a welcome second act.
And Merge embraced locals again, putting out small-run 7-inch singles from neighborhood bands as they did long ago and signing some of the Triangle’s best to contracts that gave them new levels of exposure. (Just how far will Hiss Golden Messenger’s forthcoming and gorgeous Merge debut, Lateness of Dancers, go?)
As labels grow, they inevitably chase trends, following the scent of what’s hot with hopes of, if not cashing in, at least maintaining relevance. But Merge hasn’t trailed the industry rut so much as they’ve tracked currents and selected excellent, slightly left-of-center exemplars. Despite the emergence of a new wave of instrumental guitarists during the last decade, for instance, Merge has released only one record from that sceneWilliam Tyler’s Impossible Truth, one of the finest in its field. Rather than pursue new moves in electropop, they stuck with their roster and allowed Baltimore duo Wye Oak to do the work, evolving from a rock group into a glistening electronic one on the new Shriek. Instead of releasing scores of albums from the garage-rock revival, Merge went for quality over quantityMikal Cronin’s MCII was one of last year’s best such records, while this year’s Shattered by Reigning Sound earns the distinction.
Merge’s catalogue isn’t perfect, of course, and its ability to be edgy or stylistically expansive can sometimes leave listeners wanting. But that’s OK, in the sense that Merge still feels like an outgrowth of a few people, not a board of directorsan expression of the records they want to put out and how they want to put them out, whether the audience they find is the 35 people who bought their first order of cassettes, the 3,000 who will stand outside on Saturday or the several hundred thousand who’ve purchased their most popular titles.
Love indie rock or hate it, it’s hard not to marvel at that.