In March, it's a risky wager to attach your name to college hoops, especially around here: We shut down blocks for bonfire parties. We've got rivalries that run so deep they annually ruffle relationships with co-workers, friends, even spouses. And on the first weekend of March, when the ACC Tournament is nagging at the boosters of our three biggest schools, it's hard for a lot of people to think about much else. Around here, March Madness lives up to its name.
For many in the Triangle, an event sporting the inveterate insignia of Durham's Merge Records—12 plain black letters in two simple rows on a white background—might be the only thing that can compete with roundball. And now more than ever, really: On Feb. 13, The Suburbs, the third record by longtime Merge band Arcade Fire, took home the Grammy for Album of the Year. It wasn't the first time the award has gone to an album on an independent label, but it was the first time a band considered to be indie rock has taken the title. In the last five years, the winners have included U2, Taylor Swift and The Dixie Chicks. Or, to put it in local basketball terms, it's akin to North Carolina Central's team bringing home the NCAA tournament championship.
But that's just one of Merge's recent successes. Indeed, add that trophy to a 2010 that saw The Suburbs debut at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart, joining entries from Spoon and She & Him that both bowed in as part of the Top 10 and about a dozen other albums that were, simply put, consistently good or great. Merge is, well, marching.
Merge Madness—a series of four concerts in nine days featuring five Merge artists playing in the label's original home of Chapel Hill over the last two weeks—was the de facto hometown victory lap. Posters sent out to local record stores as a giveaway featured each of the bands embossed on basketball jerseys. Starting with Superchunk's near-perfect rock romp at Cat's Cradle and culminating with Telekensis and The Love Language's raucous Sunday close to the event's three consecutive nights at Local 506, it was an expectedly enjoyable run of varied pop and rock.
Still, there was a feeling that many were there for more than just the music. Every time Mac McCaughan or Laura Ballance, the founders and leaders of both Superchunk and Merge, walked through a crowd, there was a reverent hush. They were celebrities, heroes even, in this environment. Another old friend or acquaintance would walk up and offer his or her congratulations. More than a by-chance rock 'n' roll festival, Merge Madness suggested that locals were showing up to be part of a success that, not too long ago, didn't seem possible.
"Things are going well," McCaughan says, hurriedly speaking about the label's year over the phone in his office. It's a hectic day at Merge headquarters. Most of the office will leave Wednesday to head to the music conference South By Southwest in Austin, so the work week will be short. "We're busy, which I think is a good thing. Last year was a busy year. In terms of the number of releases and the number of releases by well-known bands, this year might be surpassing it in terms of what everyone has on their plate. That's the real challenge, making sure that every release that we're putting out gets the proper attention."
Merge's workload is considerable: They've already released or announced 11 LPs for 2011. It doesn't rival the output of a major label, but it's impressive given what Merge relies on to get the work done. Merge began as a bedroom and living room label for Ballance and McCaughan in 1989, bolstered by friends and volunteers; as of last August, the label only employed 14 people. With the work of producing and promoting about 20 records in a year spread out among such a small number of people, it means each staff member has to put significant time behind each release.
It's working: The Suburbs recently pushed past 500,000 copies sold, meaning it will soon be granted Gold certification by the Recording Industry Association of America. She & Him's Volume 2 and Spoon's Transference debuted with sales weeks of 47,000 and 53,000 respectively. For some, this could be an impetus to change the way they do business. Though some of these sales figures are bolstered by extreme first-week download discounts, such as the $3 albums offered up by Amazon, they still resulted in an influx of cash for the label, money that could be thrown at other projects. For McCaughan and Merge, such strategies never entered into the equation.
"We look at each release and try to make informed and realistically possible predictions about how a record is going to do and then make budgets around that," he says. "Those budgets contain how much we can afford to spend on promotion, advertising, that kind of stuff. In that way, we try to tailor the budget of each release in a way that means that at the end of each release, no one's going to be thinking, 'Man, we went a little crazy with that. We shouldn't have spent so much money.'"
Essentially, this means that the amount of money Merge spends on a record is directly related to how successful they think it can be. Cash isn't thrown behind artists to force attention and momentum. Profit from a band's previous effort is funneled back into their next release, growing the provisions for each band based on how close they come to the goal Merge projects for them. This limits the risk that Merge takes with each new effort and reduces the pressure on the artists to make something they think will sell well. They make what they make, and Merge—the rare label that rarely drops artists—decides how to treat it.
"Bands have a chance to develop," says Kelly Crisp, keyboardist for pop duo The Rosebuds, who recently finished Loud Planes Fly Low, their fifth album for Merge, due this summer. "That means this is a label that's willing to stick with a band through their weird phases, anything that they want to do or try or express themselves in different ways. I feel that a lot of bands that would have been kicked off of most any other label for not selling enough records, bands like ours that wouldn't be able to exist past one album on a major label, have been developed on Merge."
Varying the way they fund releases allows Merge to stick to their most defining principle—signing bands they like. Success is relative in their scheme, so it makes room for releases that might sell a thousand records and others that might sell hundreds of thousands. It's allowed them to keep Spoon, Arcade Fire and other more well-known acts while holding on to something like East River Pipe. The lush, inventive pop project of F.M. Cornog since the late '80s, East River Pipe doesn't tour. His songs fall on the ethereal side of spacey. It's not a recipe that results in high sales, but because of the way Merge operates, the label can keep him on. They released his new LP, We Live in Rented Rooms, earlier this year.
Still, Merge isn't exactly an anything-goes label. The musical tastes of its owners show through with nearly every selection. Like Superchunk, the spunky, energetic dynamo that gave birth to it, Merge's bands generally share a propensity for pleasing pop melody. There are exceptions, of course, but the hooks generally come in a dozen different forms—from the blown-out '60s revival of The Love Language to the emotional folk of Conor Oberst. The success of Merge's releases often comes back to that sort of engaging craftsmanship. Merge's catalog, then, is defined by a symbiosis between artistry and accessibility.
"You just sort of associate with Merge like a brand, in a good way," says The Love Language's singer Stuart McLamb, recalling the way he was drawn to their records in college. "When you see that Merge stamp on the back, you know it's probably going to be a really great record. I went through a huge phase where I just bought a bunch of records just because they were on that label, and 90 percent of them turned out to be really great."
Merge's approach could have dragged the label away from the community that fostered it, but Merge remains committed to being a significant contributor to the area's culture. The label is a regular sponsor of both Durham's annual Troika Music Festival and the Independent Weekly's Hopscotch Music Festival. It's an area show promoter of sorts, too, bringing in special events like the Arcade Fire-headlined "Change Rocks" show in 2008, which promoted early voting, and Merge XX, the weeklong 2009 festival that celebrated the band's 20th anniversary and crammed nearly the entire Merge roster into Chapel Hill's Cat's Cradle and Memorial Hall. Merge Madness was another expression of that commitment. Yes, the shows were largely a celebration of the best year the label has had, but they weren't just for Merge. They were meant for the community to join the party.
"In terms of the way everyone here identifies, it's certainly important to us to not just be seen as a record company or a media company that's existing outside of any context at all," says McCaughan, a Raleigh native. "The context of where we are is important, not just because there are bands on the label that are from around here. We exist in a place where it's a good place to have a business, but it's also just a good place to live."