Merge Records: At the heart of ‘indie’ is a stellar label

by DGO Web Administrator

There was a time when the independent record labels were the mom and pop of the music business. Back when the industry was a bit more predictable, with the big, heavy hitting labels spending big bucks and having the ear of the mainstream, it was the independent labels that were scratching and clawing.

It was also where you went for the real deal of bands, while uneducated and armchair music fans went for lowest common denominator, hit radio, predictable nonsense. Independent labels were, and still are, like the food truck that out-did a four-star restaurant. Fans would discover an artist on these labels when they’re young, and those labels become like old friends, everything they put out becoming part of your collection. Like the exploration of a family tree, you’d find one band on a branch and then wrap yourself around the smaller branches growing off the larger. They take chances, and sometimes may put out some things you find no interest in, but overall it’s a music you want. You’d look for the recognizable logo and the crude, cut-out collage-like artwork and add it to your collection.

Since the music industry has turned into an upside-down mess, and the last decade or so has seen the world notice that the mainstream is nonsense, whatever is labeled as “independent” are the true-grit and the real “art.” These labels operate on a shoe-string budget, without some deep-pocketed suit signing checks to youngsters and then following said check with ridiculous demands and suggestions that will ruin a musical vision.

North Carolina’s Merge Records sits at the forefront of these labels. They’re one of the great “indie” labels of America, distributors of Crooked Fingers to A Giant Dog, Archers of Loaf to The Radar Brothers. They’ve also put out records by Dinosaur Jr., Drive Like Jehu, The Buzzcocks, Titus Andronicus, and, of course, Superchunk, the flagship band of the North Carolina-based label, whose guitar player and vocalist Mac McCaughan also happens to be co-owner and founder. They’ve released albums by hundreds of bands that have pushed independent music into the mainstream and made DIY a common practice.

What began in 1989 as a way to release the music of Superchunk has grown into a method of delivering new and re-issued music for hundreds of important bands on the musical landscape. They should be cheered solely for the music of Superchunk, the guitar-charged, aggressively-cheery Chapel Hill, North Carolina band walking a line between punk and power-pop.

“It began as a way to release music from their band Superchunk and music created by friends,” said director of publicity Christina Rentz, “but since has expanded to include artists from around the world and records reaching the top of the Billboard music charts.”

Arguably they could be a label that has made the industry turn from the majors and turn toward the independents. Spoon, She and Him, and Grammy-winning Arcade Fire have all hung with Merge, proving that there’s not necessarily a need for the Capitols and Sony’s to churn out a respectable product.

There’s no pursuit of sound. There’s no formulaic method for the bands they sign. There’s no pursuit of a next big thing. It’s a grassroots approach and pursuit to release, as Rentz says, “music we love.”

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].


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