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From Newsweek

The Indie Label That Gave Us Some of Indie Rock’s Greatest Hits

In the summer of 1987, two teenagers—Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance—met while working at Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill, N.C. They were both fans of the hardcore music scene, and a few years later they'd become the founders of one of the most influential labels in indie rock: Merge Records, which has released albums by Arcade Fire, the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, and Superchunk (McCaughan and Ballance’s own band).

This rich piece of music history is told in Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, out in stores this week. The book, by Gawker Media reporter John Cook with McCaughan and Ballance, follows Merge from its beginnings through the recent success of Arcade Fire. It’s made up primarily of interviews with those who were involved, mixed with some narrative reporting, and it fits neatly with other books that chronicle the origins of American music scenes, such as Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.

In many ways, it picks up where those books left off. Punk rock gave birth in the ’80s to hardcore: a fast, angry, and largely anticorporate strain of punk typified by bands like Minor Threat that set up their own labels on their own terms—Ian MacKaye, the group's frontman, even says in Our Noise that he figured out how to make a homemade record sleeve by pulling apart a real record sleeve and retracing it on an 11- by 14-inch piece of paper. These bands gave McCaughan and Ballance a blueprint for how they could start a label without money. Even when Superchunk and Merge gained more attention and everything got more complicated—they began selling LPs, not just 7 inches, and needed hundreds or thousands of copies, not just a few dozen—Merge maintained a more small-scale, personal way of doing business. They avoided legal contracts, put out records they liked and not just what they thought would sell, and split profits 50-50 with the artists (the industry standard paid to bands was 12 percent).

That model attracted bands with similar mindsets, if not always similar sounds, and Merge found plenty of artists who shared their way of thinking. They became something like a lifeline for bands that made great music but didn’t necessarily fit into the mainstream. It’s hard to imagine Neutral Milk Hotel, for instance, being able to record and release their glorious mess of an album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on a major label. The album was regarded as a curiosity when it first appeared in 1998, but it’s since become a classic—in 2003, the music magazine Magnet called it the best album of the '90s, putting it ahead of releases by Radiohead and Nirvana. For a major label, issuing such a strange record would be a huge risk; for Merge, it was the thing to do.

Thanks to labels like Merge and Matador—the hugely influential label that put out albums by Pavement, among others—and the boom of the blogosphere, indie rock is no longer strictly for outsiders. Earlier this year, the third record by the unconventional, decidedly unmainstream band Grizzly Bear debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard chart, putting it in the top 10 alongside the likes of Eminem and Hannah Montana. That position isn’t unprecedented for an indie band, but it certainly wouldn’t be as likely without 20 years of effort by people like McCaughan and Ballance.

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