Founded in the unassuming surroundings of the university town of Chapel Hill in North Carolina in 1989, Merge Records has proved to be one of the most versatile, long-lasting and consistently successful independent record labels in the world throughout its 30-year existence. Established by musicians Mac McCaugham and Laura Ballance in order to release music by their friends as well as their own band Superchunk, the label’s roster has expanded to become a stable home for prestigious and commercially successful North American indie artists, such as Spoon and Arcade Fire, on top of a whole host of critically adored acts over the last three decades, like Camera Obscura, Swearin’, Ibibio Sound Machine, She & Him, The Magnetic Fields and Lambchop.
took them nearly three years of cassette and EP releases as a mail-order-only
undertaking before Merge’s first official CD issue – a Superchunk singles
compilation Tossing Seeds – the levelling of the playing field that came
with Nirvana’s success in the early Nineties helped the fledgling label to
obtain a foothold and thrive underneath the radar throughout the rest of the
decade. Crucially, they signed a distribution and production deal with Corey
Rusk’s long-established and influential Touch & Go label, allowing them to
share risk and plug themselves into a nationwide underground infrastructure and
Eventually, 15 years into their existence, the label scored its first Billboard ranking album in the shape of Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut Funeral. The same band provided Merge’s first chart-topper six years later when their third album The Suburbs was released. On top of that, a healthy number of notable releases have also issued forth from the label, such as Dan Snaith’s break-out Caribou album Andorra which won Canada’s Polaris Music Prize in 2008. Before that, two of the greatest albums of the Nineties came out on Merge – Neutral Milk Hotel’s complex masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and Stephin Merritt’s wildly ambitious magnum opus 69 Love Songs, both of which helped them unlock a new audience. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve carved out a healthy line in re-issues, buying up and releasing the catalogues of the likes of Sugar and Dinosaur Jr., and even provided a temporary home for veterans such as Buzzcocks in the mid-Noughties.
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mark out Merge in comparison to most labels in their kind of position. Firstly,
although their sound is pretty much exclusively devoted to the indie/guitar
sphere, Merge’s trademark sound can’t be clearly defined – unlike, for example,
4AD or Domino. They are equally willing to release DIY punk records as well as
beautiful, richly produced alt-folk, with bands as disparate as Destroyer
and The Mountain Goats sitting in between.
bands on their roster tend to be very loyal. Dan Bejar’s aforementioned
Destroyer, Mikal Cronin, Hiss Golden Messenger, Wye Oak, Titus
Andronicus and M. Ward (plus his various side-projects like She
& Him) have all been on Merge for at least a decade, which is highly
unusual in comparison to most other indie labels. Even the most groundbreaking
and cutting-edge labels usually have to surrender their most successful acts to
the majors when they come sniffing – conversely, the precarious nature of such
ventures means that any acts who underperform have to be dropped for financial
reasons. Other than, perhaps, Matador Records, it’s hard to think of another
independent outfit that’s able to inspire the kind of loyalty that Merge has.
Even when Arcade Fire were laying waste to the charts at the height of their
fame, they still stuck with Merge up to and including their fourth record Reflektor.
out our beginner’s guide to Merge Records playlist over at Spotify, or by
Tags: An Introduction to, Ed Biggs, independent label, Merge, merge records, North Carolina
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