No matter the medium, Merge Records has survived, and thrived, for 30 years

Superchunk, with Mac McCaughan, left, and Laura Ballance, formed in 1989, the same summer the two formed the Merge Records label. Today, the label is celebrating 30 years with Superchunk headlining an anniversary concert. Jon Wurster, back left, and Jim Wilbur also are in the band.
Superchunk, with Mac McCaughan, left, and Laura Ballance, formed in 1989, the same summer the two formed the Merge Records label. Today, the label is celebrating 30 years with Superchunk headlining an anniversary concert. Jon Wurster, back left, and Jim Wilbur also are in the band. Lissa Gotwals

It’s surprisingly quiet inside the Merge Records office in downtown Durham.

On the ground floor, interns fold T-shirts. The basement is empty of people, but filled with CDs, books, cassettes and floor-to-ceiling shelves of records where many a photographer has posed label founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance.

And upstairs one finds more offices — and even more calm. The only sound, really, is smoky psychedelic guitar emanating from publicist Cecile Duncan’s computer speakers, but even that is subdued. All 18 Merge staffers are busy, sure, but not harried. One might not imagine this prominent indie record label is prepping for MRG30, a massive, sold-out multi-day 30th anniversary festival, within days. If anything, this Tuesday feels like business as usual. And why not?

“There’s only so much [that] freaking out will get you,” Ballance says.

In 1989, Ballance and McCaughan — both members of Superchunk — founded Merge Records. Initially, it was a way to release their own high-test indie-rock as well as records by friends in Chapel Hill’s thriving ‘90s scene. But it soon expanded its footprint.

Some of Merge’s most celebrated signees include The Mountain Goats, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Magnetic Fields, while 2011’s Grammys saw a Merge album — Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” — win Album of the Year. Other acts on the label to earn national attention include Archers of Loaf, Hiss Golden Messenger, The Love Language, H.C. McEntire, Conor Oberst and Teenage Fanclub.

In celebration of Merge Records’ impact, even N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has declared the week of July 24-27, 2019, MRG30 Week.

Surviving change

The label, like many, has weathered sea change after sea change in the music industry, and yet continues to thrive.

CDs rose in popularity, eclipsing cassettes. Then CD sales dwindled as digital music became the preferred medium. Somewhere in there, vinyl graduated from obsolescence to niche interest to widespread popularity. Somewhere in there, cassettes came back.

Most recently, digital music purchases have been eclipsed by streaming services like Spotify. This was a tough one to navigate, says Ballance, since downloads require minimal overhead and pay well, while streaming services are notoriously poor revenue sources for artists.

Through it all, Merge has stuck it out, celebrating every fifth year of survival with a festival. The sixth such celebration, MRG30, starts July 24 at the Carolina Theatre in Durham and continues through Saturday with most its shows at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.

Indeed, the label has made it to 30 by knowing when to incorporate new media and new technology, but also by knowing what not to change.

“A lot of the most old-fashioned ways of promoting music still work the best, in terms of bands touring and getting played on the radio,” McCaughan says.

The local music ecosystem plays a major role, too, in Merge’s longevity. Especially at the start, Ballance says, low cost of living was a major boon — especially compared to music industry hubs like New York or Los Angeles. Venues, record stores and college radio stations are a part of the equation, not to mention a thriving music scene.

On the business side, McCaughan and Ballance have tried to be considerate managers. An album takes a long time to put out, explains McCaughan. Rather than have employees work excessive overtime on major projects, Merge paces itself. This same measured approach is likely why, as Duncan puts it, even festival prep feels like just another day at the office.

“[We] Just to try and manage people’s time so that there’s not a last-minute rush,” says Ballance. “Mac and I really value quality of life. We don’t want to work 70-hour workweeks and we don’t want anybody that works for us to feel like they have to either.”

2nd Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire, on the Merge Records label, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2011. The band is one of the label’s major success stories. Matt Sayles AP

Celebrating 30 years

On the main floor, Digital Operations Specialist Walt Lilly sits at his desk, which is decorated with two Bruce Springsteen albums. All Merge staffers have their own roles, he says, though collaboration is essential to making a good festival happen.

Preparing for serendipity is key, too. Lambchop’s set at Merge’s 20th, for instance, has since become the concert film and album “Live at XX Merge.” Part of Lilly’s responsibility is to make sure videographers are on-site in case similar magic strikes at year 30.

“I feel like everyone is very good at plate-spinning here in general,” Lilly says. “It’s a level of all hands on deck with a lot of it.”

And some people, such as intern Elise Jaffee, simply appreciate the nuts and bolts of running a record label. Jaffee is the newest in the building, having only consistently been in the Merge office since mid-June. Beside Jaffee, Sam Higgins, who has interned at Merge for close to a year, says he’s played music his whole life. Higgins never actively sought work in the industry, but sort of fell into it after seeing a number of friends intern at Merge. (Indeed, five years ago Lilly was an intern as well.)

“I feel like people have this impression of the music industry of being clique-y and no one’s humble and normal, but it’s not the case at all — in my experience here, at least,” Higgins says. “There’s no rock star attitude.”

Like a reunion

Even the fest, as McCaughan, Ballance, Duncan and publicist Mike Caulo attest, fits Higgins’ description. It’s more like a family reunion, they say, or even summer camp. (On Friday, there’s a kickball game in Carrboro). After a few days, the lines between performers and attendees blurs, says Ballance.

Duncan, who has volunteered at festivals in the past, knows to follow her colleagues’ lead on MRG30 — it’s just a different beast. And she knows that this will be the first Merge festival for many artists, including relatively recent signees such as British Afro-funk band Ibibio Sound Machine and hyper-literate indie-rock outfit Titus Andronicus.

“A lot of people will be having their first experience in a thing that they’ve long admired together,” Duncan says. “That’s great.”

Indeed, this was exactly the case for Caulo, who started at Merge shortly before its 25th anniversary. Rather than waiting to meet artists on their way through Durham on tour or for meetings at the label office, he got a crash course in Merge history when that festival hit. It was lucky timing, Caulo says, and going into MRG30, his mind is on the future of the label.

“It’s almost like a vibe of, here’s to 30 more,” he says.

Granted, surviving for another three decades will take continued navigation of music’s shifting landscape, McCaughan says. Streaming, again, can be daunting when it comes to paying artists for their work. New technologies and new platforms can be hard to predict, but one element of running a label will never change, McCaughan says.

“There are so many good bands out there. There’s so much good music,” he says. “That is not something that’s ever going to diminish in terms of artists we want to work with [and] hopefully artists that would want to work with us.”


What: MRG30

When: July 24-27

Where: Carolina Theatre, Durham; Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro; Wilson Park, Carrboro (kickball game); Orange County Social Club, Carrboro

Cost: Sold out, though there are usually a few tickets available at the door. The MRG30 Day Party at Orange County Social Club, which starts at 2 p.m. Saturday, is free.

Info: mergerecords.com/merge-30

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