Feature: Merge Records celebrate 30 years – Interview and exclusive playlist

Photo Credit: Jeremy Lange

If you follow the brilliant Merge label, you’ll have had some insight into this. They’ve been releasing various limited edtion vinyl to celebrate it, but they’ve been going for thirty years. Started by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk to release some of their own music (the first album on the label was Superchunk’s singles collection Tossing Seeds) and that of their friends. Since then though, they’ve released everything from Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neon Bible, to Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country and Spoons Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. They’ve also given a platform to bands from this side of the pond, releasing records from the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Tracy Thorn and more recently Holly Cook.

At the end of July, they’re putting on a 4 day festival in North Carolina with over 30 of their bands including Hiss Golden Messenger, The Mountain Goats, Superchunk, Lambchop, Ibibio Sound Machine, Titus Andronicus, Destroyer, Waxahatchee, Fucked Up and lots more. Here’s a link if you’re in the North Carolina area

We thought it was about time (seeing as its a) one of our favourite labels and b) released some of our most treasured albums from a whole bunch of our favourite artists, to catch up with Mac and Laura to find out a little more about the label, its acts and the 30th celebrations.

So its 30 years since the start of Merge Records, how does it feel when people say that to you?
How did it all come about? What were the initial ambitions for Merge and how quickly did those
change, if indeed they did/have at all.

LB: It feels pretty insane to me that we have been doing this for 30 years. I think about how casually we started Merge and what it has turned into and it blows my mind. I feel very lucky that we have managed to start a business that has lasted this long.

(Mac) I think our initial ambitions were so low…”release tapes & singles by our bands and our friends bands” that we realized them fairly quickly. we were dubbing the tapes ourselves and sticking labels on that we made at kinko’s so there wasn’t a lot of waiting around to do! assembling everything ourselves was part of the fun of it. not that it wasn’t still super exciting the first time we had boxes of vinyl arrive at Laura’s house (where the “office” was at the time). the first release that felt different to me was the first Chunk 7″ because we were an active band, the sleeve was colorful, the vinyl was colored, and it got some real attention. the first few releases were essentially archival or bands that didn’t exist as touring entities (Bricks gigs opening for Fugazi and Swans notwithstanding).
Did it feel like a leap of faith at the time, or was it just a natural progression from being in a band to running a label
(Mac) Because the scale was so small it never felt like a “leap of faith” to me — more just a fun project to get some music out into the world.
LB: At the time it just seemed like a sensible thing to do. There were not a lot of small indie labels in our part of the country, and it felt like a lot of bands from North Carolina were just falling through the cracks and disappearing after they played a few gigs. We figured we could do something to help foster some longevity in local bands that aspired to something more than playing a few house parties.

The label has a great reputation for treating artists well, was that something you were very clear
about from the outset?
(Mac) I would hope that artists running a label would treat artists well, and yes that’s always been a focus of ours.
LB: I think it’s pretty intuitive that you should treat your artists well, just like you would treat your friends well, or treat your partners well, or treat your dog well, you know? If you treat anyone poorly it is going to weigh on you and make you feel unhappy and stressed. SO, I would say we were clear about this from the time we were children, way before we even thought of starting Merge. Of course we are also artists so we had a good idea from the outset of what the particular needs are that arise from being an artist.

Were there other labels you looked at and thought ‘We want to be like them’ (or maybe the exact

LB: We definitely had Dischord, Teenbeat, Subpop, Homestead, and Touch and Go as examples to inspire us one way or the other. Homestead put out a lot of great music because Gerard Cosloy was there and he is a true music fan. They did not have the best reputation for paying people or being fair, but Gerard did not have much say in that. In 1992 Corey Rusk from Tough and GO approached us aobut doing a manufacturing and distribution deal with Merge, and that enabled us to make the leap from releasing 7” records and cassettes to putting out full length albums on cd and lp. His business model was a profit split and we pretty much adopted that from him along with most of the ways he did business. Corey is a good person and was a great influence on us. Ian MacKaye (Dischord) and Mark Robinson (Teenbeat) were both people in bands who also started record labels who helped us to see what was possible to do with the power of both expressing yourself as an artist but also having commercial control. They both ran fantastic labels and their bands were amazing. Check out Minor Threat, Fugazi, Unrest, Air Miami, and Flin Flon if you don’t know what I am talking about. Subpop pretty much set the tone for the 1990’s grunge rock explosion and it was very exciting at the time. “Touch Me I’m Sick” rocked my world, even though I was a fan of the Stooges before that.

