Key Acts: The Arcade Fire, Spoon, Destroyer, Lambchop, the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel
North Carolina’s indie imprint Merge Records has had a peculiar history. Though they’d worked with many an interesting artist since being formed as a veritable bedroom hobby in 1989, the label’s first decade hardly suggested they were bound for corporate glory.
Yet, the band’s release of the Magnetic Fields’ ridiculous triple-album 69 Love Songs was the first sign that Merge were evolving into a major artistic force. Their ongoing relationship with Spoon soon bore astonishing fruit, and when they released the debut album, Funeral, by Canadian art-rock combo the Arcade Fire, Merge was, seemingly overnight, transformed into a true corporate power.
The Back-Story, Mac
In 1993, fasting-rising mega-indie Matador Records had just gotten into bed with the major-label Atlantic. Superchunk were signed to Matador, and had just released the third well-received album, On the Mouth, for the label. Yet the members of Superchunk also had a record-label of their own, and, faced with working for the guys in suits, the band chose to jump ship, and become the flagship of their own label.
Up to that point, Merge had largely been a part-time concern. They’d mostly specialised in small-run 7”s, and were essentially seen as an extension of the band. When Superchunk moved to Merge full-time, they legitimized their own label.
The Bands, Man
Around that time, Merge started to cobble together a roster of artists they’d go on to collaborate with over long stretches: the Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt’s various side-projects, at-home pop-savant East River Pipe, scrappy indie-pop action Butterglory, orchestral-country big-band Lambchop, and Jeff Mangum’s incomparable Neutral Milk Hotel.
Later on, Merge would almost become a refuge for indie bands who’d been major-label failures: preened New York art-pop act Versus, mopey alt-country sage Richard Buckner, summer-pop jamboree Imperial Teen, and, notably, a gimmick-free combo from Austin, Texas named Spoon, who'd been cut loose from a deal with Elektra after one dismal-selling album.
Spoon’s quiet success with 2001’s Girls Can Tell and 2002’s Kill the Moonlight was a quiet surprise; largely the product of word-of-mouth disseminated en-masse by the suddenly-burgeoning internet music community.
The Great Arcade
If the power of online hype and the trickle-on effects of filesharing spurred on the sales of Spoon, that was nothing compared to what was coming. Everything changed, for Merge, in September of 2004. That was when their newest, brightest signings, the Arcade Fire, issued their first LP, Funeral. Instantly hailed by internet tastemakers, the album sold out of its initial pressing almost immediately, and a phenomenon was born.
No Merge album had ever come close to bothering the Billboard charts before, but Funeral trickled its way into the nether-regions of the mid-100s. At the time, Merge only had one PR person, Martin Hall, ‘working’ the record, so it’s fair to say Funeral lead the label into a new era.
In 2006, the Arcade Fire’s second record, Neon Bible, and Spoon’s latest longplayer Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga both debut in the Billboard Top Ten, cementing Merge’s newly-found reputation as a major force in independent music.
20 Year Anniversay
In 2009, Merge celebrated 20 years of record-making with XX Merge, four days of festivities in the greater Chapel Hill region that featured performances from, amongst many others, Superchunk, Spoon, Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Destroyer. The label also sent out a year-long subscription series called Score, which added up to a box-set chronicling and celebrating the history of the label.