Flip through the album collection of any typical indie-rock aficionado and you’ll come across more than a few releases from N.C. label Merge Records. Totally independent from the get-go 20 years ago, Merge figured out how to accomplish their initial goals and survive in a terribly competitive and tumultuous business. While so many other labels, big and small, bit the dust in recent years, Merge actually prospered and expanded with their integrity and open spirit intact.
In the mid and late ’80s, a handful of small but enthusiastic record labels followed a typically punk DIY ethic and independently released some of the best alternatives to major label fare of the time. In the late-’80s, most underground music was simply tagged as “college rock” — which referred more to the more open-minded student-run radio stations on campuses across the country than any sort of academic or intellectual musical goals of the artists or indie labels.
It was out of that college radio scene that Merge first took shape in 1989 in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle. Under the guidance of Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance — the singer/guitarist and the bassist in the rock quartet Superchunk — Merge started out like several other cool indie labels: as a way to properly release and distribute recordings by their own band and their friends.
Their earliest releases were low-budget, hand-assembled seven-inch slabs by Superchunk’s scenemates. McCaughan and Ballance issued their own band’s earliest recordings in ’89 on seven-inch vinyl as well.
In the early years, Merge embraced some of the most assertive and sonically ambitious rock, punk, and experimental bands in the Southeast and elsewhere, including Polvo, Versus, Pipe, Seaweed, American Music Club, and Pure. The last 10 years featured an even more diverse lineup with the likes of Lambchop, The Magnetic Fields, The Music Tapes, The Arcade Fire, M. Ward, The Rosebuds, and Spoon. Additionally, Merge has cleverly packaged reissues and new releases from such punk/indie royalty as Robert Pollard (of Guided By Voices), Lou Barlow, Dinosaur Jr. Volcano Suns, The Buzzcocks, The Clean, and others.
The “XX Merge” festivities in Carrboro and Chapel Hill July 22-26 include four already-sold-out shows at the Cat’s Cradle, a concert night at Memorial Hall, and additional performances and get-togethers.
The Ackland Art Museum will screen a Superchunk tour documentary titled Quest for Sleep on Thurs. July 23. The next day, the theater screens two more — an indie film titled Who Loves the Sun (featuring an original score from McCaughan’s side band Portastatic), and a documentary on Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst titled One of My Kind.
Saturday afternoon, hipster tavern Orange County Social Club hosts a free show with live music from The Radar Bros., Tenement Halls, Matt Suggs, Portastatic, and The Music Tapes. Sunday evening’s Memorial Hall concert boasts She & Him, American Music Club, and Wye Oak.
For those fans of Merge’s roster who can’t make the trip to Carrboro and Chapel Hill this week, they can check out some celebratory music and writings this summer. The recently-released Score! collection is a hefty compilation of songs spanning the Merge catalog, each covered by some of the most popular indie non-Merge bands out there.
Additional documentation of the Merge story continues with the forthcoming book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small. Written by music journalist John Cook with guidance from McCaughan and Ballance, the book is due in September from Algonquin Books.
* Editor’s note: With Georgia bands The Rock*A*Teens and Tenement Halls, Lesemann performed on two full-length albums in the Merge catalog: 1999’s Golden Time and 2000’s Sweet Bird Of Youth, and 2005’s Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells.