By the time I was aware of Merge Records the label was already two years old.
The point seems laughable because surely I can be forgiven my unawareness of a small label, no matter its proximity to Athens, back in the relative stone age of 1991. But, no matter. The album that clued me in was Superchunk’s No Pocky for Kitty and it wasn’t even on Merge Records. It was on Matador. 1991 was a shape-shifting year for me in many ways and No Pocky For Kitty was spun repeatedly daily in my basement apartment. I found out about Merge by heading into record stores (mainly the Athens Wuxtry locations) and searching out more from the band.
Merge seemed grown up from the get-go. That is, it seemed to have its act together. I also wasn’t completely cognizant at this point of how records really came together; for me, they still just happened. It says something, though, that Merge releases seemed dependable. I never imagined there wouldn’t be another new 7” next month or a new album by Superchunk each year. I’m pretty sure I even sent a demo from one of my old bands to Merge circa 1994 or so but I could be wrong. I sent out a lot of them and I still kind of shiver when I think that there may be someone out there as pack-ratty as me holding onto one of them.
But this is supposed to be a book review so ennui go, so to speak…
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records (The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small) is, in no uncertain terms, gorgeous. It’s layout is clean, its photos crisp and its interviews seemingly exhaustive. At 320 pages it’s a surprisingly quick read if you want to blow through it but I didn’t. And that’s why I’m reviewing it almost a full three months after I received my copy of it. I read this slowly and only a few pages at a time. I needed to really sink my teeth into it. Or, rather, I wanted to do so.
(Since, I’ve already backtracked and taken tangents in this piece let me do it again. I generally hate travel books and city guides because, as an outsider, I can never know how factual they are without wasting a lot of time through trial and disappointment. So my rule for anything of this type is to look for at least one thing I know about and see how the writer did covering that one thing. If they get it right then I feel comfortable taking the guide as a whole. Or, at least, more comfortable. I used the same approach with Our Noise, which is constructed through hundreds of quoted interviews with a little editorial material in between to tie everything together. Since the only people I knew in the whole book, the venerable DeWitt Burton and everyone in the chapter on Neutral Milk Hotel, I looked closely at how they was quoted, imagined them saying what was attributed to them and finally thought, “Yeah, that totally sounds like them.” Since so much of the NMH chapter talks about stuff that I witnessed as it happened, I was pretty happy to find it painstakingly accurate. So I feel pretty assured that the rest of the interviews are rock solid. Granted, this method is unscientific and logically fallacious but what other options are there?)
Written with the participation of both Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance (both of Superchunk and Merge), author John Cook does a masterful job of weaving an unwieldy narrative into a coherent, engaging story. Merge’s story is incredibly similar, in its beginning, to nearly every other American independent label of note that began before the Internet changed everything. That is, they figured things out step-by-step, one release at a time, had only a loose plan and concentrated on records they liked versus records they could sell. But they still managed to sell a veritable ton of records. And, in the case of, say, The Arcade Fire, ten tons.
One of the best things Cook did was pare down the interviews to the most important segments and use the most interesting and relevant quotes. (Ok, so I wasn’t privy to his notes but if the quotes and interviews all come off as interesting and relevant mustn’t this have been the case? Exactly.) He never lets the book slip into worthless nostalgia but he plumbs the labels history quite completely. Individual bands are given entire chapters of the book whereas, completely expectedly, Superchunk and Merge’s story tends to run concurrently. The highlighted bands are the aforementioned Neutral Milk Hotel, Butterglory, Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Lambchop and The Arcade Fire. Now I only ever gave more than half a hoot about 2 of those six bands but the writing here is just so strong I am compelled to revisit the ones I never cared for. (This has happened to me before and it’s another sign of a great approach to history. If the historian can stir interest in a subject with which the reader is already familiar but bored by then the historian has more than done his job.) Don’t believe me? Ok, how’s this: if you had told me 3 months ago that I’d be seriously considering The Arcade Fire to be a thoughtful bunch of folks with a bad-ass approach to their music and a completely healthy disdain for the mainstream music world, I’d have laughed. As it is, I have total respect for them. You can thank John Cook for that.
(Another note: the photographs in Our Noise are worth at least half the price of admission. There are lots of snapshots, set lists, other ephemera, etc. One thing I used to always wonder about the oddball live concert shot or house show photo is “Who the hell remembered to bring a camera?” No one would ask this now because it’s beside the point when even your baby cousin has a camera on his phone and everything in the world is documented constantly and, practically, for free. It’s, always interesting to see what people chose to document when it wasn’t so easy or cheap to do.)
