How a small label made some noise
With the music industry in a dramatic state of flux, the extravagant celebration by Merge Records on the occasion of its 20th anniversary seems like a nose-thumbing anomaly. Following a multiple-night celebration featuring nearly three dozen bands in July, the photo-packed “Our Noise’’ aims to recount the path the North Carolina independent label traveled and, in the process, explain why Merge succeeded while so many others did not.
Founded in 1989 by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Chapel Hill band Superchunk, Merge was fueled by a lot of idealism about the music business and a lot of naïveté about how that business worked. There was also a lot of luck as Merge - backed by McCaughan’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and Ballance’s grounded pragmatism - hooked itself to some important indie bands, not the least of which was Superchunk itself.
Unlike Seattle’s Sub Pop, however, there were no great aspirations to glory. The music put out by the label seemed to be driven by a vision no more complicated than McCaughan’s and Ballance’s dream record collections. If one of those records happened to not yet exist or couldn’t reach the public, Merge stepped in to make it happen. It didn’t matter if it was a mainstream hit like the band Arcade Fire or Spoon or a frustrating nonstarter like Butterglory, so long as McCaughan and Ballance dug the sound.
John Cook doesn’t so much write “Our Noise’’ as curate an oral history of the label, letting those involved carry the tale in their own words while he fills in the blanks with a few occasional paragraphs of context and background. The approach has its risks, encouraging the use of space-wasting, magazine-style pull quotes and absolving Cook of having to look beyond his interview subjects, creating the illusion (accurate or inaccurate) of a hermetic organization isolated from the experiences of other labels and music scenes.
Cook structures the book by alternating between chapters concerning the progress of the label and chapters focusing on a specific band. The timeline gets a tad jumbled as a result: After chronicling the huge leap forward marked by the financial risk and ultimate triumph of the Magnetic Fields’ three-disc 1999 magnum opus “69 Love Songs,’’ the book jumps back four years to far leaner days.
In the chapter on cult legends Neutral Milk Hotel, meanwhile, Cook seems quite happy to maintain the air of mystery surrounding press-shy erstwhile bandleader Jeff Mangum (who, to be fair, sent a polite e-mail declining to be interviewed).
But the oral-history aspect provides “Our Noise’’ with a great deal more character and humor than if Cook told the story straight as an omniscient narrator. Hints of big-picture insight crop up throughout, too, thanks in part to contributions from bands who came to Merge from a major label (like Spoon), would leave Merge for one (the Magnetic Fields) or, in the case of Arcade Fire, were unsuccessfully wooed by companies that couldn’t offer anything Merge wasn’t already providing.
While the final chapter about how the label has thrived provides a fitting conclusion in offering some potential solutions to the hemorrhaging music industry, Cook suggests that the key might be as simple as the fact that “while Mac and Laura let the band[s] make [their] own decisions, they don’t necessarily agree with them.’’ Flawed but ultimately illuminating, “Our Noise’’ puts everything out there for the world to sort out. Merge could almost certainly relate.
Marc Hirsh is a music critic and a regular contributor to the Globe.