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A history of the first 20 years of Merge Records.

Book Review: Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records by John Cook

I’m working, but I’m not working for you…

Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” was the first “hit” on Merge Records, and it launched both the band and the label. Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records looks back on the first 20 years of the label, one of the most successful indies of the modern era.

Merge and Superchunk founders Laura Balance and Mac McCaughan took a road trip in 1989. Traveling from their home in Raleigh, North Carolina they drove across the country, all the way to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, they visited the fledgling Sub Pop Records office, to see a friend. On the way back home, they decided to form Merge.

If there is an over-riding theme in the book, I would call it “punk rock integrity.” Until recently, there were never contracts between the label and artists. It was a practice that ultimately hurt the label, because after nurturing a band’s career, the artists were free to jump to a major, leaving Merge high and dry. It happened a few times.

But these idealists took the long view, and it eventually paid off. Besides Superchunk, the label’s catalog includes such perennials as Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Polvo, Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub, Conor Oberst — just to name a few.

As the artists listed above indicates, there is no particular “sound” associated with Merge. If anything, it comes down to what Laura and Mac like, and what they think might at least recoup expenses in the marketplace. They have done remarkably well, overcoming hurdles in both their personal and professional lives to keep the operation afloat. And it has paid off.

Our Noise is filled with vintage photos as well. It seems that the pair, and everyone in Raleigh, are unrepentant pack-rats, because there are some great pictures, and original gig posters reproduced here.

Our Noise is no simple picture book, though. The 20 year history of the label is told thoroughly, through interviews and personal recollections of the author, John Cook. Ryan Adams wrote the somewhat gushing Introduction.

The history of Merge Records parallels that of the music industry as a whole over the past 20 years. It’s almost like “The Tortoise And The Hare.” When the post-Nirvana boom of major label signings occurred, Merge could do nothing but watch. Of course, when those (literally hundreds) of bands got screwed within a year or two, Merge was there to pick up the pieces.

In the end, the story of Merge is somewhat inspiring. Sometimes the good guys actually do win.

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