As much as I loved reading this book, I really didn’t need to in order to know a lot of the label mechanics of the story. I’m pretty well versed in the ins-and-outs of the independent record business even up to, and including, our current digital age. That’s why, for me, it’s the personal stories of the bands, Mac, Laura and everyone else that make Our Noise such a treat.
Merge’s story is full of personal and professional growing pains. Pain hurts and some of the quotes are shockingly personal. But they’re also all part of the story and so much of the Merge story is wrapped up in the relationship between Mac and Laura that to ignore it would render the whole project a fraud. As it is, it’s anything but. Indeed, some of what is spoken about is, if not cringe worthy, at least uncomfortable reading. Laura is particularly open about her relationship with Mac whereas Mac always seems to come across as a people person that, try as he might, can’t please everyone.
All told, I’ve not been this impressed by a book about a label in a very long time. Properly, it doesn’t read like a tale but like a biography. Life isn’t blown into the subjects; it’s captured from them. Impressively, it doesn’t make the last 20 years seem like they flew by. The detail within the writing carefully draws the story out and is meaty enough to mimic the actual nose-to-grindstone effort of running a label like Merge. Overall, it’s a joy but, on the bad days it must’ve been a frustrating mess that hardly seemed worth the effort anymore. The end product exists to the reader’s edification and, really, so does Merge to listeners. And unless I’m somehow terribly mistaken that was part of the whole point.
I have a close friend that finished the book before I did and it kind of bummed him out because he runs a label and was wishing things could be like they were several years ago when the thrill of putting out a 7” record was accompanied by a reasonable expectation to be able to unload more than a handful of them. I told him that I really didn’t think things had changed as much as he thought. Sure, digital files are not the same as 7” records and album sales are counted more by download stats that by units shipped but those are just details. Important ones, sure, but none that should change the core reason for doing business with bands you like and music you love. Formats don’t matter; attitudes do. (Ed note: After the person in question read this piece he clarified further what he meant. He says it’s not so much being bummed that physical sales are down but what that drop represents, i.e. a loss of the tactile relationship with music and an increase in its seeming disposability. Further, before the advent of the Internet [as we think of it] personal relationship were formed much more slowly and seemed to last longer, if only because of the time invested. Letters, post cards, phone calls and mail-order were the tools of the day as opposed to email, Facebook, text messaging and downloading. His point is that you tend to spend more time with a record you waited to arrive in the mail than one you half-heartedly downloaded. It seems to mean more. I know what he means and I agree to a certain extent.)
The worst change I’ve seen in the last several years is that the audience that was always deemed the most loyal and the most willing to grow with an artist (i.e. the indie rock fan) has become among the most fickle. It’s foolish to blame the major labels for desiring to pump out nothing but one-shot hit machines when your average iPod toting, campus radio station working, college sophomore owns no records (sorry, downloads) older than the previous year (sure, a sweeping indictment that is, in all honestly, likely somewhat inaccurate BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN) and every hot-shit indie label/booking agency/licensing broker wants to know how a record scored on the Awesome Internet Music Site (a euphemism) record rank ‘em system before they even hear the band (but if they scored high enough they want them no matter what they sound like. Hell, that’s commerce, baby!) Every online writer addicted to repeating the same three lines of news over and over about the same damn bands everyone else is writing about until next week when everyone is writing about someone else is part of this broken values system, too. Hell, man, we’re the enemy. Long-haul fans/supporters like Mac, Laura and Merge are few, far between and seem to be getting scarcer.
No, I’m not naïve enough to imagine, or falsely remember, there was once upon a time a nice little indie world where everyone got along and no one ever fought and everyone sold tons of records and lived happily in a college town where the weather was good, the beer was plentiful and cheap, and we all mail ordered records every week from each others labels. There’s been rip off, cheap shots, carpetbaggers and con-men in this game for as long as the game has been around. And it’s this fact that make labels like Merge so important. The label operates at a level of honesty and openness that is unthinkable, if not downright self-defeating, to the outside world and still gets excited about putting out new bands.
For Merge it’s really about the music. I know that will sound trite and unsophisticated to some ears out there but there’s no other way to say it.
I just looked this piece over and it appears I stopped writing about the actual book several paragraphs ago. Well, so be it. In any case, it was Our Noise that got me thinking about so many of the issues (admittedly, unresolved) I wound up talking about and made me want to drink a bunch of coffee and think for hours. It reminded me again why all this matters in the first place and why it’s not foolish to care. I’m thankful for the inspiration.
How will it inspire you?
Buy it here.
Thanks Gordon. I’ve had this on our living room table for a few months and haven’t done more than look at the pictures. I should probably get around to reading the words too.