by Marc Masters
I worried when I saw that the history of Merge Records, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, was co-authored by Gawker reporter John Cook and the Durham/ Chapel Hill label's founders, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. It seemed like a recipe for bias or lack of candor, perhaps reading less like an intimate portrait than a 300-page press release.
Fear not: Our Noise, available through Algonquin Books Sept. 15, is remarkably open, hiding no details when it comes to sales figures, label woes, band in-fighting and the owners' own romantic breakup. In retrospect, this shouldn't really be a surprise, as Ballance and McCaughan have longed helmed Merge with integrity and transparency. Still, you have to admire their willingness to air out all the conflicts and tensions that any creative pursuit, even one as well-run as Merge, confronts daily.
Constructed by Cook primarily as oral history, "Our Noise" is no Merge encyclopedia. There are bands who have multiple releases on the label yet are barely mentioned. Still, it builds a compelling story of a label that figured things out on the fly and somehow never made any mistakes it couldn't overcome. The book also serves as a sharp portrait of crazy major-label moves during the alternative explosion of the ’90s, as well as an excellent biography of Superchunk, whose staunch independence helped fuel (and often fund) the label. The crossing paths of Superchunk and Merge are fascinating, too. As the former's audience has plateaued, the latter has risen to the rarefied air of the Billboard Top 10. Our Noise captures the struggles and breakthroughs that McCaughan, Ballance and all the bands they love have endured to get Merge there.
Look for more on the book in the coming months.