(Mac) The other labels that spring to mind at the time that were inspiring us were also artist-run: Dischord, Teen Beat, K, Amphetamine Reptile… and of course Sub Pop which wasn’t run by people in a band but they came out of the punk & fanzine world nonetheless. Overseas labels like Flying Nun or 4AD i think were more inspiring in their unified aesthetic, i don’t think we really knew who was running them.

You’ve released music by all sorts of bands over the three decades – has it been something of a
labour of love, have you chased some of the artists to release music on Merge or have most/all
come to you?
(Mac) It’s really happened all different ways over the years — friends of ours from Superchunk touring recommend their friends’ bands (Arcade Fire), lots of demos roll in, and we’ve pursued some artists (Ibibio Sound Machine and Hollie Cook were artists whose records I bought and was a fan who realized you couldn’t easily find their records over here) but of course after 30 years plenty of people know where to find us when they have a new album. There’s so much good music out there, it’s really a matter of not taking on too many projects so we can do a great job with the ones we have.

Lb: Some bands we chased and some came to us. There is no one way that bands have ended up on Merge. In the early days when Superchunk was touring all the time, we often met bands we loved on the road and would ask them if we could release a 7” or something. We were always huge fans of Flying Nun and approached them about releasing a 3D’s album over here early on. Plus we got to tour with them in the USA and also Australia and New Zealand and really get to know them. We also often have people we know send demos on behalf of bands they love that need a home. We got hooked up with Hospitality by Scott Jacobson who wrote for the Daily Show with John Stewart.

How has running a label changed over the 30 years? I  guess tastes have changed, the industry has changed, the way we buy and consume music have changed. Is that the biggest challenge – staying up with the game?

LB: In 1989, music was an entirely physical game. Records and CDs were sold in record stores. At some point vinyl kind of died out along with cassettes and it was all about CD’s. Sort of around the same time the radical concept of selling downloads and stealing downloads came into play. This was the early 2000’s. Maybe 2003? This was actually a remarkably prosperous time for the music business. CD’s are cheap to manufacture, and downloads are even less expensive. You pretty much paid for recording, mastering, and the distribution by whatever the service provider was. Streaming slowly grew and has now pretty much pushed download sales out of the picture. It’s a lot harder to make ends meet on the income from streams. It’s an incredibly convenient way to listen to music, and there is no way to put it back in the box, so the music industry has got to figure out a way to live with this model. There will be something new though, there always is.

Any band/artists nearly cost you everything in a Happy Mondays ‘Pills and Thrills’ way when they
spent millions on getting high in Barbados or somewhere and basically bankrupted Factory Records?
(Mac) Ha – no but the Creation Records book is one of my favorite music business reads of all time when it comes to that kind of craziness! And Peter Hook’s books are excellent as well. We’ve always kept things pretty tight when it comes to money & trying to make sure everyone’s records recoup.
Tell us something about the 30th anniversary celebrations
(Mac) As for the festival this Summer, it’s always a blast. So fun to have so many of the artists we work with all in one place. And to see fans that come from all over the world every 5 years… it’s going to be a great weekend.
Whats next for Merge?
(Mac) Tons of great records the rest of the year & early 2020 already looks bananas. Superchunk is playing some shows where we do the Foolish album acoustically in its entirety…my next thing is relearning those songs.
We managed to persuade Laura and Mac to make us a playlist of artists involved in the label and also some of which are playing at the labels four day festival. Check it out, and save it to your profiles, here

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