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.
The label has a great reputation for treating artists well, was that something you were very clear
about from the outset?
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.
labour of love, have you chased some of the artists to release music on Merge or have most/all
come to you?
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?