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Read: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

September 23, 2009

ournoise

[Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance]

Author John Cook has assembled a history of Merge Records‘ two decades, from the early days of hand-screening record sleeves in bedrooms to its current status as home to mega-indie bands like Spoon and Arcade Fire. The book is definitely all about the primary sources and the historical record—while Cook’s writing provides excellent context, much of the text is in the form of direct quotes with artists, colleagues, and friends of the label. The book also highlights the unusually close links between the label and its artists by interleaving chapters on the bands, particularly Superchunk, of course (it’s the band of Merge founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance).

The picture that emerges from the text and interviews is that Merge did everything right (which is why they’re around get books written about them, admittedly). To begin with, it’s a label that was started by musicians, for musicians. But even artist-run labels die off like fruit flies, except that fruit flies are unlikely to disappear with any of your money. Merge’s  no-contract, we’re-all-friends philosophy was coupled with an unstinting focus on the bottom line (the individuals quoted in Our Noise almost unanimously attribute this to Ballance’s influence). Despite that, Merge took a certain number of risks—most notably, the release of Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus, 69 Love Songs, a three-CD box set with an expensive insert booklet. That a massive collection of love songs, in a comprehensive range of musical styles, could sell more than 150,000 copies is wildly improbable—except for one minor detail, which is that the music is brilliant. Finally, Merge benefited (and is continuing to benefit) enormously from the way the world changed around them. The mainstreaming of indie music has helped the label, of course. But more significantly, the rise of digital distribution has flattened the landscape, allowing Merge to compete effectively with the majors, not least because the big players can no longer offer anything useful that Merge can’t, since the value of promotional tools like payola-greased radio play and premium placement in record stores has plummeted.

Appropriately enough, given Merge’s philosophy, the book is inexpensive (the first edition is a sub-$20 paperback) but beautifully designed and crafted, from the matte-finish cover to flyleaves  illustrated with a grid of Merge album covers. It’s also lavishly illustrated with ephemera—photographs, notes, postcards and more—culled from the closets of the interviewees.

Read an excerpt here. Check out the Our Noise website. And then buy it.

Want to win a free copy? E-mail us or DM debcha before 5 pm Eastern on Monday, September 28th. We’ll pick a respondent at random to receive a free copy from Algonquin Books (and extra-special thanks to them for being willing to mail it anywhere).

MP3: Magnetic Fields – Grand Canyon [buy]

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